Author: Doug Belshaw (page 1 of 42)

"A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking."

(Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

Tracking vs advertising

We tend to use words to denote something right up to the time that term becomes untenable. Someone has to invent a better one. Take mobile phones, for example. They’re literally named after the least-used app on there, so we’re crying out for a different way to refer to them. Perhaps a better name would be ‘trackers’.

These days, most people use mobile devices for social networking. These are available free at the point of access, funded by what we’re currently calling ‘advertising’. However, as this author notes, it’s nothing of the sort:

What we have today is not advertising. The amount of personally identifiable information companies have about their customers is absolutely perverse. Some of the world’s largest companies are in the business of selling your personal information for use in advertising. This might sound innocuous but the tracking efforts of these companies are so accurate that many people believe that Facebook listens to their conversations to serve them relevant ads. Even if it’s true that the microphone is not used, the sum of all other data collected is still enough to show creepily relevant advertising.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to have come to the conclusion yet that it’s the logic of capitalism that go us here. Instead, he just points out that people’s privacy is being abused.

[P]eople now get most of their information from social networks yet these networks dictate the order in which content is served to the user. Google makes the worlds most popular mobile operating system and it’s purpose is drive the company’s bottom line (ad blocking is forbidden). “Smart” devices are everywhere and companies are jumping over each other to put more shit in your house so they can record your movements and sell the information to advertisers. This is all a blatant abuse of privacy that is completely toxic to society.

Agreed, and it’s easy to feel a little helpless against this onslaught. While it’s great to have a list of things that users can do, if those things are difficult to implement and/or hard to understand, then it’s an uphill battle.

That being said, the three suggestions he makes are use

To combat this trend, I have taken the following steps and I think others should join the movement:

  • Aggressively block all online advertisements
  • Don’t succumb to the “curated” feeds
  • Not every device needs to be “smart”

I feel I’m already way ahead of the author in this regard:

  • Aggressively block all online advertisements
  • Don’t succumb to the “curated” feeds
    • I quit Facebook years ago, haven’t got an Instagram account, and pretty much only post links to my own spaces on Twitter and LinkedIn.
  • Not every device needs to be “smart”
    • I don’t really use my Philips Hue lights, and don’t have an Amazon Alexa — or even the Google Assistant on my phone).

It’s not easy to stand up to Big Tech. The amount of money they pour into things make their ‘innovations’ seem inevitable. They can afford to make things cheap and frictionless so you get hooked.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that those that previously defended Apple as somehow ‘different’ on privacy, despite being the world’s most profitable company, are starting to backtrack.

Source: Nicholas Rempel

Keeping track of articles you want to read

One of the things I like about Hacker News is that, as well as providing useful links to technically-minded stuff, there are also ‘Ask HN’ threads where a user asks a question of the rest of the community.

Ask HN: How do you keep track of articles you want to read?

When I browse HN, I usually pick out a few articles I want to read from the front page, then email the links to myself to read later.

This method works out pretty well for me. I’m wondering if people have other strategies that work better?

I don’t like the ‘inbox as to-do list’ method. Other HN users suggested alternatives, with the top-voted comment at the time of writing this being:

I used Instapaper (https://www.instapaper.com/), then moved to Pocket (https://getpocket.com/) to take advantage of the social features, then moved back to Instapaper for no really good reason. Pocket still looks nicer and the apps are more reliable, in my experience.

They both allow you to save the full text of an article to read later, as well as archiving and organizing articles you’ve already read. They sync to phones, so most of my reading actually happens on public transit. Pocket can also sync to a Kobo ebook reader; not sure about Kindle, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it worked with them, too.

Pocket is great, but I used IFTTT to automatically send RSS feeds there at one point, and now it seems to be in an endless sync loop.

Other HN users said that they pin bookmarks, and so have many, many tabs open at one time. I think that’s a hugely inefficient and resource-intensive approach.

Some kept it super-simple:

I use Org Mode so I have a plain text file called todo-bookmarks.org with a list of links to the articles I want to read.

This caused me to think about what I do. If I want to read something, I actually add the link as a draft post here, on Thought Shrapnel. The best way to ensure I gain value from a potentially-interesting article is to write about it.

I’d rather write about a few links rather than bookmark lots. I’ve all but given up on bookmarking, as it’s almost as quick to search the web for something I’m looking for as it is to search my bookmarks…

Source: Hacker News

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Introverts, collaboration, and creativity

I work, for the most part, in my home office. Physically-speaking it’s a solitary existence as my office is separate to my house. However, I’m constantly talking to people via Telegram, Slack, and Mastodon. It doesn’t feel lonely at all.

So this article about collaboration, which I discovered via Stowe Boyd, is an interesting one:

If you’re looking to be brave and do something entirely new, involving more people at the wrong time could kill your idea.

Work at MIT found that collaboration—where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

I’m leading a project at the moment which is scheduled to launch in January 2019. It’s potentially going to be used by hundreds of people in the MVP, and then thousands (and maybe hundreds of thousands) after that.

Yet, when I was asked recently whether I’d like more resources, I said “after the summer”. Why? Because every time you add someone new, it temporarily slows down your project. The same can be true when you’re coming up with ideas. You can go faster alone, but further together.

Many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with people shouting at them from a whiteboard.

Indeed a study found that “solitude can facilitate creativity–first, by stimulating imaginative involvement in multiple realities and, second, by ‘trying on’ alternative identities, leading, perhaps, to self-transformation.”

Essentially just being around other people can keep creative people from thinking new thoughts.

I think this article goes a little too far in discounting the value of collaboration. For example, here’s three types of facilitated thinking that I have experience with that work well for both introverts and extroverts:

  1. Thinkathons
  2. Note and vote
  3. Crazy eights

That being said, I do agree with the author when he says:

Once you’ve unearthed radical ideas from people, they need nurturing. They need protecting from group-think meetings and committees who largely express speculated unevidenced opinions based on current preferences from past experiences.

Design thinking has a bias towards action: it resists talking yourself out of trying something radical. Creating prototypes helps you to think about your idea in a concrete manner, and get it to test before it gets dumbed down.

Chances are, that crazy idea you had will get toned down if you let too many people look at it. Protect the radical and push it hard!

Source: Paul Taylor (via Stowe Boyd)

Busyness and value creation

I subscribe to both Seth Godin’s blog and his podcast, Akimbo. The man’s a genius as far as I’m concerned.

One of his most recent posts is about productivity:

Now, more than ever, you’re likely to be running a team, managing a project or deciding on your own agenda as a free agent. Time is just about all you’ve got to spend.

And yet, we hardly talk about productivity.

Productivity is the amount of useful output created for every hour of work we do.

You can measure that output in money if you want to (it makes the math easier) but in fact, it’s everything from lives changed to knowledge shared. What matters is the answer to a simple question: did I spend my day producing enough benefit for all the time invested?

So far, standard stuff. What I like is the way he applies it to our current situation in 2018:

The internet has opened the door for more people to organize and plan their day than ever before. And we’re bad at it.

Because we associate busyness with business with productivity.

In my twenties, when I worked in schools, I worked 12+ hours every day. Now I work half that. Why? Because I work from home and can manage my own time. I’m rarely just waiting around or kicking my heels:

Imagine two buildings under construction. Both have 25 well-trained, well-paid, hard-working construction workers. One building, though, was built in half the time of the other. What happened? It turns out that construction almost always slows down because people are waiting. Waiting for the waterproofing to get done (while they wait for the specialist) or waiting for parts or waiting for another part of the project. The internet is the home of the connection economy, which means that this challenge is multiplied by 100. What are you waiting for? When you’re waiting, what are you doing to create value?

It’s a useful read, particularly if you feel that you’re at a crossroads in your career. You should always go towards that which gives you more agency. That way, you get more of a say in how productive you can be in any given day.

Busy is not your job. Busy doesn’t get you what you seek. Busy isn’t the point. Value creation is.

Source: Seth Godin

"To do original work: It's not necessary to know something nobody else knows. It is necessary to believe something few other people believe."

(Marc Andreessen)

Assassination markets now available on the blockchain

I first mentioned so-called ‘assassination markets’ in one of my weeknotes back in 2015 when reporting back on a dinner party conversation. For those unfamiliar, the idea has been around for at least the last twenty years.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines them:

An assassination market is a prediction market where any party can place a bet (using anonymous electronic money and pseudonymous remailers) on the date of death of a given individual, and collect a payoff if they “guess” the date accurately. This would incentivise assassination of individuals because the assassin, knowing when the action would take place, could profit by making an accurate bet on the time of the subject’s death. Because the payoff is for accurately picking the date rather than performing the action of the assassin, it is substantially more difficult to assign criminal liability for the assassination.

Of course, the blockchain is a trustless system, so perfect for this kind of thing. A new platform called Augur is a prediction market and so, of course, one of the first things that appears on there are ‘predictions’ about the death of Donald Trump in 2018:

Everyone knew that it was inevitable that assassination markets would quickly pop up on decentralized prediction market platform Augur, but that doesn’t make the fact that users are now betting on whether U.S. President Donald Trump will be assassinated by the end of the year any less jarring.

Yet this market exists, and, though not the most popular bet on Augur, more than 50 shares have been traded on it as of the time of writing. Similar markets, moreover, exist for a number of other public figures, allowing users to gamble on whether 96-year-old actress Betty White and U.S. Senator John McCain — who has been diagnosed with brain cancer — will survive until Jan. 1, 2019.

This is why ethics in technology are important. There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ technology:

Now that assassination markets are here, a fierce debate has emerged in cryptocurrency circles over what — if anything — should be done about them, as well as who should be held responsible for these clearly-illegal death markets.

The core issue stems from the fact that, in addition to the pure revulsion that these markets should engender in any decent human being, they also create a financial incentive for someone to place a large bet that a public figure will be assassinated and then murder that person for profit. Consequently, the mere presence of these markets makes it more likely that these events will occur, however slim that increase may be.

Interesting times, indeed.

Source: CCN

"Not my circus. Not my monkeys." (Polish proverb)

When we eat matters

As I get older, I’m more aware that some things I do are very affected by the world around me. For example, since finding out that the intensity of light you experience during the day is correlated with the amount of sleep you get, I don’t feel so bad about ‘sleeping in’ during the summer months.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that this article in The New York Times suggests that there’s a good and a bad time to eat:

A growing body of research suggests that our bodies function optimally when we align our eating patterns with our circadian rhythms, the innate 24-hour cycles that tell our bodies when to wake up, when to eat and when to fall asleep. Studies show that chronically disrupting this rhythm — by eating late meals or nibbling on midnight snacks, for example — could be a recipe for weight gain and metabolic trouble.

A more promising approach is what some call ‘intermittent fasting’ where you restrict your calorific intake to eight hours of the day, and don’t consume anything other than water for the other 16 hours.

This approach, known as early time-restricted feeding, stems from the idea that human metabolism follows a daily rhythm, with our hormones, enzymes and digestive systems primed for food intake in the morning and afternoon. Many people, however, snack and graze from roughly the time they wake up until shortly before they go to bed. Dr. Panda has found in his research that the average person eats over a 15-hour or longer period each day, starting with something like milk and coffee shortly after rising and ending with a glass of wine, a late night meal or a handful of chips, nuts or some other snack shortly before bed.

That pattern of eating, he says, conflicts with our biological rhythms.

So when should we eat? As early as possible in the day, it would seem:

Most of the evidence in humans suggests that consuming the bulk of your food earlier in the day is better for your health, said Dr. Courtney Peterson, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dozens of studies demonstrate that blood sugar control is best in the morning and at its worst in the evening. We burn more calories and digest food more efficiently in the morning as well.

That’s not great news for me. After a protein smoothie in the morning and eggs for lunch, I end up eating most of my calories in the evening. I’m going to have to rethink my regime…

Source: The New York Times