Issue #391: Free Edition
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Hello!

I hope you're well. Remember to look after yourself!

This week, I wrote three more #100DaysToOffload posts, with the second two being primarily video-based:
I've enjoyed the work I've done through We Are Open Co-op this week, which is good because the weather here has been terrible. On that subject, it's looking like I'll have some availability from September if I can help you and your team. Get in touch!

Have you considered joining those readers who support Thought Shrapnel?

Saturday shakings

Swan shaking water off itself
Whew, so many useful bookmarks to re-read for this week’s roundup! It took me a while, so let’s get on with it…
Cartoon picture of someone working from home

What is the future of distributed work?

To Bharat Mediratta, chief technology officer at Dropbox, the quarantine experience has highlighted a huge gap in the market. “What we have right now is a bunch of different productivity and collaboration tools that are stitched together. So I will do my product design in Figma, and then I will submit the code change on GitHub, I will push the product out live on AWS, and then I will communicate with my team using Gmail and Slack and Zoom,” he says. “We have all that technology now, but we don't yet have the ‘digital knowledge worker operating system’ to bring it all together.”
WIRED

OK, so this is a sponsored post by Dropbox on the WIRED website, but what it highlights is interesting. For example, Monday.com (which our co-op uses) rebranded itself a few months ago as a 'Work OS'. There's definitely a lot of money to be made for whoever manages to build an integrated solution, although I think we're a long way off something which is flexible enough for every use case.

The Definition of Success Is Autonomy

Today, I don’t define success the way that I did when I was younger. I don’t measure it in copies sold or dollars earned. I measure it in what my days look like and the quality of my creative expression: Do I have time to write? Can I say what I think? Do I direct my schedule or does my schedule direct me? Is my life enjoyable or is it a chore?
Ryan Holiday

Tim Ferriss has this question he asks podcast guests: "If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it what would it say and why?" I feel like the title of this blog post is one of the answers I would give to that question.

Do The Work

We are a small group of volunteers who met as members of the Higher Ed Learning Collective. We were inspired by the initial demand, and the idea of self-study, interracial groups. The initial decision to form this initiative is based on the myriad calls from people of color for white-bodied people to do internal work. To do the work, we are developing a space for all individuals to read, share, discuss, and interrogate perspectives on race, racism, anti-racism, identity in an educational setting. To ensure that the fight continues for justice, we need to participate in our own ongoing reflection of self and biases. We need to examine ourselves, ask questions, and learn to examine our own perspectives. We need to get uncomfortable in asking ourselves tough questions, with an understanding that this is a lifelong, ongoing process of learning.
Ian O'Byrne

This is a fantastic resource for people who, like me, are going on a learning journey at the moment. I've found the podcast Seeing White by Scene on Radio particularly enlightening, and at times mind-blowing. Also, the Netflix documentary 13th is excellent, and available on YouTube.
Welding a motherboard

How to Make Your Tech Last Longer

If we put a small amount of time into caring for our gadgets, they can last indefinitely. We’d also be doing the world a favor. By elongating the life of our gadgets, we put more use into the energy, materials and human labor invested in creating the product.
Brian X. Chen (The new York times)

This is a pretty surface-level article that basically suggests people take their smartphone to a repair shop instead of buying a new one. What it doesn't mention is that aftermarket operating systems such as the Android-based LineageOS can extend the lifetime of smartphones by providing security updates long beyond those provided by vendors.

Law enforcement arrests hundreds after compromising encrypted chat system

EncroChat sold customized Android handsets with GPS, camera, and microphone functionality removed. They were loaded with encrypted messaging apps as well as a secure secondary operating system (in addition to Android). The phones also came with a self-destruct feature that wiped the device if you entered a PIN.
The service had customers in 140 countries. While it was billed as a legitimate platform, anonymous sources told Motherboard that it was widely used among criminal groups, including drug trafficking organizations, cartels, and gangs, as well as hitmen and assassins.
EncroChat didn’t become aware that its devices had been breached until May after some users noticed that the wipe function wasn’t working. After trying and failing to restore the features and monitor the malware, EncroChat cut its SIM service and shut down the network, advising customers to dispose of their devices.
Monica Chin (The Verge)

It goes without saying that I don't want assassins, drug traffickers, and mafia types to be successful in life. However, I'm always a little concerned when there are attacks on encryption, as they're compromising systems also potentially used by protesters, activists, and those who oppose the status quo.

Uncovered: 1,000 phrases that incorrectly trigger Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant

The findings demonstrate how common it is for dialog in TV shows and other sources to produce false triggers that cause the devices to turn on, sometimes sending nearby sounds to Amazon, Apple, Google, or other manufacturers. In all, researchers uncovered more than 1,000 word sequences—including those from Game of Thrones, Modern Family, House of Cards, and news broadcasts—that incorrectly trigger the devices.
“The devices are intentionally programmed in a somewhat forgiving manner, because they are supposed to be able to understand their humans,” one of the researchers, Dorothea Kolossa, said. “Therefore, they are more likely to start up once too often rather than not at all.”
Dan Goodin (Ars Technica)

As anyone with voice assistant-enabled devices in their home will testify, the number of times they accidentally spin up, or misunderstand what you're saying can be amusing. But we can and should be wary of what's being listened to, and why.
The Five Levels of Remote Work

The Five Levels of Remote Work — and why you’re probably at Level 2

Effective written communication becomes critical the more companies embrace remote work. With an aversion to ‘jumping on calls’ at a whim, and a preference for asynchronous communication... communications text-based, and so articulate and timely articulation becomes key.
Steve Glaveski (The Startup)

This is from March and pretty clickbait-y, but everyone wants to know how they can improve - especially if didn't work remotely before the pandemic. My experience is that actually most people are at Level 3 and, of course, I'd say that I and my co-op colleagues are at Level 5 given our experience...

Why Birds Can Fly Over Mount Everest

All mammals, including us, breathe in through the same opening that we breathe out. Can you imagine if our digestive system worked the same way? What if the food we put in our mouths, after digestion, came out the same way? It doesn’t bear thinking about! Luckily, for digestion, we have a separate in and out. And that’s what the birds have with their lungs: an in point and an out point. They also have air sacs and hollow spaces in their bones. When they breathe in, half of the good air (with oxygen) goes into these hollow spaces, and the other half goes into their lungs through the rear entrance. When they breathe out, the good air that has been stored in the hollow places now also goes into their lungs through that rear entrance, and the bad air (carbon dioxide and water vapor) is pushed out the front exit. So it doesn’t matter whether birds are breathing in or out: Good air is always going in one direction through their lungs, pushing all the bad air out ahead of it.
Walter Murch (Nautilus)

Incredible. Birds are badass (and also basically dinosaurs).

Montaigne Fled the Plague, and Found Himself

In the many essays of his life he discovered the importance of the moderate life. In his final essay, “On Experience,” Montaigne reveals that “greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to circumscribe and set oneself in order.” What he finds, quite simply, is the importance of the moderate life. We must then, he writes, “compose our character, not compose books.” There is nothing paradoxical about this because his literary essays helped him better essay his life. The lesson he takes from this trial might be relevant for our own trial: “Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live properly.”
Robert Zaresky (The New York Times)

Every week, Bryan Alexander replies to the weekly Thought Shrapnel newsletter. Last week, he sent this article to both me and Chris Lott (who produces the excellent Notabilia).

We had a bit of a chat, with us sharing our love of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell, and well as the useful tidbits it's possible glean from Stefan Zweig's short biography simply entitled Montaigne.

Header image by Nicolas Comte

Using WhatsApp is a (poor) choice that you make

Woman holding a smartphone (with a WhatsApp logo on screen) in front of her mouth
People often ask me about my stance on Facebook products. They can understand that I don't use Facebook itself, but what about Instagram? And surely I use WhatsApp? Nope.

Given that I don't usually have a single place to point people who want to read about the problems with WhatsApp, I thought I'd create one.

WhatsApp is a messaging app that was acquired by Facebook for the eye-watering amount of $19 billion in 2014. Interestingly, a BuzzFeed News article from 2018 cites documents confidential documents from the time leading up to the acquisition that were acquired by the UK's Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. They show the threat WhatsApp posed to Facebook at the time.
US mobile messenger apps (iPhone) graph from August 2012 to March 2013
As you can see from the above chart, Facebook executives were shown in 2013 that WhatsApp (8.6% reach) was growing rapidly and posed a huge threat to Facebook Messenger (13.7% reach).

So Facebook bought WhatsApp. But what did they buy? If, as we're led to believe, WhatsApp is 'end-to-end encrypted' then Facebook don't have access to the messages of users. So what's so valuable?

Brian Acton, one of the founders of WhatsApp (and a man who got very rich through its sale) has gone on record saying that he feels like he sold his users' privacy to Facebook.
Facebook, Acton says, had decided to pursue two ways of making money from WhatsApp. First, by showing targeted ads in WhatsApp’s new Status feature, which Acton felt broke a social compact with its users. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” he says. His motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks”—a direct contrast with a parent company that derived 98% of its revenue from advertising. Another motto had been “Take the time to get it right,” a stark contrast to “Move fast and break things.”
Facebook also wanted to sell businesses tools to chat with WhatsApp users. Once businesses were on board, Facebook hoped to sell them analytics tools, too. The challenge was WhatsApp’s watertight end-to-end encryption, which stopped both WhatsApp and Facebook from reading messages. While Facebook didn’t plan to break the encryption, Acton says, its managers did question and “probe” ways to offer businesses analytical insights on WhatsApp users in an encrypted environment.
Parmy Olson (Forbes)

The other way Facebook wanted to make money was to sell tools to businesses allowing them to chat with WhatsApp users. These tools would also give "analytical insights" on how users interacted with WhatsApp.

Facebook was allowed to acquire WhatsApp (and Instagram) despite fears around monopolistic practices. This was because they made a promise not to combine data from various platforms. But, guess what happened next?
In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19b, and promised users that it wouldn't harvest their data and mix it with the surveillance troves it got from Facebook and Instagram. It lied. Years later, Facebook mixes data from all of its properties, mining it for data that ultimately helps advertisers, political campaigns and fraudsters find prospects for whatever they're peddling. Today, Facebook is in the process of acquiring Giphy, and while Giphy currently doesn’t track users when they embed GIFs in messages, Facebook could start doing that anytime.
Cory Doctorow (EFF)

So Facebook is harvesting metadata from its various platforms, tracking people around the web (even if they don't have an account), and buying up data about offline activities.

All of this creates a profile. So yes, because of end-ot-end encryption, Facebook might not know the exact details of your messages. But they know that you've started messaging a particular user account around midnight every night. They know that you've started interacting with a bunch of stuff around anxiety. They know how the people you message most tend to vote.

Do I have to connect the dots here? This is a company that sells targeted adverts, the kind of adverts that can influence the outcome of elections. Of course, Facebook will never admit that its platforms are the problem, it's always the responsibility of the user to be 'vigilant'.
Man reading a newspaper
So you might think that you're just messaging your friend or colleague on a platform that 'everyone' uses. But your decision to go with the flow has consequences. It has implications for democracy. It has implications on creating a de facto monopoly for our digital information. And it has implications around the dissemination of false information.
The features that would later allow WhatsApp to become a conduit for conspiracy theory and political conflict were ones never integral to SMS, and have more in common with email: the creation of groups and the ability to forward messages. The ability to forward messages from one group to another – recently limited in response to Covid-19-related misinformation – makes for a potent informational weapon. Groups were initially limited in size to 100 people, but this was later increased to 256. That’s small enough to feel exclusive, but if 256 people forward a message on to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it.
A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.
William Davies (The Guardian)

I cannot control the decisions others make, nor have I forced my opinions on my two children, who (despite my warnings) both use WhatsApp to message their friends. But, for me, the risk to myself and society of using WhatsApp is not one I'm happy with taking.

Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Header image by Rachit Tank

Quotation of the week

“Take no enterprise in hand at haphazard, or without regard to the principles governing its proper execution.”


(Marcus Aurelius)
Until next week!

Doug
Dr. Doug Belshaw is an Open Educational Thinkerer, currently working with We Are Open Co-op to improve our world.

You can connect with Doug by replying to this email, or via Twitter, LinkedIn, or Mastodon. Use the hashtag #thoughtshrapnel

Some say he likes gardening, others say he's hardening. No-one thinks he's good at pardoning.
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