Piles & Piles of Books

line up of several books on a wooden shelf from various authors

Came across this article via Tracy Darnell's blog, and what an essay! A masterstroke of reflection on books that connects right into my brain-thinking.

I have new books to read, upcoming books I want to read, old books to read, and only one lifetime

Sure, you could say this about any format of media. But there's something way more visceral about the physicality of books. You can put them on shelves, pile them up on a nightstand, or optimistically smash them into your luggage. There is so much diversity in typography, images, color, sizes, and formats for books that it's a truly joyful medium to collect.

But is collecting books a problem when, as Molly Templeton admits, you don't get around to reading many of them, and instead, "think about them. Appreciating them, you might say." She "can’t wait to get lost in it. Just, you know… later." There are, alas, too many other distractions and demands of one's time, and books sometimes don't make it into your day.

Anyway, she nails it with this:

Can there be comfort in the things you’re not reading? Can they be books that are just waiting for you to find their moment? Stories you need, just not yet, like snacks you put in your pocket for later, stored up for when you really, really need them? I’m pretty convinced this is the case. Haven’t you ever picked up a book months, years, decades after it came out and found it was exactly what you needed to read just then?

Yes, there can be a comfort in the books you aren't reading, or the books you have read years ago that you probably won't read again but just maybe you might want to read again to revisit those feelings you had about it, or rather to simply meet the vibe of it. Books are magical, transporting, beautiful objects that require your imagination and literacy skills to unlock the potential of. Thankfully I've got some space still to store more of them and my partner isn't going to cast me out of the house (yet).


The Future of Search & Engagement Imperils the Notion of 'Websites'

I spent a great deal of my early career working towards he betterment of website experiences for users, providing useful content to answer queries, and assisting with findability for brands that struggled to gain traction across the myriad of attention gateways on the Internet. A major connector to these experiences has been search engines like Google and Bing. But over the last decade, as mobile computing and, subsequently, app ecosystems, have taken significant land share away from traditional content venues, the dynamics of finding what you’re looking for have changed forever. And the rise of AI-based conversational language models will continue to erode what we all once knew as a traditional search engine.

Microsoft’s Bing had an early lead when it invested in OpenAI — organization known for the ChatGPT product and GPT-4 LLM (large language model) — last year, sending Google into its deepest lairs of AI experimentation to catalyze a faster approach to the inevitable: the metamorphosis of its core IP, the search results page.

Miles Kruppa’s WSJ piece deliciously delves into this predicament, and buried halfway through is this important tidbit:

Google ex­ec­u­tives have stressed to em­ploy­ees that the num­ber of ac­tive web­sites has plateaued in re­cent years, said peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sions. In­ter­net users are in­creas­ingly turn­ing to other apps to find in­for­ma­tion on every-thing from pop­u­lar lo­cal restau­rants to ad­vice on how to be more pro­duc­tive.

Sure, face value: incredibly obvious. But when the entire backbone of your product has been the crawling, indexing, and displaying of website links and page content, this could be troublesome. We talk a lot of about “walled gardens” within the commerce and app space for data and content usage, as retailers, news organizations, and social media sites have guarded and deflected the ability to see certain elements, posts, and/or data collecting. Google still relies significantly on crawling these components with scripted “bots”, and while I’m sure they’re one of the few companies paying for the newly priced Twitter APIs, relying on pipe integration with platforms puts them at the behest of different content owners. After 20+ years, Google is a in a more vulnerable position with search, but has aimed to build a robust set of owned properties to retain visitors on its domain – their future in this space will hinge entirely on how well they can maintain that content and user engagement.

As noted in the article, “Google has the op­por­tu­nity to lead a change in con­sumer be­hav­ior around in­ter­net search, but peo­ple will turn to other ser­vices if the com­pany doesn’t move fast enough.” (Credit: John Bat­telle.) If you were betting on what happens next, it wouldn’t be so hard to wager on OpenAI taking the lead with productizing a better, more accessible version of ChatGPT (Microsoft is literally doing this through Bing), and there it is: the replacement gateway to content, answers, and conversational enterprising.

Ben Thompson dropped such a theory earlier this year, and it’s mostly been right — particularly on the Bing front:

At the same time, part of what made ChatGPT a big surprise is that OpenAI has seemed much more focused on research and providing an API than in making products. Meanwhile, Microsoft is sitting at both ends: on one side the company is basically paying for OpenAI’s costs via Azure credits; on the other it is Microsoft that made what is probably the most used AI product in the market currently (GitHub CoPilot) and which is, according to The Information’s recent reporting, moving aggressively to incorporate OpenAI into Bing and its productivity products.

Well, it has.

Whether the OpenAI language modeling evolves as more of a data pipe vs a product matters quite a bit when we are looking at the battleground for attention and query servicing. Can’t forget about Apple, either, though reports recently have deciphered that they are taking an intentional, longer-term approach to any kind of further incorporation of AI into its Siri/OS ecosystem (which probably means they’re doing something and will release it when they’re ready):

Apple has an absolutely massive platform on which it could deploy generative AI, including hardware products such as the iPhone, which comes with the virtual, AI-based assistant Siri, as well as software such as Safari and Maps. But the company doesn’t seem to be in a rush to integrate a language-based AI model like ChatGPT into its products, instead relying on AI for very specific features.

Siri is already an integrated search platform, and in one swift update, Apple could close out Google as the default (if they wager to give up the multi-billion dollar gravy train of revenue) and replace with a licensed, modified language model to build into its Siri search database, and they’d immediately have significant search coverage and engagement. Without a monetization plan, though, it’s doubtful the choice would involve a full replacement — rather, it may just be an amalgamation of Siri, LLM, and one of the search engines as a backbone. As much as I celebrate Apple’s intentional, reserved decision-making, it’s doubtful they’ll make aggressive (or early) strides here.

This all is to say that websites (or the linking to them) as the core form of content gravity may soon be a bygone collateral for integrated systems of query, answer, apps, and embedded experiences within the threads of larger, Big Tech-owned platforms. Sure, I’ll stick to RSS for keeping apace with the websites I regularly enjoy reading, but look, that’s not much different from a very aggregated future of findability and engagement. It also prompts the question of how much of our collective content becomes woven into the fabric of these LLMs (which has been and will continue to be debated endlessly), but that’s another topic entirely.


Democratized Technology & Its Empowerment of the Predominant Headline Narrative

After reading Jessica E. Lessin’s “What Critics of the News Industry Get Right — and Wrong” essay, it prompted me to return to the subject of modern journalism and the media companies it’s intrinsically entangled with.

Democratized technology is beneficial to society in that it enables citizen reporting, fast dissemination and syndication of stories, encouraging a community of discussion and commentary, and — essentially — building a voice to the oftentimes voiceless in broader media contexts. It has been discouraging to the practice of journalism, however, as old world news media companies have taken a backseat in the generally recognized idea of news. They instead seemingly have to play on the same service distribution level with any layperson or other potentially “untrusted” institutions on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, or YouTube. In a similar fate that has been wrought upon restaurants with their use of middle-platforms like DoorDash and UberEats, the direct connection to readers and their attention is now shared and competed for based on the sites, platforms, and apps they’re defaulting to (as opposed to visiting the nytimes.com or a restaurant’s site directly).

This permeates everywhere — what once was curated radio now competes on the same technological battlefield as sophisticated video and audio podcasts, distributed by citizens as well as upcoming media empires. It is generally a good and progressive thing to see this, but all of media is now predicated on limited attention behavior and exploitation of headlines and interfaces to propel engagement. And that is where we are seeing the fabric of journalism unravel, along with the bull rush on misinformation.

Lessin suggests “services should create tools and establish norms for disclosing conflicts of interest and encouraging questions from attendees.” That’s a fine approach — arguably a necessity. Twitter and YouTubr have done uneven jobs of this lately, but they’re on the right path for its inclusion in the platforms and trying to make sense of terms of service expectations so as not single out any specific person or behavior, but to create parameters around which we must use the platforms to their appropriate specs.

We inevitably get into misinformation territory when talking about this subject, and that’s where I have my concerns — not necessarily opposing opinions - to what Lessin states next.

The general idea is that platforms should allow people to get context on what they are hearing from public figures on new platforms.that should be baked into the culture of the products, not included as an after thought.

This isn’t wishful thinking, but it is a byzantine challenge of implementation, because it will now need to be an after thought for primary services and media platforms. And it’s not just about providing context for public figures and what they say — it needs to be equally applied to journalists, opinion columnists, and citizen reporters. In this sense, I don’t see it happening on a scalable way any time soon.

Outrage news, predominant headline narratives, and surgically edited sound/video bites will continue to dominate platforms and media sites because the inherent nature of readers and watchers is, again, predicated on limited attention and infinite scroll exploitation. We still live in a quick bites society (post character limits, meme storytelling, sub-1 minute video/audio clips), oftentimes out of context, and without a pragmatic, scalable ability to clarify any of it. The ability to link to more information (as in, use a sound or video bite as the attention grab, and link to a fuller essay or report) is one way of handling this, but that’s like mixing memes with textbooks — you came for the memes, you don’t want to read a book explaining them.

Lessin ends her essay with a note about how we should be concerned with how “[these services] will be manipulated by a few very powerful people in the future.” We’ve already seen this take place with mass misinformation dissemination in the political universe, but we also see it play out all the time in niche sectors.

Right now we are seeing Facebook sell a narrative about Apple conducting itself in an anti-small business way with an upcoming iOS update that simply prompts its users, upon opening an app, whether you want to allow the app to track you or not. This is a threat to Facebook’s advertising livelihood in how it conducts its business, but the predominant headline narrative is against the gatekeeper in charge of distributing the Facebook app. Alternatively, Apple has created a narrative about being the do-gooder in the tech space and advocating for privacy controls that do not impact its bottom line. Apple (and many privacy-forward internet browsers and content blockers) believe an end-user has the right to choose when they are tracked and how they are tracked. Without studying the intricacies of the situation, which require more than a quick bite of information, a reader may not understand the full context, jump to assumptions based on predominant headline narratives, and move on.

So if we are making an argument about media service companies needing to label and fact check, shouldn’t we apply this same principle to every scenario imaginable that could manipulate or persuade an end-user? Is that possible? Is it the right thing to do? We are entering a slippery slope with attempting to regulate major tech services and platforms, which in one way makes sense only to help clarify concerning headline or misinformation trajectories, but on the other hand, endangers the very democratic principles that allow us to communicate freely and openly with one another, including the evolution of citizen reporting in places normal media and journalist outposts have been unable to cover. A smart servicing layer atop these platforms, with accredited or blessed old/new world media institutions as the resource backend, could help with identifying topics and scaling additional reference material to compliment any kind of posting, sound bites, video reporting, etc. it would require coordination among tech platforms and an agreement to build an approved ecosystem that allows them all to scale it together in a consistent manner.

Without coordination and general guidance among these service platforms, I don’t see the challenge at hand being remedied in a competent way any time soon.


Switching Banks: Simple Bank to One Finance

[Includes updates after using One for four months; scroll to bottom.]

January 7th brought disappointing news to a small contingent of bank users in the US -- Simple, a clever fintech banking experience, informed users it was over. The email was blunt, pointing to BBVA USA (the current back-end housing Simple's deposits) as having "made the strategic decision to close Simple".

This was met with a resounding, gutteral sigh from several of us who had been around since the beginning days in 2009. According to the New York Times, Simple had acquired 20,000+ users and aggregated $200MM in transactions by 2013, likely catalyzing it to be acquired by BBVA USA in 2014. The draw of Simple was its experience -- thoughtful in every aspect, the bank was designed to be helpful to users managing their money. It set itself apart immediately from others in the space and, even to this day, has outclassed competitors in its holistic experience and feature set. (There is likely an obvious explanation why.) With Simple, you could:

  • Manage checking and "protected" accounts (essentially savings) in an integrated interface
  • View transaction-level data that has apparently been available to any bank forever, but no one cared enough to share, like time of transaction render and location information, and permitted editing vendor name, categories, hashtags, and memos
  • Provided a programmatic envelope-divvying system in two ways:
    • Expenses, which could be automated to align to date-specific goals that would expense out on a recurring basis (including completion tracking), and pull from direct deposits or other income sources to fund
    • Goals, which could be set up ad hoc to dump money in, or aligned to long-term goals with manual/auto-investments daily/monthly to meet the target funding
  • Safe-to-Spend, a calculated figure indicating the remainder in your available funds to use outside of Expenses and Goals
  • Any transaction could also be aligned/tagged to these Expenses and Goals, allowing for even more organization around money flow and budgeting
  • The beauty of this whole system was that it was native to the bank: Goals, Expenses, and Safe-to-Spend were all virtualized over a basic checking account. This was the magic of its execution.

Simple was, and will continue to stand as, the best banking experience ever designed. Alas, a good thing had to come to an end, evidently. When BBVA USA was acquired by PNC very recently, it came as no surprise Simple was getting shuttered. It competes directly with PNC Bank's other products, and likely interferes with brand building. We'll assume the acquisition was userbase and assets.

And so I, like many others, have been looking elsewhere. The banking and fintech landscape has changed significantly in this past decade, but seemingly has not changed much at all in what's uniquely on offer for banking solutions. An influx of new, flashy banking brands have cropped up in much the same way and variety that millennial DTC brands have been bootstrapped through Red Antler's identity marketing program. That includes the omnipresent Chime, but who offers few value propositions aside from early paycheck deposits (like many others now) and, at this time, a decent APY on savings (0.50%). But their fee-free and overdraft-free account programming isn't anything revolutionary. Many have this now. And it's not compelling enough to switch a discerning Simple user.

I've spent a good deal of time scouring Reddit, fintech industry sites, and Twitter to seek the best alternatives. There has been an enormous amount of other folks’ goodwill towards this research, and I'd like to point out one Reddit user in particular who has compiled a comprehensive comparison list of several alternative "neo-banks", alternative banks, and fintech software layers to traditional banking.

I finally found something that should work.

One Finance Review

In all, there isn't a direct replacement for Simple. Nothing does what Simple has done for years, and there's only one bank that comes close: One Finance. But first... there are a couple solid contenders that could evolve in the right direction:

  • Envel.ai: has the smarts and the talent backing it, uses envelope-based budgeting as a core component, but the hokey, emoji-heavy aesthetic, and the questionable approach of surrendering your money to AI autopilot “learning” was discouraging.
  • Astra: Impressive automation software that layers on top of banking accounts (using Plaid integration only for now, which prohibits some banks) primarily to permit the user to program the movement of money between institutions with instructions like "every two weeks move $from to __". This works, in theory, with any traditional bank you may use, and in practice, this might work for some folks, coming the closest to Simple's recurring expensive and goal funding. It falls short, however, in being a layer atop of bank (not native), not yet being able to recognize income deposits (e.g., paychecks) and then move specified money to the appropriate accounts (only percentage-based). You also can't assign expenses against labeled budgets once they’ve gone through, which was an intrinsic component of managing and organizing in Simple.
  • Huntington: One of the national banks actually does feature some smart integration on saving goals and budgeting within its checking and saving accounts, including MoneyScout that auto-saves money from transactions (essentially a “round-up” based on spending habits and cadence), and Savings Goal Getter, a way to divvy up multiple savings buckets for things like vacations. While these could work as an alternative to envelope budgeting, they still don’t allow for the customization of a recurring or transaction-assignments methodology.

One Finance was appealing enough to try, and immediately made the most sense once inside the platform. A short summary of what works well and helps rationalize why I went with this alternative:

The One Finance debit card (Mastercard)
  • Sub-accounts called Pockets operate as distinct money budget envelopes, with the bonus of having their own unique routing + account number (permitting secure, literal connections to, say, utility bills or investing accounts), and with the bonus of being able to share this with other users (say, your spouse, in an alternative to joint accounts)
  • Auto-save (up to 10% of your direct deposit) in an industry-leading APY (3% at this time) or deposit into a strong 1% APY normal savings account (up to $25K)
  • Ability to attach your debit card to any given pocket at any time, providing extra security and budget-conscious usage of payment structures (virtual cards coming soon)
  • Uses Coastal Community Bank as the back-end, a small regional outfit in Washington. There have been guarantees that there's no intention to attach or sell itself to larger national banks that could wind up putting One in a similar situation as Simple once it was passed from Bancorp to BBVA.
  • Incredible goodwill and outreach to the Simple and bank alternative community on the OneFinance subreddit. They've been adamant about intaking community feedback and ideas, and re-engineering their feature roadmap, including a priority of recurring fund movement into Pockets ala Goals/Expenses.
  • Checks the other expected boxes of no-fee ATMs (within the Allpoint network), no blatant/overdraft fees, early paycheck deposit, round-up transaction to savings, and a low-risk credit line if these things are of use to you.

Overall, One Finance has an altruistic approach to banking, including a lot of the transparent, no-bullshit values that echo Simple's philosophy. It helps that quite a bit of talent leading One is from Simple (their CEO led Azlo, Simple's sister bank) and similar derivatives. It isn't perfect, though, and it has a lot to prove in the months to come in how efficient and capable they are in meeting their ambitious roadmap. It's missing a significant amount of core features, which is why I'd still recommend having a traditional bank as a contingency plan/hedge on needing to do "normal banking tasks". While several of these are on the imminent roadmap, One currently (Jan 2021) doesn't have check deposits, recurring funding of Pockets, outgoing wires, outbound cash app integration (only inbound), physical checks, data exports, search functionality, or editing transactions (categories, memos, etc.). They aren't dealbreakers if you can bear with the early stages of a company carving its way in an ultra-competitive industry, but time will tell if they can meet their lofty aims.

If you're interested in giving One a shot, try it via either of these links:

Affiliate Link (if you're inclined -- you'll get $50 after an initial $250+ direct deposit set-up)

Non-Affiliate Link to Sign Up

Four Months In - Update

Since I opened an account, I've had several direct deposits from my salaried paycheck drop in (it truly does come a few days early due to the way they pull the trigger quicker than normal banks' ACH acceptance + transfer), have created a handful of Pockets (their version of envelope-budgeting), and set up payment structures with utility companies and investing firms where credit card payments don't work.

What I like:

  • Pockets. Simple, but also complex envelope-budgeting. You can share them with any other One user, and each one also has a unique account number, meaning you can securely share these with various companies you want to pull money from without risking security exploits or access to your entire account's funds.

  • Savings. A savings account with 1% APY (at this time) is unheard of. And the way the auto-savings works (a separate account for 3% APY with a max contribution of 10% of all direct deposits) is both a brilliant way to encourage and retaining savings habits, but also an incredible savings rate up to $25K).

  • Engagement. The team has been highly active on social media and answering thorough questions and feedback on One Finance's subreddit. It's a promising sign from an early start-up.

  • The team behind it. Ex-Azlo/Simple folks are contributing, and there have been initial promises that One won't face the same fate as Simple with a sell-off to a large national bank. 🤞

  • A transparent roadmap. This is excellent to see, and reassuring they’re committed to evolving the product over time, like most great software is. Why should the banking experience be any different?


What I don't like (but know will probably be solved for in their roadmap):

  • Lack of transaction search. [I'm using Monarch in the interim.]

  • Limited recurring transfer feature (monthly or every week/two weeks just don't cut it for how this should work). Astra does a superior job of acknowledging a deposit amount and moving xx or xx% to a designated place, but is delayed and clunky by comparison due to it being a third-party method and the fact that our current banking infrastructure is slow and cumbersome.

    • In a recent update on their roadmap, however, they are tackling this in what they’re calling the to their Money Movement update. So again, fantastic to see this be addressed, and so quickly.

  • Lack of authenticator app-based two-factor authentication (they have installed 2FA via text messages, and will be adding step-up authentication this summer, which is great).


Overall, I'm pleased with the switch and look forward to its future. They've already made good on a number of short-term roadmap promises. Here's a raised glass to them rounding out the feature set this year.


Journalism & Paywalls

Great read from Current Affairs linked to by Gruber (via Kottke -- love how this stuff gets around) earlier today that I am compelled to add to, as it hits an important beat on my radar of journalism.

The gist of the article is that quality, integrity-based journalism exists, it's available, but there's often a paywall or fee to access it. Other sites, like Fox News, Breitbart, and the Daily Wire are free, but spin significant misinformation and second-rate journalism or news curation.

This is, at its heart, a difficult problem to solve, especially given the Herculean undertaking publishers and journalists are going through in attempting to stay afloat financially -- especially at the local level. There is no easy answer here. Major curators with native apps built-in, like Apple News and Google News, do an important job of bringing a variety of news sources together to cover breaking news, topical news, etc., but also point to articles that require subscriptions or another layer to the app itself (like Apple News+).

There are some larger issues at play here, though, beyond the free vs. paid dilemma:

  • You could make a convincing argument that most people nowadays do not read full-length articles and skim headlines or images as representations of the “news”, and that paywalls aren’t as important in these contexts. Sure, free news does a great job of capturing that vibe anyways since the content itself is fairly vapid.
  • Those who believe in the institutional importance of journalism, funding well-sourced and researched reports, and keeping companies and government in check at all levels of geography probably pay for news. Others who believe the media is biased, fake, misleading, or have become disillusioned with the matters covered have resorted to simply getting their fix elsewhere (radio and TV), and usually from fewer sources. (And yes, there’s a middle ground here, but this is the spectrum.)
  • TV news. Instagram “news”. Facebook “news”. These visual-based mediums continue to be problematic: they are much more bias-driven in messaging than reading an audio-less, visual-less (aside from photography) investigation or report. And they’re free or easily accessible via a pre-paid TV package.

So, yes, it’s a dire situation when you zoom out at the discrepancy in what type of news is free and behind a paywall, but the nature of and vessel for news is also a concern. It’s too easy to dismiss news, or sideline its importance, or view it in an exceedingly lazy way. Without focused commitment from readers or viewers or listeners, journalism dissolves, and what you have left are the easiest, frictionless click-worthy shells of its former self. To incentivize people to pay for news you have to create redeemable value. Perhaps some of these great publishers should take a cue from the freebie sites and partition their way doing business: carve off hard-hitting, visual treatments of real, on-the-ground news stories that are freely available and easily shareable, but always tie it back to a site that, if you want to truly read more about it, you have to pay, and present a value proposition on why someone should fund it.

The New York Times has done a tremendous job with The Daily, a widely-listened to podcast that is free and accessible to anyone, but drives home a consistent point in subscribing to continue to fund these efforts. That’s a great value proposition. Alternatively, Axios does a remarkable job of cutting through the heavier reports and simplifying the news to bulleted lists and summaries, plus has a few ancillary, very short podcasts. They, conversely, do not have a subscription-based service and use advertising and (likely) residual earning from HBO for their show, to fund the work.

Either way works, but publishers need to start thinking more responsibly about how they operate in the news climate of 2020 to combat and elevate visibility of their better products in the midst of cheaper, shittier, more dangerous free alternatives.


Reviving RSS Via Feedbin & NetNewsWire

I had an RSS crisis a few months back, if you can call such a thing something so dire. I'd been using Fiery Feeds for a few years, particularly after they released a premium version for only $5/year that leveraged iCloud for synching feeds across iOS platforms. But I had noticed amidst all its thorough levers and themes for customization, I was using the app less and less. I still enjoyed checking my favorite authors, but something about the app just wasn’t doing it for me. Perhaps the bloated design. All the options. I don’t know, but it made me miss enjoying opening an RSS app and digging in.

Without fully going down memory lane, I’ve been using RSS feed readers since I owned my first Mac and RSS became a thing — Another one of those “design playgrounds” for developers. The first RSS client I used was NewsFire — shockingly still around for download, even though it hasn't been updated since 2009 (look at that thing, just drenched in old-school Mac OS X polish). I moved through using Google Reader as a backbone until that died in 2013. It was then onto the paid synching service Feed Wrangler, then Newsblur, then Feedbin, then Fiery Feeds, then Feedly, marauding through excellently-design apps like Unread, Reeder, and Readkit.

It wasn’t until a few months back, though, that one of the great original RSS feed readers, NetNewsWire, was back under control of Brent Simmons (its initial creator) that I dove back to using that, and recently to plunge back into paying for Feedbin. This combo just hits the right notes. NetNewsWire is built to a tee with iOS guidelines, and doesn’t veer too aggressively in experimental directions (aside from some classy full-screen reader views that use anywhere-on-the-screen long-presses for actions, which I don’t see often). Same goes for its iteration on the Mac, though as of this writing, it’s still catching up on a few features with its iOS twin.

Using Feedbin as the backbone for synching is also, still, an exceptional experience. It’s been updated since I last used it, and still exudes a level of class that few other back-end synching solutions have (or even bother to explore). It has its own apps which function just fine, too, including a Notifier app that gives you a heads up on custom-selected feeds that drop, particularly useful if you want to be alerted to infrequent writers. But one of the best features of Feedbin is its newsletter subscription ability. It provides you a randomized email address that you can use to sign up for various newsletters, and pulls them in like RSS feeds (and it works just great with RSS newsreaders that work with Feedbin). This mitigates clutter in your inbox while providing a secure, private method of subscribing to newsletters. It’s brilliant.

Anyway, RSS is a pleasure again. Like it should be. And here are some recently added feeds I've been enjoying:

  • Nicole Cardoza's Anti-Racist Newsletter: Daily mailer with plenty of insights and guidance on fighting systemic racism

  • Alex Kwa: Reviewer based in Japan, focuses solely on technical apparel typically in black

  • Minnesota Reformer: Subscribe through the newsletter, highlights extensive policy news across the state

  • Molly Young at New York Mag's Vulture: Subscribe through her newsletter; infrequent (monthly?) book recommendations that are actually good

  • NextDraft: No idea why it took me so long to get around to this, but Dave Pell's daily curation is a perfect evening skim.


Back to the Mac

It’s been an unusual couple of years for my computing. My primary directive from work is use to a Lenovo ThinkPad, which, admittedly, is fairly trustworthy and has been updated to Windows 10 without issue. While personally I’ve always been most comfortable with Apple products, I can get things down fairly well in Windows, albeit the company restrictions limiting by ability to customize software to my preferences.

As such, since moving up to St. Paul and being somewhat unmoored from in-office interactions (aside from near-monthly visits, which due to the COVID-19 era, have all but disappeared), I’ve moved back to using a split between my personal MacBook Pro (a late 2013 model that still runs very well), my iPhone, and my iPad Pro (first model, sans FaceID).

This system has been working well. Luckily, I am able to connect to all my enterprise accounts via the Microsoft suite of apps (Outlook, Office, et al). This did, however, require me to purchase a personal Microsoft subscription (Microsoft 365 or whatever they’re calling it now). A minor inconvenience, but it has since permitted me unrestricted usage of all their core apps across the entire Mac ecosystem. And they’re quite good.

Aside from a few finicky adjustments with the Mac version of Outlook (no docked calendar view, funky search filters), it’s a much more pleasant experience to use than the Windows 10 counterpart. Skype works just fine, Teams even better. And synchronicity between all platforms works for the most part. Skype for Business is the worst offender (inconsistent conversation threads if I’m hopping between one platform and another is annoying — Teams is way more consistent). But Microsoft’s adherence to the MacOS doctrine of user interface design is just so much more intuitive for me, and it’s native adherence to the Mac services and my preferred productivity apps is indispensable. The biggest issue I’ve run into are the restrictive policies on using my company’s instance of Box. And that’s about it.

Since my Mac is heading into 7-8 year territory, I’ve been thinking about an upgrade, and where I want to continue to invest in the future of the Apple ecosystem. Work connectivity is important, but not a dealbreaker. And up until recently, I’ve been very interested in dumping the Mac and going all-in on iOS with a fully loaded iPad Pro 2020/2021 with the new Magic Keyboard + trackpad integration. I do think iPadOS has started moving in the right direction to, down the road, ostensibly replace the Mac. But not yet.

To freshen things up a few months ago, I bought a Magic Trackpad as a mouse replacement. And for some curious reason, this minor change in Mac interaction, along with a renewed interest in RSS via the rebooted NetNewsWire + Feedbin, something clicked, and I have become ever more invested in the Mac again.

  • Re-installed Launchbar (oh, I’ve missed it), hooking up several handy actions and re-memorizing those I’d forgotten.
  • Finally started using Spaces correctly (e.g., directing apps to open in either a designated Work space or Personal space).
  • Doubled-down on using Things as both my personal and work todo app (dropping Todoist — which I had only been using due to its inter-operability between Mac/iOS/Windows).
  • Seeking a new scratchpad, I instantly bought into IconFactory’s brilliant Tot for the Mac + iOS, and have been using it exhaustively since its launch for everything from non-analogue notetaking to dropping phrases, quotes, or minor meetings note as into to later deposit into my work cache (Microsoft OneNote).
  • Began writing a text adventure in Twinery, an endeavor that seems inconvenient or much more difficult on anything but a proper computer.
  • Saw a great tweet by Paulo that prompted me to superpower my shortcuts in the keywords pane to initiate a ton of symbols I’ve come to rely on for use in my note-taking (yes, admittedly, something that pairs with iOS).
  • Just something about multiple windows for apps instead of the full-screen malarkey. I like the idea of full screen, and sometimes shift into it, but it’s still not as productive as the original interface formula.
  • And, of course, bridged a number of RSS feeds I used to follow into my Apple folder to get back into the modus operandi of Apple news and culture.

This may not seem like a dramatic change, but it has reinvigorated my interest in Mac as a comprehensive, fully-loaded platform currently to its likely long-term successor, iPadOS. My confidence in navigating its interface by keyboard or the variety of customizable gestures with the Magic Trackpad, plus the better (as of now) asset manipulation/folder/sharing infrastructure/scriptable automation, has me convinced the Mac isn’t going anywhere soon, even if Apple released Xcode and Final Cut Pro to it this year (few of the last remaining stalwarts of “Mac-only”). As it stands, the Mac is still king. And I’m glad I’ve returned to it fully.


The Two Faces of Apple

The evolution and success of Apple products in the future will likely hinge on how deep their commitment to privacy is, and whether they’ll have the ability to meet features and levels of personalization their competition is slinging. As such, two recent articles from The Wall Street Journal highlight both these challenges.

First up is Robert McMillan’s piece on Apple’s expansion of “cutting edge” privacy methodologies. We first heard about this shift at last year’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual development get-together Apple hosts on the west coast. Essentially, Apple is investing serious resources into, and anchoring product integrity around what the industry calls differential privacy.

Two years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered shoppers could be identified by linking social-media accounts to anonymous credit-card records and bits of secondary information, such as the location or timing of purchases.

”I don’t think people are aware of how easy it is getting to de-anonymize data,” said Ishaan Nerurkar, whose startup LeapYear Technologies Inc. sells software for leveraging machine learning while using differential privacy to keep user data anonymous.

Differentially private algorithms blur the data being analyzed by adding a measurable amount of statistical noise. This could be done, for example, by swapping out one question (have you ever committed a violent crime?) with a question that has a statistically known response rate (were you born in February?). Someone trying to find links in the data would never be sure which question a particular person was asked. That lets researchers analyze sensitive data such as medical records without being able to tie the data back to specific people.

Whether the expansion of this methodology will be successful, or prove a hindrance for Apple, is yet to be seen. The establishment media is casting it as a do-or-die juncture in Apple’s commitment to artificial intelligence and machine-learning initiatives. And while other companies are starting to pursue differential privacy, it is a hindrance to core products many of them have, so it’s really only being applied to photo applications and not advertising platforms, for instance.

But no matter how much Apple invests in ways to further its hardware and software services while ringing the privacy bell, it still is beholden to governments. And so: enter China.

Apple has been pressing hard into China over the last several years. As of 2017, it is Apple’s third largest market behind the US and Europe, but has started to slide due (likely) to the increasing competition in the country. According to The Wall Street Journal (again!), Apple has recently buckled under governmental pressure, and will be complying with China to store all cloud data for Chinese customers with a government-owned company.

Apple said it made the latest change to comply with China’s new rules on data storage and cloud-services operation that went into effect June 1 as part of sweeping new regulations aimed at improving cybersecurity. It also said the new data center would improve speed and reliability for customers in China.

The Silicon Valley company has been one of the technology industry’s strongest advocates for fending off government incursions into user data. In a statement, Apple said it has “strong data privacy and security protections in place and no backdoors will be created into any of our systems.”

The latest move comes as Apple has been facing increasing regulatory headwinds in China. Last year, for example, its online book and movie services was shut down by authorities, who didn’t give specific reasons for the closing.

These kinds of things are bound to happen. Apple has also had to recently navigate opening retail stores in India, as the government there had restricted companies with “cutting edge technology” to perform sales without first sourcing some percentage of components locally. This Indian law has apparently pushed sales in that country further back still.

As we see Apple continue to press forward on its hardware, software, and integration fronts, the challenge of maintaining privacy will be tested. They are one of the few, if only, major technology companies left with such goals — time will tell if they can pull it off, or if customer interest cares at all.

Update: Aug 13, 2017.

Thoughtful piece by economist Tyler Cowen on this ordeal over at Bloomberg: Don't Be Too Hard on Apple for Bending to China.

Apple is still doing plenty to help Chinese citizens counter their censors. It sells chat and messenging apps in China that allow for encryption. Apple iPhones and iPads, bought in the U.S., bypass Chinese censorship altogether when they use the 4G network (not Wi-Fi); presumably some Chinese citizens have bought these products and use them. Perhaps most important, VPN apps are still available in China through other means, or overseas, and Chinese citizens can download them and combine them with Apple products to help bypass censorship. Apple has hardly backed away from its mission of tying the world together.


The Listening Machines

invisible interface. But is it the final frontier for computing? And what must we sacrifice and compromise to get there?

What Exactly is Going on in the Home?

A few years ago, both Google and Apple introduced home automation frameworks in an attempt to bind several disparate Internet of Things products from third-party manufacturers. Google’s Android@Home—nowait-Brillo-holdon-Android Things and Apple’s HomeKit play important roles in centralizing control for the myriad of hardware and products that are now, for reasons of convenience (?), Internet-connected (lights, switches, locks, cameras, fans, windows, etc.). These centralized controls are found in things like the Apple Home app on your iOS device or Apple TV, since you’d probably rather use just one app that dozens of individuals apps to control your dozens of Internet-connected products.

But what makes all this even easier? An invisible interface you simply talk to, that is always on, and always at the ready. And so here is where the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and upcoming Apple HomePod enter stage left. With the innocent looks of a speaker, these are beamforming, microphone-arrayed devices that can parse out human voice through the noise of running music in the background and can respond to a variety of inputs from the user. Sure, they’re limited to what they can do, but all of them will allow for pretty consistent behavior, namely:

  • Manipulation of music, playlists, etc.
    • Mostly done natively through each company’s maintained music platform (like Amazon Music), though other music platforms can be streamed as well
  • Answering basic questions, setting timers, and so forth
  • Controlling Internet-connected devices and accessories

Conveniency and ubiquity continue to be the name of the game here. Why place an always-on listening device in your home? Because it’s more convenient to say “hey Alexa, play xx album” out loud without thinking about anything but the words than opening your phone, opening the music app, conducting a search with the software keyboard, and then hitting play. If these voice assistants can become as intricately sophisticated as we need them to be, they certainly could be the future operating systems.

Is There a Danger of Overreach?

So should we be cautious about all this new tech? Probably.

First off, having nearly everything in your home connected to the Internet could be considered dangerous in its own right. Mr. Robot has a damning episode on home automation going haywire due to malevolent hackers. It could happen. Smart home accessories have already broken down, leaving owners confused as to how to turn on a light switch.

Security is paramount. And its importance is not just integral to keeping all connected devices safe from being manipulated from the outside, but also keeping privacy intact for owners of listening devices. These devices have been raising concerns about in-home privacy more than the cameras on your laptop and phones have of late. As Alex Swoyer writes in the Washington Times:

Consumers generally are believed to have consented to a company being able to collect information based on the product’s use guidelines. But whether consumers are truly aware of what that means, and whether companies are able to share the information they collect with the government raise more questions.

These devices must listen for a key phrase in order to initiate on the user’s command, so it’s no secret that the microphone is “on” at all times. Unless you’re using a setting that requires a button press to initiate, like Siri on your iPhone. The concern of privacy and potential overreach by these devices came to the forefront of an investigation in Arkansas, late in 2015. According to NPR, we know from court documents that police confiscated an Amazon Echo at the scene of an apparent murder post-football party to potentially seek out additional information that the device may have recorded at the time of the crime. Additionally, it was stated that "investigators are also using information from a smart water meter, alleging that an increase in water use in the middle of the night suggests a possible cleanup around the crime scene”.

I’m not telling you to refrain from purchasing these kinds of products. They are, after all, extremely convenient and powerful (even in their infancy right now), and offer a pretty concrete vision of where tech companies are going in the near-future. But I am suggesting to you to think carefully about which ones you buy, and the potential unintended consequences of having one in your home.

Apple Takes the High Road

So what is the most valuable company on the planet doing? Late to the game, some may say. But at their recent Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple did announce a product launching in December called HomePod. It’s their version of the voice assistant-powered intelligent speaker, and being an Apple product, the company has a very clear idea of what its marketing message is for it.

Unlike Amazon Echo and Google Home, both of which emphasize the artificial intelligence behind the tech to drive a number of services, Apple is heavily leaning into tackling the home audio market for its HomePod (think Bose and Sonos as competitors, not Amazon or Google). They’ve called it “the new sound of home”, and it’s no mistake that they’ve put music and superior sound quality as the banner features. Ben Lovejoy has an astute write-up on the differences between Apple’s strategy here, claiming that Siri does still lag behind competitive voice assistant systems, but has a very focused direction compared to data-gathering giants like Google.

Given the comprehensive nature of the Apple ecosystem, Apple could choose to go down the same route as Google. It could use all of the data it has about me, tie Siri queries to my Apple ID and deliver the same level of intelligence and proactive suggestions as Google Home. If it did so, nobody would be saying that Siri lags significantly behind Google’s artificial intelligence.

But Apple makes a deliberate choice not to do so. When I ask Siri a question, my iPhone doesn’t attach my Apple ID to my query so that Siri’s servers can make contextual sense of it. All that is sent is a random identifier that cannot be linked to my identity in any way. The random identifier is used to help Siri learn my voice: it doesn’t know who I am, but it knows that my query came from (say) person 7582066701, and it can check back over six months to match my query against my voice file to better understand what I actually said.

Will the concessions in favor of privacy compromise Apple’s growth with Siri and its connected devices, or will the trade-off be a good middleground? I obviously am in the camp favoring data privacy, and am willing to lag behind the use-cases of competitor devices to instead wait for Apple’s cautious take on this new medium. But keep in mind that all these devices are in very early stages of their feature roadmaps, and most people don’t even know what these voice assistant-powered speakers can and cannot do. Mostly that’s because the enabled service features are still be rolled out for third-parties to use, and while Apple limits the usages to just a handful of actions, most features from Google and Amazon are used by developers but not used by the products’ users.

Recode reports”when developers for Alexa and its competitor, Google Assistant, do get someone to enable a voice app, there’s only a 3 percent chance, on average, that the person will be an active user by week 2”. It’s no surprise, then to read this:

The statistics underscore the difficulty Amazon and Google are having in getting Echo and Home owners to discover and use new voice apps on their platforms. Instead, many consumers are sticking to off-the-shelf actions like streaming music, reading audiobooks and controlling lights in their homes.

Too many choices are oftentimes too much to handle. Until these devices are ubiquitous and their broad services are well known enough to all consumers, most voice applications will probably go unused, just like applications on your phone or computer go unused either from being undiscoverable by the user, or the lack in need of its employment.

Where We Go From Here

Whether you want to call this tech transition full of overreach or not, the tale of listening “smart” speakers reinforces a few things that come with the territory of most topics I discuss on this site.

One is that we need to think through the kind of future we want. Current and future generations will probably become more accustomed to the invasiveness of these kinds of systems in our homes, and won’t think much about the privacy consequences. To them (and to many in general), it’s about convenience.

Secondly, we need to ensure that we continue to build next generation Internet-connected devices and accessories with a strong security foundation. Many security specialists, including Bruce Schneier, have advocated for a rebuilding of certain Internet protocols and security features to bake into the future of the Internet. How do we get there? Through policy and innovation. At least we hope.

Thirdly, we need to be mindful of the kinds of products we use, what the manufacturer is providing as a service, and at what cost to you. You should know by now that Google makes money off your data (they’re an advertising company); Amazon makes money off your purchases (they’re primarily a retailer); Apple makes money off your hardware purchases (they’re primarily a hardware design company). None of this may matter to you, but in the case of compromised data, hardware, and privacy risks, it’s clear that one company is probably a safer bet than the others.

Finally, someone needs to redesign the way Terms of Services are written. No consumer reads this shit thoroughly, and most of us don’t even know what we’re signing up for or handing over to various companies and third-parties. It’s an epidemic, and we need some sound policies enacted to clear up the mess for everyday people. You know, for us. We aren’t all lawyers, and we don’t have hours to read through and verify we’re good with these conditions. Leave that to Norwegian slow TV.


Facebook's Overreach

A few recent reports on Facebook’s activities should have its users, policy makers, and technologists thinking constructively about how the company’s services should be perceived: is it high time to think about reasonable regulation, or should we let the titans roam free?

Why pick on Facebook? For one, they have nearly two billion active monthly users (according to Facebook, that is, a company whose numbers shouldn’t be accepted without some level of suspicion). That’s an immensely large swath of the planet’s Internet-connected population. And secondly, they — much like Google — earn an extraordinary stream of revenue from paid advertising, oftentimes inscrutable in its nature. To put things into perspective, Facebook netted $8.809 billion in the last quarter of 2016, 98% of which was derived from its advertising product. And I say this revenue is oftentimes inscrutable because while most users understand Facebook earns revenue off ads, little do they know how this product works. Users freely provide Facebook with data about themselves, and Facebook in turn provides that data to advertisers, publishers, and agencies so that these third-parties can target various formats of ads back at you (video, display/banner, post-click ad experiences) via your impressions, interactions, etc. It’s amazing how much money brands will pour into ads just to net an impression (really, an eye-glance) at an image. Money just pours into Facebook’s coffers off this “attention economy” methodology. (How many times a day do you check your news feed?)

Now that there is some context: Technology innovation and its subsequent ramifications for not only our data security and privacy, but also our very own thoughts and brain activity, are ripe for further progress and exploitation by large corporations. It is up to us to decide how far the reach of these technologies go, and what level of acceptability there is in their application and monetization.

Where Facebook Plans to Take Us

Facebook has made significant investments in what it calls Internet.org, a gigantic initiative to connect everyone in the world who doesn’t yet have an Internet connection. According to a profile on this initiative by Wired, the estimates are that 4.9 billion people as of 2016 are not connected. How exactly can Facebook pull this off? As Wired reports:

To reach everyone, Internet.org takes a multipronged approach. Facebook has hammered out business deals with phone carriers in various countries to make more than 300 stripped-down web services (including Facebook) available for free. Meanwhile, through a Google X–like R&D group called the Connectivity Lab, Facebook is developing new methods to deliver the net, including lasers, drones, and new artificial intelligence–enhanced software. Once the tech is built, a lot of it will be open-sourced so that others can commercialize it.

On the surface, this isn’t a conniving project. There are good intentions behind connecting humankind. And Facebook is investing money and resources into this project because they believe the world will be a better ecosystem when everyone is connected to the Internet. They also probably believe that those extra 4.9 billion people will join Facebook and contribute back to the investment by seeing millions of ads and pouring that investment back into Facebook’s pockets. This, too, is fine. It's business. But do the masses who will piggyback off this enterprise know that? And what hardware and software is Facebook aiming to develop for the next generation that will impact us, whether we’re using Facebook explicitly or not?

Let’s start with a simple one: Facebook’s advertising away from Facebook.com. This isn’t new. For about three years, Facebook has provided brands a product called Facebook Audience Network, a mobile platform that delivers ads to mobile apps and mobile sites across digital ecosystems. Google has had something like this for even longer (Google Display Network), but Facebook’s network has already reached second-largest, and has arguably better data to provide to publishers and agencies. Why and how does this correlate to Internet.org? Aside from being an ad service targeting its own users across their Facebook and non-Facebook activities, it’s also inherently built into future users’ Internet activities. This quote from a Business Insider piece says it all — Facebook ad executive Brian Boland describes Facebook Audience Network:

"For years, people externally would ask, 'Why aren't you doing an ad network?' We knew deep down that it was a good, important thing, but we really needed to figure out how to do it in a way that would bring what we did well to the rest of the internet."

Without reading too heavily into this, essentially Facebook, as we would have guessed, simply wants to provide the most personalized ads in the history of humankind to all of humankind wherever they might be. A grand concept with cosmic ambition.

And they aren’t stopping here. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that Facebook is testing a new means of helping media companies sell video advertising natively (on their own sites) in a smarter and more automatic way. This tool is called Audience Direct, and is Facebook’s push into media publishing houses to help re-affirm their relationships (since Instant Articles hasn’t been panning out all that well). It's also engaging media publishing’s Internet currency: earned attention from readers. We all know that video is an attention blackhole, so it was inevitable that Facebook would bring their personalized ad targeting to the masses through this medium.

As if Facebook following you to the far reaches of your online activities wasn’t enough, they announced at their F8 developers conference just this past week that they are “working to create a brain-computer interface that lets you type with your thoughts”. While Facebook has been throwing a lot of shit at the wall to see what sticks, this doesn’t smell bad to me. But it is one more thing we need to be apprehensive about before fully committing to whatever manifestation it ends up taking.

The brain-computer interface, as described by Facebook’s development team, “could be an ideal way to receive direct input from neural activity that would remove the need for augmented reality devices to track hand motions or other body movements”. It feels silly talking aloud to Siri or Google Assistant — especially in public — and that feeling probably won’t normalize. Facebook’s development in a neural interface is probably partially aimed at removing the public stigma of talking to computer assistants out loud, instead employing a conduit in your brain to do that same thing. As the Verge reports:

Dugan (Regina Dugan is one of the lead Facebook developers for the project) stresses that it’s not about invading your thoughts — an important disclaimer, given the public’s anxiety over privacy violations from social network’s as large as Facebook. Rather, “this is about decoding the words you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain,” reads the company’s official announcement. “Think of it like this: You take many photos and choose to share only some of them. Similarly, you have many thoughts and choose to share only some of them.”

Being able to pull off this interface seems to require some level of mind-reading, just like Amazon’s Echo devices and Google’s Google Home devices require some level of constant listening in your home to be able to recognize keywords to initiate their services. It is actually a good thing that Facebook is declaring its long-term intentions ahead of this interface becoming reality. We as a people need to understand the ramifications of this kind of progress, and how invasive the future of technology could be.

But let’s remind ourselves that Facebook doesn’t make money off hardware (okay, maybe a tiny amount from Oculus Rift) or services (okay, that 2% of revenue from Facebook games) — they make money from selling ads. And it’s very indicative, at least right now, how Facebook would monetize something like this. Per an investigative piece from Sam Biddle at The Intercept:

Facebook was clearly prepared to face at least some questions about the privacy impact of using the brain as an input source. So, then, a fair question even for this nascent technology is whether it too will be part of the company’s mammoth advertising machine, and I asked Facebook precisely that on the day the tech was announced: Is Facebook able to, as of right now, make a commitment that user brain activity will not be used in any way for advertising purposes of any kind?

Facebook spokesperson Ha Thai replied so esoterically that Sam had to rephrase the question, to which Ha Thai simply reiterated that “privacy will be built into this system, as every Facebook effort” and “that’s the best answer I can provide as of right now”. Sam goes on to ruminate on this technology and Facebook’s somewhat careless response to his inquiry, mockingly pointing out that “Facebook’s announcement made it seem as if your brain has simple privacy settings like Facebook’s website does”. This likely isn’t true, unless they’re trying to build in neural obfuscations to parts of your brain and only permitting activity through the speech center. I’m not a neurologist, so any speculation here is out of my realm. But the idea of sending brain activity to Facebook’s servers for processing is a heavy concession to make when and if we all adopt this invisible interface. It does sound amazing and seamless, but coming from Facebook, the data we provide also sounds ripe for re-application and distribution to third-parties for monetization and security exposure.

Where & How Do We Begin Regulating?

We can’t progress technologically without violating (or re-wiring our perception of) a few privacy concerns here and there. And Facebook, along with many other technology companies, have the right to invest, research, and build solutions that further us culturally and technologically. But there are very important considerations we need to keep in check, primarily with regards to our inherent right to privacy.

In a recent piece on smart homes (starring tech like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Google Home) by Paul Sarconi for Wired1, there is a “note” about privacy:

If your paramount concern in life is privacy, turn back now. Google Home and Amazon Echo are constantly listening, and they send some of what you say back to the mothership. But you know what? This is just another scootch down the slippery slope you stepped on when you signed up for Facebook, bought your first book on Amazon, and typed “symptoms of shingles” into a search box. Tech companies have always asked us to give up a little privacy, a little data, in exchange for their wondrous services. Maybe homebots are the breaking point. But the things Alexa can do — so convenient! One bit of advice: Before the gang shows up to plan the casino heist, hit the device’s mute button.

Sure, it’s a note that reads like: yeah, this is all great but you are no longer in control of your data exhaust, your digital communications, your shared and stored photos, your behavior and spoken words in your own home, but the superpower convenience of kindly asking Alexa to order new deodorant is too tempting to dismiss.

So where and how, indeed, do we begin talking about regulation? This isn’t about stifling innovation. I still dream about hovercrafts2. But I am talking about process transparency and clarity of intent. It is inevitable that all companies will continue to mine, test, and use data for all kinds of innovations that make their way into products and services we’ll all use to make our lives better and more convenient. But if we don’t have an understanding of what we’re signing up for in terms and conditions of services we use, the implications of digital storage for notes and photos and communications with friends, or how using a device’s conveniences will require forfeiting our privately spoken words and thoughts, then we put more vulnerabilities into not only the hands of corporations, but also of governments and more malicious groups that could aim to hack and compromise that data. Without transparency into how this data is provided, accessed, secured, and shared, we shouldn’t feel confident in continuing to invest our dollars and attention into these companies’ products and services.

In his last article before retirement, the personal technology writer Walt Mossberg declares a call to action to which we all should attentively listen:

My best answer is that, if we are really going to turn over our homes, our cars, our health, and more to private tech companies, on a scale never imagined, we need much, much stronger standards for security and privacy than now exist. Especially in the US, it’s time to stop dancing around the privacy and security issues and pass real, binding laws.



Footnotes

  1. Oddly enough, I can’t seem to locate the article on the Wired site for linking, but it’s in the June 2017 print edition ↩︎
  2. Even though their real-life deployment is nearly impossible at this point due to infrastructure. ↩︎

Faster Web & Less Bullshit, Please

It wasn’t long ago we were witnessing a cosmic shift in web development to accommodate the influx of computational powerhouse smartphones chugging through at-the-time bloatful websites. Those sites back in the mid-2000s were getting chunky with all the 2.0 insanity, and while the iPhone (in its release year of 2007) could render these sites on its 3.5” screen, it still wasn’t a great way to experience web pages. While most websites did have mobile versions of their core, desktop-friendly sites, they were woefully under-designed and lacked modern features to harbor modern conveniences (like ecommerce and rich media).

In the transitional years from the early smartphone era to now, sites tried finding a middle ground in design between too mobile-friendly (stripped down and hardly functioning) and too desktop-reliant (don’t just design sites for a large screen and tons of Internet bandwidth). This middle ground ended up becoming “responsive design”, an approach to web development that attempted to streamline page weight (for mobile) but have the flexibility of displaying the same amount of content, and typically loading the same number of scripts, across device screen sizes. For most circumstances, this was the right path to take. It wasn’t a mobile vs desktop world we were heading towards; it was a mobility world we had already entered, where the only thing that really differentiated access to websites and apps was the size of the screen and the interface accessibly (finger touch vs mouse click).

Unfortunately for everybody, this was (perhaps unintentionally) interpreted by developers that they no longer had to worry about page loading, script-rendering, and other complexities in web design contributing to page speed because an iPhone was just as powerful as your everyday, off-the-shelf laptop. Oh, and don’t mind the increasing complexity of ad networks and the growing inundation of ad placements and tracking scripts to load — any smartphone can handle those, too.

Except that this shift has left the web wounded. Everything seems to take longer to load, websites break easily, taps on mobile don’t register sometimes, and register other times, and so on and so on. I’ve written about site speed and performance before. It’s a growing problem. So much of a problem that the tech titans have taken note. Facebook attempted to remedy this and save the publishing industry by pushing hard on its Instant Articles initiative, a closed-garden approach to offering publishers a speedy alternative to their own laggard websites’ article templates and Facebook-sized reach. Apple built-in an iOS app called ‘News’, offering its take on the age-old RSS feed readers, but layering on pretty templates that were fast. And Google, the all-mighty search behemoth and purveyor of results that include the news, has aggressively pushed publishers, retailers, and websites of all kinds towards its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative, which is essentially an open source project encouraging the creation of streamlined HTML pages to reduce clutter and external JavaScript but while also running Google-only JavaScript and reassuring full reader analytics.

So How are Things Going?

Two years later, Instant Articles don’t seem to be working out as planned, as The Verge contemptuously bemoans:

But it's unclear if any huge advantage ever materialized. Facebook decided from the start that publishing a story using the Instant Articles format would not automatically improve its ranking in the News Feed. In practice, Instant Articles typically do reach more people, because people are more likely to read and share them. But as the format spread, competition increased, and any advantage to using Instant Articles was blunted within months. Given that Instant Articles were designed to carry less advertising than mobile web articles, broad reach was essential to ensure publishers would profit from the format. The reach just never arrived.

Apple’s ‘News’ app was initially off to a rocky start) in usage, but not much has been reported since. While arguments have risen about Apple’s role of gatekeeper in the news ecosystem, it seems that most publishers have welcomed it as an easy secondary publishing platform that permits a “bring your own advertising” model and subscription service options that are hard to ignore.

But what about Google. Google’s AMP project is more controversial than both Facebook and Apple’s forays, as it threatens web development integrity on the open web. A rant from The Register describes the plight as thus:

Announced in 2015, duly open sourced and integrated into Google’s mobile search, Google has pitched AMP as a way to speed the mobile web. It employs something the ads slinger calls AMP HTML that the firm describes as a “new open framework built entirely out of existing web technologies.”

What it is, is a way for Google to obfuscate your website, usurp your content and remove any lingering notions of personal credibility from the web.

If that appeals to you, here's what you need to do. First, get rid of all your HTML and render your content in a subset of HTML that Google has approved along with a few tags it invented. Because what do those pesky standards boards know? Trust Google, it knows what it's doing. And if you don't, consider yourself not part of the future of search results.

Sure, you might say: making the web faster is a noble vision. And yes, we unanimously agree, a faster web is better. But as the Register points out, “as with anything that eschews standards for its own modified version thereof, it's about lock-in. Tons of pages in Google AMP markup mean tons of pages that are optimized specifically for Google and indexed primarily by Google and shown primarily to Google users.” AMP is primarily a way for Google to combat lock-in systems from Facebook and Apple. The tech giants want everybody’s attention. But if you have an app feeding off standards (like Apple News), there isn’t a threat to disrupting the entire Internet’s web standards and rallying them around a controlled framework. We all want the Internet to be decentralized, right? Then you have to look at adopting AMP as an opposite way to do that. AMP is a choice for [Google search] inclusion, and there are monetary and attention-capturing benefits to doing so for brands and publishers. But forking your web development to accommodate a tech company’s recommended framework, a framework that is favored by that tech company’s mysterious organic algorithm for surfacing news results, is something else entirely. We’ve already seen what reckless strains of SEO has done to the web. Let’s not repeat those mistakes with reckless adoption of Google’s AMP HTML framework.

AMP also is a branding nightmare. Tapping a link from Google search results (again, the only way to access these versions of canonical pages) loads the page from Google's cached AMP index nearly instantaneously. Sharing that page simply shares the Google cached URL of the article, and trying to read more from that author/publisher is a frustration in interaction design -- the permalink button to go to the brand's actual domain is an unintuitive icon, and branding itself is obfuscated by the AMP framework's content-first philosophy. So what's in it for brands aside from handing over the keys to Google, and continuing to strain their own websites' development with the same shitty inundation of scripts, ad networks, unfriendly mobile paradigms, and page speed performance?

This debate has only just begun. But several of the Internet’s finest warriors are working on alternative solutions. The first of this anti-AMP movement is brought to you by a thoughtful fuck you project by Pinboard’s founder, Maciej Ceglowski. He basically re-created Google’s original AMP demonstration page without any of the forced Google scripts, and it represents the same performance. Maybe if we encouraged web developers to focus on leaner, cleaner designs (melding the pre-iPhone days with a more careful post-iPhone responsive design mantra) we could get to a better place for everyone. I’ll leave you with Ceglowski’s snarky comment at the bottom of his faux-AMP demo site:

Dozens of publishers and technology companies have come together to create this unfortunate initiative. However, it is 2015, and websites should be small and fast enough to render on mobile devices rapidly using minimal resources. The only reason they are not is because we are addicted to tracking, surveillance, gratuitous animation, and bloated, inefficient frameworks. Requiring a readable version of these sites is a great idea. Let's take it one step further and make it the only version.


Update: May 25, 2017

A mildly-related update here from TechCrunch on Facebook's plans for support for Google AMP and Apple News. Essentially they're trying to make it easier (and their own solution interoperable between competing formats) for publishers to more easily manage these specially-formatted content distribution channels. This comes in the form of an Instant Articles SDK (software development kit), enabling developers to "take the markup that’s used to build Facebook’s Instant Articles and use it to create the code that’s needed to build for AMP and Apple News." Note that Facebook would prefer you start with content distribution and formatting within its ecosystem, and use the Instant Articles SDK to output to competitor ones.

TechCrunch points out:

[T]he extension’s launch also comes at a time when a number of high-profile publishers have begun to abandon Facebook’s format, due to its lack of monetization options.

In April, for example, it was reported that Forbes, Hearst, The New York Times and others have backed out of Instant Articles. Other major media organizations including Bloomberg, The WSJ, ESPN, CBS News, NPR, Financial Times, and VICE News have also been holdouts, running little to no content in Facebook’s format. Others who have used the format have been winding down their support; and last month, The Guardian pulled out of both Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News.


Your Referral Here

recent post from the co-founder of Basecamp (previously 37signals, RIP) had me contemplating this tactic in an entirely different context.

At first, it seems like most companies are trying to game you to hand over your friends’ emails to solicit their product. For urban dwellers, Uber and Lyft do this incessantly with ubiquitous banners and reminders to earn credits or money off future rides if you refer a friend. You can make money by doing so, but you compromise very little by abstaining. When these were actually new services, I’m sure quite a few of us handed out our referral codes to friends to incentivize them to sign up for free credits themselves, and backpay our selves with referral credits. No harm done. Everyone wins. And keep in mind this is far from a ponzi scheme or a multi-level marketing ploy. It’s a simple referral or “influencer” marketing program.

From this process, we are all voting with our trust — the company in question is voting on you, the customer and trusted user of the product already, and you are voting on your esteemed referral. We aren’t passing anything along aside from an email to a company we trust with our own email, and put our weight in a recommendation that we find valuable or useful to another vetted individual. The companies investing in you are putting their media dollars in something that is more humane than into the massive online advertising machine that exists today, the latter of which is oftentimes fraught with all kinds of digital rights considerations.

So when Jason Fried stated the following, it resonated and, frankly, made sense:

Every dollar you spend is a vote, and we were casting hundreds of thousands of votes for big companies that are tracking people’s every step, every move, every curiosity, and every detail of their lives. Fuck that.

Indeed. As a company, you can do as you please, spend your money where you deem it most necessary and effective, but to take a stance like this is commendable. Sure, it’s a referral program and Basecamp is using their current, loyal customer base for new leads into its productivity platform. But it isn’t for credit on next month’s payment; rather, it’s straight cash. They’re paying you to recommend a product to which you’re already loyal.

If this sounds familiar, the notion is certainly nothing new. Amazon might be running the most extensive referral system on the planet with their Amazon Associates Program, essentially an opt-in affiliate network. You add a tracking parameter to every URL of a product you reference or recommend on your site, and if there’s a purchase made, you get a kick-back. The difference here is that Amazon is also one of the largest data collection conglomorates, and this program comes at a cost — Amazon is tracking you and your referrals, along with everyone else who engages with either the Amazon.com domain or an Amazon ad placement anywhere on the web. (In addition, they track you if you click on someone else’s affiliate link, whether you knew it was an Amazon affiliate link or not.)

So what’s so grandiose about Basecamp’s philosophy? They previously had “experimented” with running ads on the Internet's large ad networks (Google, Facebook, and Twitter), but after spending some six-figures, they stopped:

Why give money to Facebook, Google, and Twitter when we can give it right back to our customers? They’re better advocates for Basecamp than any ad we can write. They’re not a platform, they’re people who know other people who can surely benefit from Basecamp just like they are.

That’s fluff, you might say. But they made a conscious decision to cease voting with their money to feed ad ecosystem, and instead put that money in the hands of current customers. And they aren’t the only ones pursuing this kind of referral mentality. Another example is Simple, a financial solution for “saving easily” and “banking beautifully.” They have a fairly unique proposition for referrals — instead of paying you cash, their referral program yields you a “handcrafted home for your Simple card.” In collaboration with Tanner Goods, Simple sends you and your referred friend a custom leather wallet. It’s a wry play on the debit card you receive when you become a Simple customer, as well as the provision of a handsome gift to anyone exerting the effort to refer someone to the company’s CRM.

The defiance against investing more money into advertising models that rely on tracking, data collection, and data sharing is a welcome tactic by companies to earn respect for their customers as well as future prospects. These non-traditional referral programs are clever ways to circumvent the expected normality of affiliate systems engineered by Amazon and others in the modern era. If only we voted more of our attention away from constant interaction with the platforms deploying such ad networks, we’d have the leverage to demand more transparency, accountability, and performance from the services we use.


Facebook's Data Dilemma

Authoring a tech post on the Guardian this past Tuesday, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former product manager at Facebook, explains how he "was charged with turning Facebook data into money, by any legal means":

Converting Facebook data into money is harder than it sounds, mostly because the vast bulk of your user data is worthless. Turns out your blotto-drunk party pics and flirty co-worker messages have no commercial value whatsoever.

But occasionally, if used very cleverly, with lots of machine-learning iteration and systematic trial-and-error, the canny marketer can find just the right admixture of age, geography, time of day, and music or film tastes that demarcate a demographic winner of an audience. The “clickthrough rate”, to use the advertiser’s parlance, doesn’t lie.

Yadda yadda, we've heard this all before. It's how most ad platforms operate these days -- harnessing machine-learning and all sorts of other [likely] hobbled together algorithms that provide conduits for proprietary data to advertisers and agencies to use in various campaigns to micro-target audiences and potential customers.

This is probably where privacy advocates should come shouting that this is a misuse of personal data. But is it? Facebook has provided its users a free service monetized by users' own tenacity to share and provide Facebook (and, subsequently, its advertisers) everything about themselves. While you could argue that some of the data provided is "personally identifiable information" (PII), Facebook hasn't forced you to share that information. And since users provide that information, Facebook can more or less do what it wants with it. Garcia-Martinez tends to agree, arguing that processing profile traits and post contents to inform demographic and audience triggers can easily be done with programming, so should its application matter to the masses?

The hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable. Which is what happened with Trump and the “fake news” accusation: even the implacable Zuck had to give in and introduce some anti-fake news technology. But they’ll slip that trap as soon as they can. And why shouldn’t they? At least in the case of ads, the data and the clickthrough rates are on their side.

There's also a link to another Guardian post that discusses how Facebook shares teens' emotional states with advertisers (likely derived by some kind of algorithm-based sentiment model). If we've learned anything at all about algorithms, it's that they can misinform as often as they can inform. A user uproar could certainly change the fate of data sharing with advertisers, but I don't see this happening until something truly offensive occurs, probably akin to Target's mishap a few years ago. And even that won't stop the use of data to inform advertising campaigns and the marketing of products/services on these platforms. The temptation (and intrinsic need) to use data is too fierce. And the rate of engagement on these platforms, with the amount of information being provided on a daily basis, is unprecidented by anything similar in human history.

While platforms like Facebook continue to require our attention to survive, they increasingly also need us to provide data to feed its monetary engine. The two are almost inexplicably tied together. Time and tolerance will tell how this shakes out.


The NSA & CIA Fail the American People

Remember the Apple iPhone / San Bernardino case from early 2016? Here’s a recap:

The F.B.I. has been unable to get into the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who was killed by the police along with his wife after they attacked Mr. Farook’s co-workers at a holiday gathering. Reynaldo Tariche, an F.B.I. agent on Long Island, said, “The worst-case scenario has come true.”

But in order to unlock the iPhone, which Apple couldn’t simply “do” because of the passcode implementation used by Farook, a legal dispute ensued whereby the FBI demanded Apple build a backdoor to the “single” device.

Behind the scenes, relations were tense, as lawyers for the Obama administration and Apple held closely guarded discussions for over two months about one particularly urgent case: The F.B.I. wanted Apple to help “unlock” an iPhone used by one of the two attackers who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December, but Apple was resisting.

When the talks collapsed, a federal magistrate judge, at the Justice Department’s request, ordered Apple to bypass security functions on the phone. The order set off a furious public battle on Wednesday between the Obama administration and one of the world’s most valuable companies in a dispute with far-reaching legal implications.

There were two binary sides to this case.

  1. Apple’s case: To some, this was the pro-privacy side of the case. Why not create a quick backdoor to the phone for the US government, and then close it up? In Apple own words: “Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case.” You create one backdoor for the US Government, then what? You’ve created a backdoor for all iPhone iOS users of the same version, and it could be used over and over again. It also sets what should be obvious: a dangerous precedent for the security of iPhone users and the power of the US Government. As the Washington Post makes explicitly clear,1 “This is an existing vulnerability in iPhone security that could be exploited by anyone.”
  2. The US Government’s case:2 Create a “key”, essentially a backdoor into the terrorist’s iPhone, to unlock whatever data is in there (if there’s anything to find at all), and as with #1’s concerns, endanger one of the most used mobile devices on the planet. If the data helps the case, great. If, that is.

Okay, so what happened again? The FBI lost the chance to decrypt the phone via Apple, but apparently “may have found way to unlock San Bernardino shooter's iPhone” anyway. Specifically, this single iPhone and not the other ones. Whatever technical means was found, it isn’t clear, but this maneuver spared a massive security risk across all iPhones.

If the FBI would have gotten its way, though, the most recent news about both the NSA and CIA would have hit even harder. And that’s saying something, because there are a few massive pieces of news that crept out recently that are entirely related to the FBI’s request from last year.

As we’ve been finding out, when US Government agencies aim to have tools to monitor terrorists or its own citizens, they rely heavily on finding (or buying) vulnerabilities in software and devices, or creating exploits (essentially malware) for physical exploitation of such devices. This unraveling began in March of this year, when WikiLeaks began positing redacted documents freshly acquired. Without getting into the weeds (you can read up on it if you so desire), the NSA leaks have been confirmed as legitimate, and they keep unspooling concern to security experts and software developers the world over.

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The latest concerns coming out of this are a series of newly found exploits deployed by the NSA to attack computers using pre-Windows 10 operating systems (roughly 65%+ of all desktops on the planet). There is one in particular, called FUZZBUNCH, that can automate the deployment of NSA malware and would allow a member of the agency to easily (from their desk) infect a target computer. As reported by the Intercept:

According to security researcher and hacker Matthew Hickey, co-founder of Hacker House, the significance of what’s now publicly available, including “zero day” attacks on previously undisclosed vulnerabilities, cannot be overstated: “I don’t think I have ever seen so much exploits and 0day exploits released at one time in my entire life,” he told The Intercept via Twitter DM, “and I have been involved in computer hacking and security for 20 years.” Affected computers will remain vulnerable until Microsoft releases patches for the zero-day vulnerabilities and, more crucially, until their owners then apply those patches.

“This is as big as it gets,” Hickey said. “Nation-state attack tools are now in the hands of anyone who cares to download them…it’s literally a cyberweapon for hacking into computers…people will be using these attacks for years to come.”

Yes, the cybertools used by our government’s agencies have been compromised, and are now available to anyone. While we’re sure Microsoft is working on patches, this is what happens when governments have access to exploits and backdoors into software that can, sequentially, endanger people’s most valuable information. While this is still about digital privacy, it’s also about security. What will it take for citizens to take notice of monumental weight of these leaks, these compromises? An attack on their credit cards? Their mortgage? Their identities?

This Doesn’t Seem Fine

A great piece by Vice’s Motherboard further extrapolates on this topic, essentially warning that it’s foolish and naive to assume any government official or contractor can keep cybertools safe. Here’s another way of thinking about this: let’s turn to the master key TSA agents have, granting them the ability to unlock any piece of luggage (with a TSA-approved lock). Well, as you may know, that key was compromised, and you can now download CAD files to get your own version 3D-printed. Imagine that. Anyone can get into anyone else’s luggage. But who would take the time to print one of these keys? Probably someone with malicious intent. And if you apply this same concept to master keys for software, apps, banking systems, etc., would you still trust the US Government (or any other government) to keep that key safe? To not misuse it?

Security and privacy in a digital context are becoming more intrinsically attached, as nearly every compromise to the former affects the latter. As my friend Eric mentioned in a recent email exchange, we may be seeing privacy become a third-rail issue in Washington. As unfathomable as it may seem, privacy doesn’t appear to be a non-partisan issue. We’ve already seen recently the reversal of ISP data privacy restrictions, even though Comcast tries to reassure us that they won’t sell our “individual” data (they will likely sell pools of data so advertisers can create look-a-like models and advertise to individuals anyway, or target individuals with their own ad network based on browsing history), Republicans seem to be more prone to manipulation by telecommunications lobbyists. Or maybe they just don’t give a shit about the digital privacy and security of the American people.

Let’s hope the recent leaks of cyber tool information makes enough headlines to reach the (mostly) non-news reading American populace, and that they take the time to understand the consequences of what can happen when we put too much trust and power in the hands of our governments.

Update

Microsoft has reported that "most of the exploits that were disclosed fall into vulnerabilities that are already patched in our supported products", and "of the three remaining exploits [...] none reproduces on supported platforms, which means that customers running Windows 7 and more recent versions of Windows or Exchange 2010 and newer versions of Exchange are not at risk".

As always, keep your software and operating system updated to the latest version.

  1. This article is a good read, as it complements Apple’s letter and explains the intricacies of what is really being requested ↩︎
  2. No, I didn’t complete the reading of this article, but we’ll assume it covers “both sides of the story”, amiright. ↩︎

The End of The Deck Ad Network

The Last Bastion of Privacy-Conscious Advertising is Dead

Back when the Internet was breaking out and expanding rapidly, with a chorus of new voices stretched across the globe, excitement around how to both monetize blogging and curate wonderful work was at a pitch high. I’m talking about the early-to-mid 2000s, arguably the beginning of solo writing as a serious format, the proliferation of sharing (dare I say “social sharing” before the social network explosion), and the collaboration of minds beyond physical barriers. Very cool projects, voices, and technologies came out of this period, and continue to thrive today. One such solution to monetization of all this activity was a small little advertising network called The Deck, run by Chicago design company Coudal Partners. It operated as an income haven for smart, tech-angled writers and curators, and continued operating until just this past week, when founder Jim Coudal pulled the plug. What kind of impact might this small, hardly known network have on the rest of the advertising and privacy-conscious world?

Let’s first step back a sec and orient ourselves. Started in 2006, The Deck was, and always remained, a small-format display advertising network (you know, the kind with small, static images placed somewhere somewhat prominent on a web page that featured a creative message to incentivize a click-through or just to make you aware of some kind of product or event). It was built with Coudal-selected or self-recommended sites within its walled ecosystem, which is to say that it was kind of an exclusive members-only club for a while. Early on, these members included The Morning News (an online magazine of essays, art, humor, and culture), John Gruber’s Daring Fireball (one of the first Apple-centric blogs), A List Apart (a long-standing institute for web developers and designers), Basecamp’s Signal V. Noise (formerly operated under 37signals, a design studio that built Basecamp and actually shared office space with Coudal Partners back in the day), and, of course, the great Kottke.org, one of the oldest blogs on the Internet, which covers essential people and ideas, and still serves to this day as one of the best resources for daily linkage. It went on to include more than 50 sites.

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Eclectic beginnings? Perhaps. But I remember visiting the Deck’s website a decade ago and mining its growing members for writers and bloggers and companies to follow via RSS and eventually Twitter. In a way, through The Deck’s members’ sites, I grew up on the Internet, pouring over all the amazing projects, ideas, and products being written about. To this day, I still follow several of these writers, have consistently linked to a number of their posts, and have bought my fair share of Field Notes Brand notebooks from Coudal’s other side project.

A few fairly critical things set The Deck apart from other growing (and less specialized) ad networks.

  1. The Deck was fairly exclusive, and aimed at a certain kind of audience. Yes, other networks did tend to do this sort of thing, but many have been gobbled up and rolled into larger ones, with segmentation based on attributed demographic/interest models. Essentially, things got algorithmic, less special, and more data-driven.
  2. The Deck never tracked users or personally-identifiable information (PII), something that every other ad network does without shame. They served ads in what they claimed as “useful and unobtrusive” ways. On a technical level, the Deck never issued cookies, which in most circumstances would have tracked readers in a specific way to allow for other actions/recognition elsewhere on the internet. The only data they collected and reported to site owners hosting their ad network was gross impressions, which are the number of times an ad has been served (essentially seen) during a period of time.
  3. The only thing they ever collected about their “users” (what they mean by this is a visitor or reader of a site in their network) was an occasional, completely anonymous survey. Referral traffic tracking is a pretty simple thing to analyze for any of the site owners that were part of the Deck network, so beyond impressions tracking, there probably wasn’t much else to build around this. Kept things clean and simple, I’m sure.
  4. Display ads were low fidelity. This may sound boring, but it was a godsend, particularly when the Internet went mobile. Each Deck ad was a small little square, static image, with a short text message and link beneath it. Page load speed was not compromised because it was such a small little thing, and they were oftentimes placed in unobtrusive places (sure, you can probably owe this to the fact that most sites in its network were run by authors with some design-savvy, but still). Compare this with the godawful display/programmatic networks today, with auto-playing videos, banners covering every corner of the screen (look, I update this exhibit of sites that should be slapped in the face for their atrocities in ad placements), and tracking you in every conceivable way possible — yeah, we’re going to miss the ambitious, reasonable vision Coudal Partners had.

So what happened? According to Jim’s farewell note, a few trends around the major mobile/social shifts in the way people engaged on the Internet are mostly to blame. We can probably assume the more invasive ad networks, breadth of connected sites, and their clarity of data probably became too tempting for most advertisers to ignore, even though I always thought the Deck attracted really great companies peddling their wares. When investing in media, it tends to come down to measurable return on investment, and this might have been something the Deck struggled to compete with “on paper.”

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Jim states that “in 2014, display advertisers started concentrating on large, walled, social networks,” which is primarily true — in-app display ad networks are also extremely rampant now. Let’s not forget, this is where mass attention is. Additionally, the “indie ‘blogosphere’ was disappearing”. In part, this too, is true. I have to constantly remind myself I’m probably in the minority of folks who still follow writers and bloggers via RSS, and the rest of the world is getting their kick inside Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The breadth of ad networks shows no sign of ceasing its advancement across and inside every platform imaginable, and the complexity of data tracking is not going to relent any time soon. Solutions like Google’s Display Network and Facebook’s Advertising apparatus are significantly more nuanced, with ever-smarter audience and demographic targeting, and available in various formats (including video and, more recently, interactive, like Facebook’s Canvas). Their data-sharing abilities also span audience and data management platforms, something advertisers, agencies, and brands are clinging to as part of major organizational maturity models moving into this year and the next ten years. These “innovations” and platform-specific advantages make competitors like The Deck extremely fragile, and less appealing, to both small and large advertisers.

But with the recent mounting concerns around privacy and data-sharing, it’s surprising to see this ad network cease to operate. If anything, it seems like the time is ripe to build a privacy-conscious ad network, get a great many influential writers and influencers onboard, and proliferate the good word. Maybe that’s something we can all work together toward?

So why, exactly, did The Deck just go quietly into the night, and not sell its platform to another owner?

John Gruber’s recent lament on the end of the Deck had probably the best anecdote as to why:

I was chatting with Jim earlier this evening. Someone wrote to him to ask, “Why didn’t you sell the network instead of shutting it down?” Jim’s answer: “The Deck was built exclusively on close, personal relationships. I don’t think those are mine to sell.”

With that remark, we can safely say The Deck went out with dignity, upholding its highest principles. Can’t blame them for that. I just hope the example they set will inspire a new torch-bearer in the darkening days of the Internet ecosystem. Somebody has to be listening…


Our Privacy, Our Data: A Call to Be Defiant

There was once a time when human societies were truly free from mass surveillance — at liberty to say, do, and think as they pleased within mutually-agreed upon, reasonable constraints. And yes, could feel safe doing so in their own homes. Few, if any, of our ancestors could have anticipated how quickly our societies pushed forward in technological and political complexity. Our progressive willpower in these areas has overwhelmed global culture and political infrastructures with exponential innovation in data-driven decisions, Internet plus hardware application, and laws (or lack thereof). Now we enter an era with the ubiquity of connected technologies — in our cars, in our homes, in our pockets, on our bodies. And due to our inexhaustible tenacity to produce data and content, our inherent right to liberty and privacy is under constant siege. At the rate these technologies evolve, paired with the menace of terrorism, international hacking, and the nearly incomprehensible extensiveness of government surveillance, our liberties and privacy have been inextricably compromised.

As citizens, we have the ability and right to understand the repercussions of technology we use or other agents surround us with, and most importantly, the spirit to challenge these conveniences, compromises, and innovations. We should not sit idly while legalese in terms of services obfuscate or bewilder us, surrendering our privacy and data to those who would use it against us or for their own ends. We should not, for want of convenience, ignore modern practices of safe password management, profile protection, and behavioral tracking. We should be concerned with the reckless abandon organizations have built, maintained, and even stagnated on core communications technologies that affect our everyday lives, imperiling privacy in email, messaging, social networks, voice-over-internet, web browsing, and file-syncing services. We should care about the way our data, communications, and media are stored, maintained, and protected. And we also should know where our data is stored -- not all countries share the same privacy and security standards. This isn’t asking much, but it does beckon you and our fellow citizens to pay attention. To be willing to learn. And to be willing to share and educate.

This isn't to say that we can't still enjoy the delights, conveniences, and usefulness of technology. At this point, we're in too deep for any government or corporation to start reversing the saturation of all this technology. So while we should continue to invest in this future, we need to let our concerns be known to leaders, corporations, and peers around the world -- the union of hardware and software can make our lives better, but shouldn't at the expense of inherent human dignities. We have to tread cautiously. And smartly. After all, this progression has made life better for many people and businesses around the world. I am not suggesting we retreat to Internet-free zones, removing ourselves from connectivity, smartphones, and Internet of Things devices. But I am suggesting that we take the considered time and effort to become more informed about the current privacy climate, that we acknowledge that our privacy has been irreversibly compromised, that companies and governments should be held accountable to the tremendous changes in communications in our modern civilization, and that we as a people can do something about it. Democracy and fairness cannot reign unless we are able to speak, act, create, and litigate freely. If everything we say, write, or do is tracked and archived, how else can we possibly feel other than creeping ever closer to a police state, worried about potentially irresponsible or libelous use of that data? As many have said before, would you feel comfortable with an advertising agency or government reading and storing your personal letters, your physical journals, your bank statements, your doctor visits, your bodily functions, your every movement on this planet? The likelihood they have access to most of this is already great. And for those who say they have "nothing to hide" are woefully ignorant of the larger consequences of this movement. As Edward Snowden so astutely declared, "arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say."

Defending our privacy and data will continue to be an important movement as we make progress as a society. The perseverance of surveillance back doors in software and hardware can compromise our financial and personal security, domestically and abroad, if exploited by ill-doers. And the big business of technology, security, and surveillance will continue to slither forward as an ouroboros of corporations and government. And there is no end in sight of the application of algorithms for everything in our lives -- you don't need to turn to an episode of Black Mirror to see this in action because it's already happening all around us (search engines, social media, advertising, economics, wellness, prisons, education, you name it). But if creators and users of these algorithms are not transparent, are not willing to cede to constructive collaboration with others to iteratively improve these action-driving usages of data in meaningful ways for society and civil liberties, we could be in for a very challenging time ahead. And let’s not forget that algorithms are only the first step. The machine-learning era of artificial intelligence will further compound the use of algorithms and could end up instructing us (or bypassing us entirely) on how to apply the insights for efficiencies and actions across the board, all based on the blueprints of an algorithm programmed by a misinformed coder years ago.

As such, the purpose of this site is to inform readers of the large-scale movements in data use, algorithms, advertising technologies, privacy risk, and state surveillance. I hope to make it a trustworthy, if at times facetious (because how can it not be?) resource for methods to safeguard your personal information, secure communications, and productively collaborate without unwarranted intrusions. Together, we can keep a discerning eye on the ever-watchful governments, health organizations, insurance companies, advertising agencies, and technology corporations who continue to benefit society with their inventiveness but simultaneously solicit us to normalize always-on, active Internet products and services that can and are used for self-interest and disingenuous means. Don't get me wrong -- I love technology. My smartphone is a miraculous device that saves me time, provides me nearly unlimited access to information, and allows me to accomplish things I could only dream about in my childhood. I’ve read, watched, written, and captured the most important events in my life through its omnipresent screen, camera lens, and microphone. But I also expect that these moments, this data, this usage is inherently mine. As soon as it does not become mine, I’m likely the product, or the subject, or the variable in some larger scheme. If you're comfortable with that, fine. But I'm not. And I’m not alone.

Instead of leaving you with a reminder of the lofty aims of the Fourth Amendment (of which whose authors at the time couldn’t even have fathomed the technological progress of the modern era), I will leave you with this quote from long-time cryptographer and computer security specialist, Bruce Schneier, who warns on the misappropriation of the debate for privacy:

Too many wrongly characterize the debate as "security versus privacy." The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that's why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.

Thanks for your time. I hope this is a compelling enough beginning for you to continue reading in the weeks to come, and at the very least, a resource to check in on every once and a while for your own sake.


The Privacy Quandary

Revisiting the advertising industry of yesteryear in shows like Mad Men feels quaint when you realize how far we’ve come from the days of single-platform advertising dominance. Print, radio, and television were the harbingers of new ways for advertisers and companies to connect with potential audiences with the hopes of converting them into paying customers. In 2016, this is no longer the case. Those channels exists in some form, but they hold neither the same attention nor weight as they once did; instead, a myriad of platforms have manifested and taken hold across audiences and users that have avoided consolidation and technological limitations like their predecessors once did. But with this proliferation of platforms and marketplaces came supportive, connective technologies that reach beyond anything the 1960s masterminds in the pitch room could ever have dreamed up. And with those connective technologies comes one critical decision that must be made by each and every participant on these platforms: how much do I value my privacy?

My guess is the eventual convergence of millennials coming to fruition, and baby boomers slowly fading, will demonstrate how the question of privacy, technology, and advertising pans out. But even before that happens, anyone who browses the Internet with a web browser, or uses a mobile device, or makes a purchase online, or conducts a search on Google, or clicks on an ad must take account of whether or not they value the inherently private right to those choices without submitting to the data aggregation overlords (and whether we have a right to question what companies do with their own platforms and services).

Why should we care about the data aggregation happening at the search, browse, click, and engage levels? If you aren’t cognizant of what is happening when you choose to load a given web page‚ or take a particular action in a browser, you are likely permitting dozens of services to track your behavior, align you to an ID, and connect your engagement with look-a-like modeling to better inform advertising, spending, and customization decisions for advertisers and brands across the world. (On the contrary, this data also helps designers and technologists create more personalized, better experiences and services to serve you based on your behavior.) Either way, you are inadvertently telling advertisers and a slew of other companies what you do, how you interact, and how you spend your money so they can customize messaging and content to your liking to encourage more spending and more engagement with brand assets.

If you like the notion of ads aligning to your interests, or have little care for companies bending your behavioral metrics to marketers’ and brands’ visions of perfect content resonance, then forget this entire editorial. Receiving more relevant ads or highly customized, purposefully tweaked content to adhere to your interests is the endgame for so much of what’s happening in the technology and advertising industry that if no one notices what’s happening on the backend — if no one cares — then we as audiences, attention centers, and customers lose some of our right to discern, decide, and demonstrate our free will. If we can’t choose to shell out money or click our way through a conversion funnel to arrive at a purchase, a sign-up, or an end point without being manipulated or steered by invisible forces, then this kind of technology could be exponentially built to influence us beyond just advertising.

But… Perhaps This Isn’t All Such a Bad Thing

You know what? Maybe this is okay after all. Very few users have activated mobile Safari’s content/ad blocker in iOS 9 when it was released in the fall of 2015 on iPhones and iPads. Maybe no one cares to use the private mode in their browser. Or perhaps no one is interested in using the highly private, highly secure Apple Pay to avoid being tracked upon every transaction you make. Maybe no one gives much weight to digital privacy, and everyone would rather software and services better serve their needs, their attention, and their wallet. You can’t have both, but perhaps you can have a balance.

While tracking, customization, and connecting user information across sources to power ad campaigns and content is the hot new frontier, there have been several subtle yet successful underground advertising strategies in place for years that don’t require invasiveness or big, expensive technology. I’d like to call these methods bespoke ad targeting.

The best examples of this are The Deck, an advertising network for creatives, web, and design culture, and the entire podcast industry.

For many, The Deck (powered by the Chicago-based design and interactive studio, Coudal Partners) has been a bastion of hope for non-intrusive advertising tied to a curated, human-approved ad network featuring such luminaries as John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, web community mainstay MetaFilter, the publishing world’s darling McSweeney’s, and long-form pioneer The Morning News.

Having established a quality, editorially-related group of sites and authors permits The Deck to run an equally curated and selected group of advertisers to appeal to the perceived needs, interests, and attentions of such audiences. Sure, data informs these decisions, but The Deck does not track or use data from third-party aggregators — instead, they understand the audiences’ interests based on their network sites and align advertisers (or permit advertisers) to run ads inside their program; which, as they describe, is “not about ‘cost-per-thousand’ it’s about ‘cost-per-influence’.” This methodology is unlike most ad or display networks, which consider impressions but make most of their revenue off cost-per-click. This approach is summarized best by The Deck:

The loyal, regular readers of the network’s sites and services consist of web publishers, writers, developers, editors, reporters and bloggers as well as influential designers and art directors. Plus, the aggregate audience is made up of writers, photographers, illustrators, students, filmmakers, typographers, artists, animators, musicians, coders, designers and many other creative professionals.

This methodology could be repeated ad nauseum across any fields, interests, or publishing networks, but since The Deck is such an indie game, it would likely be hard to convince major agencies, advertisers, and publishers to get onboard (Big Data drives everything in terms of quantitative business investment rationales).

Another advertising anomaly is the wrapper around the podcasting industry. Long has this industry been around (really, since the boom years of the iPod over a decade ago), but never has its advertising implications been treated with the same kind of sophistication found in other mediums and channels. Since there is no common platform for podcasts (they are essentially audio files that can be published via RSS for feed processing), there has not been a common way of inserting advertisements into them.

A recent Wall Street Journal article about podcasts facing advertising hurdles summarizes this best (via a quote from Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting at ZenithOptimedia):

“Podcast ads can't be targeted in the way other digital media can be, and there's no immediate metric of success - like impression served or links clicked - to allow advertisers to evaluate return on investment"

Regardless of these hurdles or concessions, some advertisers continue to invest significant money into podcasting because of the same kind of bespoke reach that The Deck famously claims. The Atlantic investigated this, particularly through the humorous lens of Squarespace (a website CMS service), which seemingly advertises on nearly every podcast.

Essentially, podcast advertisers needed to come up with a method for enabling a call to action in their audio spots. In almost every instance, this comes in the form of a promotional code or website link. As reported by the Atlantic, now that podcasts are reaching “17 percent of Americans age 13 and up (that’s almost 50 million people)”, we’re seeing more of this approach by advertisers:

Instead of pursuing signups and orders, companies—especially larger ones—are increasingly hoping that podcast advertisements create positive associations for their brand. “We select a property like This American Life not because we expect it to increase sales the next day, but because … we know our target values the content,” says Nancy Hubbell, the communications manager for Scion. Some advertisers trawl Facebook and Twitter to see how their ads are being received.

To summarize, both non-invasive advertising methods - bespoke networks and podcasts - rely less on user behavior tracking and data aggregation, and more human-picked selections that aim to provide less direct calls to action and drive positive brand associations. If this sounds familiar, it’s a call back to the era of analog television, analog billboards, and analog in-theatre ad reels (or event present-day sponsoring of sports functions, television shows, and physical events). Less invasive, but likely just as impactful in terms of impressions and brand association/reinforcement.

The Important Elements of Connected Experiences

Bespoke or not‚ with all these new digital advertising strategies come more and more tech stacks, which in turn can actually impact more than just privacy considerations. In particular, we are talking about the overall user experience of accessing content. It's been quite clear over the past 12-18 months that the web (and its content ecosystem) has become clunky again, like the days of dial-up:

  • Site speed has been a massive issue for several large brand and publication websites over the last several years, with third-party scripts contributing heavily to lag time in loading in a browser
  • Newsrooms have seen a proliferation of speedy publication choices on OSes and platforms attempting to wrest control of the content floodgates: Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, and Google AMP
  • Website design norms have caved to accommodate responsive design, oftentimes executed in ways that aren't entirely mobile-friendly, bringing resource clutter, inefficient load times, and the slew of tracking mechanisms from the desktop era to mobile (the days of simple, fast mobile sites circa 2010 is over)

While this has been beat over the head this past year, speed implications are worth demonstrating again. Below, you'll see a list of big brand mobile sites (homepage URL) suffering from script-related slowdowns, identified as “render-blocking JavaScript”, and their total site speed as calculated by Google, which also includes other factors like CSS minifying, image compression, etc.):

  • Target: 44/100
  • Best Buy: 53/100
  • Amazon: 72/100 (render-blocking JavaScript is primarily contributing to this score)
  • Beats By Dre: 44/100 (curious to see if Apple will curtail use of certain ad and content platforms now that they own Beats)
  • Apple: 61/100
  • New York Times: 62/100
  • The Verge: 13/100
  • Slate: 58/100
  • Microsoft: 53/100

Dean Murphy demonstrates how much better the mobile web experience is with the iOS9 content-blocking feature, describing the following impact it had for one site he loves to visit but which suffers significantly from site slowdown:

With no content blocked, there are 38 3rd party scripts (scripts not hosted on the host domain) running when the homepage is opened, which takes a total of 11 seconds. Some of these scripts are hosted by companies I know, Google, Amazon, Twitter and lots from companies I don't know. Most of which I assume are used to display adverts or track my activity, as the network activity was still active after a minute of leaving the page dormant. I decided to turn them all off all 3rd party scripts and see what would happen.

Even with the benefits of perceptively better content or ads geared to the user, there is an adverse effect:

  • Slower accessibility to services, apps, and sites
  • More expensive data plans (accommodate unchecked ad networks required bandwidths)
  • Exposure of personal information, even if anonymized

Advertising Isn't the Only Industry

The permeation of data tracking and data-driven decision-making is not just trending through the advertising industry. It is everywhere. Most notably, though, is its involvement in the health industry. This is a critical are for data precision, and the more information available about patients, prospects, and conditions, the better the decisions become for health organizations and insurance companies.

Similar to how web behavior data is curated by third party companies and aggregated in commercial databases for sale to advertisers and agencies, so too is the data for health. As Scientific American reports, however, these databases aren’t quite as easy to orchestrate:

By law, the identities of everyone found in these commercial databases are supposed to be kept secret. Indeed, the organizations that sell medical information to data-mining companies strip their records of Social Security numbers, names and detailed addresses to protect people's privacy. But the data brokers also add unique numbers to the records they collect that allow them to match disparate pieces of information to the same individual—even if they do not know that person's name

For most industries, this should be typical of best practices for anonymizing data. But they continue to report that the clarity around data collection (and from whence the data is entered or stored) confounds many industry participants:

…the system is so opaque that many doctors, nurses and patients are unaware that the information they record or divulge in an electronic health record or the results from lab tests they request or consent to may be anonymized and sold.

Big surprise there.

Where We Go From Here

For some companies, like the aforementioned iMore, or heavyweights New York Times, Slate, and The Verge, advertising is an integral part of how they pay the bills (and journalists). Is there a better way to evolve advertising without sacrificing the inherent privacies of participants in ancillary activities (such as reading a publication online, or watching a video on YouTube)?

Advertising is a massive, $500BN industry. The medical industry is even bigger. Neither is going away, and ad-blocking or a handful of privacy advocates won’t change the face of the business any time soon. Sure, Apple can advocate for device-specific privacy against the FBI and potentially the federal government, but that doesn’t have any effect on the data users are willing (or unknowingly) contributing to forms, subscriptions, browser histories, and clicks/taps throughout the Internet.

The game could change — for users, experiences, and privacy — in a meaningful way if we decide to move a dialogue down that route. But as companies continue to build useful services around data for their users, the reliance and convenience of those services may eventually outweigh the privacy concerns of the data begin recorded, submitted, analyzed, and used to create them. And for us, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to move forward from here, but there are liberties around the nature of privacy that will forever be changed to accommodate the digital ecosystems of the future.