Sunday Selection 2014-08-17

Around the Internet

Speaking Polish is no different from speaking “Male”

I had the pleasure of meeting MIT graduate student Jean Yang when she came to visit Cornell a few weeks ago. This post is an account of her internship experience at Facebook and is an interesting look at the different cultures that make up the technology industry (and the clashes between them).

Anthony Bourdain’s Theory on the Foodie Revolution

I’m not a big watcher of documentaries, but I’ve always enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s shows. I’ve always found him an interesting personality with surprisingly deep (if quirky) observations of the world around him. If you enjoy his shows, you’ll enjoy his views on American food culture and it’s changing face.

Making remote teams work

One of the best things about being a “knowledge worker” is the ability to work from anywhere, assuming there’s a strong Internet connection (which actually narrows things down quite a lot). Mandy Brown’s rules of thumb for making remote teams work is based on her experience at Editorially and covers both things to do (and not do) and tools to use.

Video

Humans Need Not Apply

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, chances are you’ve already seen this video. It’s about how technology is making obsolete large classes of skills that we often think require human intelligence and involvement. This includes things like customer service, education and medicine. As automation steadily increases and economic progress remains one of the key forces in modern society, chances are likely that large numbers of otherwise skilled, hard-working people might soon be out of work through no fault of their own. Though we may not see massive unemployment tomorrow (or even within this decade), there is definitely reason to be worried and seriously consider what your skills and corresponding job prospects are in the coming decades.

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Google wants your endorsements

Google’s updates to its Terms of Service have been made the rounds of the Internet last week. The particular bit that caught people’s attention was about something called “Shared Endorsements”. What are shared endorsements? From Google’s announcement:

Feedback from people you know can save you time and improve results for you and your friends across all Google services, including Search, Maps, Play and in advertising. For example, your friends might see that you rated an album 4 stars on the band’s Google Play page. And the +1 you gave your favorite local bakery could be included in an ad that the bakery runs through Google. We call these recommendations shared endorsements and you can learn more about them here.

Essentially, if you +1 a particular product, or write a review, then Google can use your name and picture when it displays ads related to that product. This move has understandably ruffled some feathers and merited a piece in the New York Times. John Gruber says that he is “looking forward to hearing from Google fans how this is acceptable” (as if Apple would do anything different if they had a social network).

Personally, I don’t consider this to be a violation of privacy. I consider social networks to essentially be public spaces. For me, that means I rarely upload personal photos and whatever text I post I would be willing to put on a public blog. Now, I would be peeved if Google took a negative review I wrote about a product and turned it into an endorsement. The examples show that Google shows a snippet of whatever review I write and a star rating. I would prefer there be some textual analysis happening to make sure that reviews are actually positive before using them as an endorsement. Since I don’t see any sign of that happening, I’ve decided to opt out. To be clear, my objection is not to Google using my reviews to sell products — I simply want to know that they use them accurately.

I do wish that we had an enforceable expectation of privacy in social networks, but by and large, we don’t. As users of Facebook, Google+ or any other social network we should be aware that their purpose is to make money for their shareholders. Without a payment option, it would be naive of us to expect that our data would not be monetized in every conceivable fashion.

For what it’s worth, I think Google has handled this move in the proper way. They made a public announcement and detailed in clear, unambiguous language what their plans were. They also provide a clear option to turn off Shared Endorsements. The opt-out page reiterates what Shared Endorsements are and provides a single clear checkbox. In contrast, Facebook has been doing essentially the same form of endorsement for a long time now and I don’t remember seeing a public announcement when they started. Their privacy settings are also infamous for being confusing and hard to navigate.

I would love for there to be a social network that’s free of advertisements and whose goal isn’t to data-mine and sell my data the first chance they get. In absence of such a network, it’s up to us, the users, to make the best of what’s available. I do like the utility that these services provide and I am willing to let them have certain information in order to continue providing that service. However I also make sure that I opt out of measures that I don’t want to be a part of. I don’t think Google+ has done the best job of building a social network (see the debacles relating to real names and identities), but this particular move has been better handled than most.

The cloud is not secure

We’re getting closer and closer to an age where our data is separate from the machines that we use to manipulate and interact with it. A stepping stone to that future is the “cloud” – a remote, server-based repository of your information that can be accessed by a variety of applications and interfaces. In some ways the cloud has been around since the beginning of computing (dumb terminals plugging into mainframes) but the new, shiny, consumer cloud is both similar and indifferent. And there are many incarnations.

Apple’s iCloud is a complex, powerful solution for remotely storing your data and making it accessible to your apps whether on any of your devices. A simpler solution is Dropbox which syncs your files between devices (and offers a decent web interface). In recent weeks Dropbox has become quite controversial. Dropbox had a serious security breach that allowed people to log into any account using any password. It was a very serious flaw and a serious oversight on Dropbox’s part. They’re currently being sued over the matter. More recently they made an important addition to their terms of service which gives them broad-reaching rights over your data. However they have made efforts to make it clear that they have no interests in rights greater than what they need to run the service.

While services like Dropbox are great and convenient (and probably have the user’s best interest at heart) one thing needs to be made very clear: The cloud is not secure. Having a strong password is no guarantee of security. Putting copyright licenses on your work is no guarantee of security if the TOS give the hosting company rights to it. It is safest to assume that at some point in the near future any data you keep on a cloud storage service can and will be compromised. Under “compromise” I include perfectly legal government seizures as well.

The only data that I put in Dropbox is stuff that I will be making public anyways – copies of school projects, essays or reports that I intend for people to see and distribute. I would never put anything I consider even remotely private in the hands of a service like Dropbox. You should only put private, personal data in the cloud if you first encrypt it locally with a proven encryption algorithm and the encryption algorithm is implemented by an open source, trusted piece of software. The open source is important otherwise there is no way to know that there isn’t a backdoor of some sort. To access the data you should download the encrypted version and then decrypt locally. Anything unencrypted that goes over the wire (or the air) is probably wide open to the world to see. For most people this already includes their email and Facebook data.

I keep my online backups in an encrypted Amazon S3 bucket. I also keep some code on a remote server and make sure to connect over SSH. However, I also don’t keep things like passwords, PINs and account numbers in any written form. The only really secure data is data that doesn’t exist. That being said, modern encryption techniques are still a pretty good defense in most cases. In this age of the cloud you should keep in mind that any data you put unencrypted on someone else’s servers (whether they be files in Dropbox or photos on Facebook) is essentially public.

Will Diaspora live up to the hype?

The net is ablaze with Facebook’s privacy disaster and the Diaspora project has already drummed up over $170000 in support. And the question everyone is asking is: Is Diaspora going to be the Facebook that we all want? The answer would be complicated even if there wasn’t  money and so many high hopes involved. Going up against the incumbent is never easy, even if the incumbent is in a tight spot. Even though I love open source, I can’t help having some doubts over the Diaspora project.

An open source, community centric alternative to Facebook would be absolutely awesome, no doubt about that. But there are problems with both the idea in general and the way Diaspora is specifically implementing it. A lot of Facebook’s usefulness comes from the fact that it offers a seamless way to do a number of different things. When it comes to sharing something with friends, Facebook probably has a way to do it. You can share text, links, music, photos and videos all through Facebook. You can also send them in public (via the Wall) or in private with the private message system. An open source solution could work by tying together open protocols to support specific parts of the user experience. However, that integration has to be smooth and very well done. In fact, users should not be able to tell that there are multiple services operating underneath, instead of a single monolithic entity. If people need to sign up with five different services to do what they do with one login on Facebook, the project is dead in the water.

By allowing each user to run their own server, Diaspora is trying to make their system as open as possible. That’s a great idea, but expecting each internet user to operate their own server is not a good way to go. Opera tried that with it’s Unity project which has been pretty much a failure. Users do not want to run a server. They want to talk to their friends. I think what the Diaspora team wants to do is build on the WordPress model: the actual software is fully open source and anyone can put it on their own server and run it. But there is also WordPress.com which offers an easy-to-use setup that you can use without worrying about server administration. Diaspora can go that path, but they will have to live with the fact that the majority of users will be using a hosted solution and not running their own server. And I’m not sure if that is something they are ready to do.

There is also the problem that Jason Fried points to: the team already has a lot of money (a lot for 4 people at least) and have nothing to show for it yet. They also have had a lot of attention turned on to them and are under great pressure to deliver. I’m not saying that is necessarily a problem: I know people who thrive under pressure. But it would probably be easier if they had a smaller amount of money and could concentrate on getting things done instead of worrying about how everyone is looking at them. Without knowing the team personally, I don’t know if this is a valid concern, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind. It’s also a stark contrast to how Facebook grew: from Harvard alum to college students and then to everyone.

No one wants Diaspora to fail. And that by itself could be a problem. If Diaspora does fail, they could take all the other open source efforts down with them. And that would mean handing identity on the web to Facebook on a silver platter. Will Diaspora work? I don’t know. In cases like this I go by Torvalds’ words: Talk is cheap, show me the code. I’m going to reserve judgment until I actually see some code. I hope they succeed, I really want them to. I love how Facebook let’s me stay in touch with friends, but I hate walled gardens. However, there are issues and concerns which must be answered. So until summer ends and the Diaspora team delivers, I’m going to watch and wait. And not delete my Facebook account just yet.

Unlinking your feeds and the impermanence of Twitter

About a week I stumbled on this interesting manifesto by Tim Maly on why we should unlink our feeds. I recommend you read the full article, but the heart of the matter is that you’re making a terrible mess of things by sending your feeds from one social network to all the others. You do a disservice to people who are following you on one network (by making them see everything else on all your other networks) and you spoil the mood and general atmosphere that you’re dumping into.

While I agree with the theory in general, I can’t bring myself to go the whole nine yards and completely disconnect everything. A related article by Alexis Madrigal argues that the unlinking doesn’t work with Twitter. Twitter has no memory and Twitter is most useful when you have other meatier services (like a blog, website or even just Facebook) that give people a better idea of who you are. The author argues that Twitter’s relative impermanence means that it’s worth piping your Twitter stream into something more permanent. For my part however, I see things the other: I want Twitter to be my catch-all because it is impermanent.

The New Old Deal

Here’s the deal: I accept that cross-linking feeds leads to some amount of pollution and that’s not something I should be subjecting my friends too. My friends on Last.fm don’t care about how many billions of floating point calculations I’m running at the moment and the readers of this blog probably don’t care about my thoughts on modern instrumental music. But as Madrigal puts it, Twitter is different. I feel uncomfortable calling Twitter a social network. To me it’s  more like a broadcast service. You send out little snippets and anyone connected can read it. Of course you could have a private feed and carefully control your followers, but I feel like that’s just a holdover from email (where spam is a clear and present danger). Also, Twitter is not email. It takes far less overhead to skip something that you don’t care about and personally at least, I don’t feel the same pressing urgency for my Twitter inbox as I do for my email.

When someone follows me on my Twitter account, I want people to understand that they’re getting the whole deal. They are getting my 140-character updates (which make up the bulk of my stream) but they are also getting my regular tech-related articles as well my discoveries online. Tim Maly notes that time is precious and accounts are cheap and it seems that he was talking primarily about other peoples time. While that is true, my time is also precious and so is my mental overhead. As an example, I take myself.

Account Overload?

I could, right now, split my Twitter stream into at least three separate accounts: one for updates only, one for my blog and tumblelog and one for my Last.fm feed. Thanks to Twitterfeed, I can set things up automatically to post to whichever account I want. That’s all fine and dandy and I’m really tempted to do it. But what happens when I have a thought about music that isn’t engendered by Last.fm? Does it go into statuses, music or both? Do I really want to tell my close friends that they now have to follow me on three different accounts to get everything (not to mention the overhead of @-reply conversations that could easily start crossing accounts)? Should I have a fourth account that pulls everything in for those who want it? I’ll be the first to admit that my example is somewhat contrived and probably a worst case scenario, but it deserves some thought. I would rather have Twitter collect everything with a disclaimer that people might be getting more than they bargained for.

As for pulling out of Twitter to somewhere else, I’ll agree that’s just a bad idea. Twitter has grown it’s own syntax with @replies and hashtags and the like which really make no sense elsewhere. The only place that you should even consider piping Twitter to is your Facebook status. As a friend of mine said when he dabbled in Twitter briefly: “It was like setting my Facebook status, except that’s all I could do”. Point taken. Even then, it’s a good idea to sanitize your stream to remove all the Twitter-speak. I use the Tweeter application which gives you some good filtering abilities.

In conclusion

  • Cross-linking your social networks is a bad idea.
  • Except for Twitter. It makes a certain amount of sense to pipe your feeds to Twitter.
  • Exporting Twitter to elsewhere is also a bad idea, because of Twitter-speak, except maybe for your Facebook status, if properly sanitized.

As an addendum, if you do decide to use Twitter as your catch-all, I suggest you standardize on a solution. Many services give you the option of piping to Twitter from within the service yourself. That may be fine if you have one or two services and want your posts to appear immediately, but the overhead grows as the number of services grow (and each service has the options in a different place). I recommend using RSS as your glue and piping things through Twitterfeed. There will be a short delay, but I don’t think that will much of an issue for most people.

I’m going on a Facebook diet

Before I say anything else, let me make it clear that I think that Facebook is a very interesting social and technological phenomenon which will continue to impact our society (for better or for worse) for years to come. However, on a personal level I have come to the conclusion that I need to go on a Facebook diet.

By lowering the barrier to instant, informal communication Facebook has made it very easy to get in touch with your ‘friends’ on the network, whether or not they want such a connection to exist. While this is a good thing in some cases, I have found that in my case at least, it encourages patterns of communication that I would otherwise avoid. At the same time, I found it difficult to use Facebook as more broadcast-oriented medium which in turn means that the ratio of time spent to people reached is rather small (especially in relation to my blog and proper forums). The net result is is that I spend an inordinate amount of time on activities that are, simply put, worthless.

Facebook has an almost unique ability to encourage short, but often pointed and intense discussions. But this is not its main purpose and there are far less fruitful things to do. In particular, the Chat application can be quite distracting and very irritating for users on both ends, especially since you often sign on and make yourself available without actually wanting to do so. From a technological perspective Facebook Chat is the perfect example of being just good enough and can become succesful because it is simply more insidiuous than existing IM applications. But from a personal productivity perspective, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Finally there is the fact that Facebook blurs the line between private and public like almost nothing else before it. While it can be very empowering and interesting if you consciously decide to put parts of your life on public display, it can also be very disconcerting and disturbing if you are someone who places a higher value on privacy and would prefer to be left alone. While I personally don’t mind placing significant aspects of my life on display (and am quite careful about what I do and don’t put online), I know that other people don’t feel the same way, and I continually find myself questioning whether or not I should engage in some conversation or the other.  I would rather not have to think about this. I would love to live in a world where everyone is conscious of their privacy and properly sets their privacy settings. But lacking such awareness, there are ample opportunities for misunderstanding and confusion which makes communication all that much more difficult. Once again, dealing with those difficulties is not a good use of my time.

Keeping all the above in mind: I can’t help but come to the conclusion that in many ways it’s best if I go on a Facebook diet, hopefully resulting in more productivity on my part and less intrusion on others’ activities. In particular, I’m completely giving up on Facebook chat, most applications (including all games), messages (which are an adhoc, half-assed, proprietary reimplementation of email anyway) and photos. I’ll also be commenting only if I know the person really well and might even start removing people who I don’t really know all that well. I started mirroring my blog on Facebook Notes a few months ago, hoping it would spark more conversation, but that has not been the case and so I’m going to stop that as well. I used to check Facebook whenever I sat down at a computer, but that will stop as well.

What this means for my friends is:

  1. I will not be responding to any messages you send me on Facebook (use email or IM)
  2. I will not be putting any photos up (though you are welcome to put my photos up
  3. I will probably ignore any application/quiz invitations you send me
  4. Please don’t depend on event invitations to let me know that something is happening
  5. I’ll still be using my Wall, but don’t expect a response in less than a few hours

I would still like to use Facebook as a discussion medium (as opposed to a communication medium) but only if the time/energy investment pays off. Without Facebook as a major time sink, I plan on refocusing time and effort on this blog, my website ( http://basushr.net ), email for direct communication and involved conversations and Identi.ca/Twitter for more informal, short length communication.

Communicate Away!

Would you give up email?

A little over a week ago personal development blogger Leo Babauta of Zen Habits announced that he was basically giving out email. While he certainly had his reasons and alternative communication tools to use, it seems to me that giving up email is one of the more drastic ways to cut down on information overload. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly in todays world and I think that it’s a choice that could be hard to stick by.

Personally I think it would be almost impossible for me to give up email. I would much rather give up other communication tools like Facebook or Twitter before even considering ditching email. The main reason why I would be really reluctant to give up on email is that its such a flexible medium and I’m a sucker for flexible tools. Email works just as well for short, quick “how are you” messages to longer detailed conversations (especially if you have a good client like Gmail). Sending attachments may not be the best way to collaborate online, but it’s possible and for simply sharing a file (without editing) it’s generally much easier to add an attachment than it is to upload to FTP or something similar.

The second most wonderful thing about email is that it has become a completely open medium. There are dozens of free email services and if need be you can even run your own email server on you own domain and be completely independent. This is far from the case with popular email replacements like Twitter or Facebook. However, there is an open source microblogging platform called Laconi.ca which you can run on your own server. It powers the free indenti.ca service.  I feel really uncomfortable about tying my major communication arteries to closed proprietary services which could go down (with or without the intent of the developers). Incidentally, as I write this, I can’t get to twitter or connect via Twitterfox.

Edit: Shortly after I wrote the above it turned out that Twitter had been down for several hours due to a DDoS attack. While it’s true that this could happen to any service (including webmail), I think this shows that Twitter at least isn’t quite ready to be the primary communications channel

The more I think about it, the more it seems that the reasons behind using or ditching email are less technological and more psychological and social. A lot depends on your own communication preferences. An important question is: do you want a small volume of in-depth conversations or do you want a high volume of short-length communications? For someone like Leo Babauta who has thousands of leaders and needs to keep in touch with a large community it makes sense to choose something that will encourage lots of short, to-the-point comments (ie. 140 characters on Twitter). For longer communications he says he wants to use either IM or Skype. This seems to mean that he wants to focus on realtime, direct communication. Again that’s fine for him.

My communication preferences are different. I don’t need to keep up a multi-thousand-way conversation and I get less than a dozen emails a day. It’s more important for me to have in-depth detailed communications with a few people whose ideas are important to me at this time. I also like the asynchronous nature of email since I like to be able to think things through before giving a reaction. I dislike real-time communication like IM and especially phones unless I’ve consciously signed up for a fast paced, brainstorming style discussion with a friend. I also value the ability to be explain my ideas in depth if I need to. Twitter’s 140 character limit is good for posting updates and trading short replies, but I feel it’s really limiting for any sort of detailed discussion (and splitting across multiple tweets just makes things ugly). Leo claims that he checks his Twitter inbox fewer times a day and spends less time on it. He doesn’t keep it always on. For me, I keep Twitter always on and glance at it about once an hour just to see if anything interesting has come. It takes up little of my mental RAM whereas my email is something I consciously spend more time and energy on.

Now this isn’t to say that email doesn’t have its share of problems. Spam is certainly a problem, but I think you’d get that on any communication medium. Email certainly does not work if you want your communications to scale to more than a few people. Sending out an email to lots of people about something they aren’t specifically interested in is often a good way of making sure they don’t read it. If you need to write something that gets read by a lot of people, then a blog, wiki or some other more open platform is definitely the best way to go. Or maybe twitter if what you have to say is short enough.

If you’re currently having problems handing your email, what you need to understand most is that no single tool is good for all people or all tasks. The question of whether or not you should ditch email depends almost entirely on how you as a person work. It depends on whether you need to have public conversations with many or private conversations with not so many. It depends on whether you want to have your replies done as soon as you can or do you prefer to mull over things before putting finger to key. It’s important to keep in mind that no matter what tool or system you use, you’re going to have an inbox and a message queue that you need to manage and respond to. Email is currently the best way for me to maintain a persistent, workable message queue, but it may very well be different for you. To each his or her own.