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Volume of work

This definitely speaks to me:

Quantity has a quality all its own as Lenin said. The sheer volume of your work is what works as a signal of weirdness, because anyone can be do a one-off weird thing, but only volume can signal a consistently weird production sensibility that will inspire people betting on you. The energy evident in a body of work is the most honest signal about it that makes people trust you to do things for them.

Source: Venkatesh Rao (via Tom Critchlow)

What did the web used to be like?

One of the things it’s easy to forget when you’ve been online for the last 20-plus years is that not everyone is in the same boat. Not only are there adults who never experienced the last millennium, but varying internet adoption rates mean that, for some people, centralised services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are synonymous with the web.

Stories are important. That’s why I appreciated this Hacker News thread with the perfect title and sub-title:

Ask HN: What was the Internet like before corporations got their hands on it? What was the Internet like in its purest form? Was it mainly information sharing, and if so, how reliable was the information?

There’s lots to unpack here: corporate takeover of online spaces, veracity of information provided, and what the ‘purest form’ of the internet actually is/was.

Inevitably, given the readership of Hacker News, the top-voted post is technical (and slightly boastful):

1990. Not very many people had even heard of it. Some of us who’d gotten tired of wardialing and Telenet/Tymnet might have had friends in local universities who clued us in with our first hacked accounts, usually accessed by first dialing into university DECServers or X.25 networks. Overseas links from NSFNet could be as slow as 128kbit and you were encouraged to curtail your anonymous FTP use accordingly. Yes you could chat and play MUDs, but you could also hack so many different things. And admins were often relatively cool as long as you didn’t use their machines as staging points to hack more things. If you got your hands on an outdial modem or x.25 gateway, you were sitting pretty sweet (until someone examined the bill and kicked you out). It really helped to be conversant in not just Unix, but also VMS, IBM VM/CMS, and maybe even Primenet. When Phrack came out, you immediately read it and removed it from your mail spool, not just because it was enormous, but because admins would see it and label you a troublemaker.

We knew what the future was, but it was largely a secret. We learned Unix from library books and honed skills on hacked accounts, without any ethical issue because we honestly felt we were preparing ourselves and others for a future where this kind of thing should be available to everyone.

We just didn’t foresee it being wirelessly available at McDonalds, for free. That part still surprises me.

I’ve already detailed my early computing history (up to 2009) for a project that asked for my input. I’ll not rehash it here, but the summary is that I got my first PC when I was 15 for Christmas 1995, and (because my parents wouldn’t let me) secretly started going online soon after.

My memory of this from an information-sharing point of view was that you had to be very careful about what you read. Because the web was smaller, and it was only the people who were really interested in getting their stuff out there who had websites, there was a lot of crazy conspiracy theories. I’m kind of glad that I went on as a reasonably-mature teenager rather than a tween.

Although I’ve very happy to be able to make my living primarily online, I suppose I feel a bit like this commenter:

This will probably come across as Get Of My Lawn type of comment.
What I remember most about internet pre Facebook in particular and maybe Pre-smart phones. It was mostly a place for geeks. Geeks wrote blogs or had personal websites. Non geek stuff was more limited. It felt like a place where the geeks that were semi socially outcast kind of ran the place.

Today the internet feels like the real world where the popular people in the real world are the most popular people online. Where all the things that I felt like I escaped from on the net before I can no longer avoid.

I’m not saying that’s bad. I think it’s awesome that my non tech friends and family can connect and or share their lives and thoughts easily where as before there was a barrier to entry. I’m only pointing out that, at least for me, it changed. It was a place I liked or felt connected to or something, maybe like I was “in the know” or I can’t put my finger on it. To now where I have no such feelings.

Maybe it’s the same feeling as liking something before it’s popular and it loses that feeling of specialness once everyone else is into it. (which is probably a bad feeling to begin with)

Another commenter pointed to a short blog post he wrote on the subject, where he talks about how things were better when everyone was anonymous:

When it was anonymous, your name wasn’t attached to everything you did online. Everyone went by a handle. This means you could start a Geocities site and carve out your own niche space online, people could befriend and follow you who normally wouldn’t, and even the strangest of us found a home. All sorts of whacky, impossible things were possible because we weren’t bound by societal norms that plague our daily existence.

I get that, but I think that things that make sense and are sustainable for the few, aren’t necessarily so for the many. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia and telling stories about how things used to be, but as someone who used to teach the American West, there is (for better or worse) a parallel there with the evolution of the web.

The closest place to how the web was that I currently experience is Mastodon. It’s fully of geeks, marginalised groups, and weird/wacky ideas. You’d love it.

Source: Hacker News


Old web screenshot compilation image via Vice

Hong Kong shutter art

After never having visited Barcelona before November 2017, in the subsequent 12 months following, I went there five times. One of the things that struck me was the art in the city; some municipal, some architectural, and some more vernacular (i.e. graffiti-based).

When I was in Denver a few months ago, Noah Geisel was kind enough to give me a walking tour of some of the (partly commissioned) street art there. It was incredible.

I’ve never been to Hong Kong, and am unlike to go there any time soon, but this Twitter thread of Hong Kong shutter art makes me want to!

Source: Hong Kong Hermit

"The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how to behave when we don’t know what to do."

(John Holt)

Hierarchies and large organisations

This 2008 post by Paul Graham, re-shared on Hacker News last week, struck a chord:

What’s so unnatural about working for a big company? The root of the problem is that humans weren’t meant to work in such large groups.

Another thing you notice when you see animals in the wild is that each species thrives in groups of a certain size. A herd of impalas might have 100 adults; baboons maybe 20; lions rarely 10. Humans also seem designed to work in groups, and what I’ve read about hunter-gatherers accords with research on organizations and my own experience to suggest roughly what the ideal size is: groups of 8 work well; by 20 they’re getting hard to manage; and a group of 50 is really unwieldy.

I really enjoyed working at the Mozilla Foundation when it was around 25 people. By the time it got to 60? Not so much. It’s potentially different with every organisation, though, and how teams are set up.

Graham goes on to talk about how, in large organisations, people are split into teams and put into a hierarchy. That means that groups of people are represented at a higher level by their boss:

A group of 10 people within a large organization is a kind of fake tribe. The number of people you interact with is about right. But something is missing: individual initiative. Tribes of hunter-gatherers have much more freedom. The leaders have a little more power than other members of the tribe, but they don’t generally tell them what to do and when the way a boss can.

[…]

[W]orking in a group of 10 people within a large organization feels both right and wrong at the same time. On the surface it feels like the kind of group you’re meant to work in, but something major is missing. A job at a big company is like high fructose corn syrup: it has some of the qualities of things you’re meant to like, but is disastrously lacking in others.

These words may come back to haunt me, but I have no desire to work in a huge organisation. I’ve seen what it does to people — and Graham seems to agree:

The people who come to us from big companies often seem kind of conservative. It’s hard to say how much is because big companies made them that way, and how much is the natural conservatism that made them work for the big companies in the first place. But certainly a large part of it is learned. I know because I’ve seen it burn off.

Perhaps there’s a happy medium? A four-day workweek gives scope to either work on a ‘side hustle’, volunteer, or do something that makes you happier. Maybe that’s the way forward.

Source: Paul Graham

Exit option democracy

This week saw the launch of a new book by Shoshana Zuboff entitled The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. It was featured in two of my favourite newspapers, The Observer and the The New York Times, and is the kind of book I would have lapped up this time last year.

In 2019, though, I’m being a bit more pragmatic, taking heed of Stoic advice to focus on the things that you can change. Chiefly, that’s your own perceptions about the world. I can’t change the fact that, despite the Snowden revelations and everything that has come afterwards, most people don’t care one bit that they’re trading privacy for convenience..

That puts those who care about privacy in a bit of a predicament. You can use the most privacy-respecting email service in the world, but as soon as you communicate with someone using Gmail, then Google has got the entire conversation. Chances are, the organisation you work for has ‘gone Google’ too.

Then there’s Facebook shadow profiles. You don’t even have to have an account on that platform for the company behind it to know all about you. Same goes with companies knowing who’s in your friendship group if your friends upload their contacts to WhatsApp. It makes no difference if you use ridiculous third-party gadgets or not.

In short, if you want to live in modern society, your privacy depends on your family and friends. Of course you have the option to choose not to participate in certain platforms (I don’t use Facebook products) but that comes at a significant cost. It’s the digital equivalent of Thoreau taking himself off to Walden pond.

In a post from last month that I stumbled across this weekend, Nate Matias reflects on a talk he attended by Janet Vertesi at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Vertesi, says Matias, tried four different ways of opting out of technology companies gathering data on her:

  • Platform avoidance,
  • Infrastructural avoidance
  • Hardware experiments
  • Digital homesteading

Interestingly, the starting point is Vertesi’s rejection of ‘exit option democracy’:

The basic assumption of markets is that people have choices. This idea that “you can just vote with your feet” is called an “exit option democracy” in organizational sociology (Weeks, 2004). Opt-out democracy is not really much of a democracy, says Janet. She should know–she’s been opting out of tech products for years.

The option Vertesi advocates for going Google-free is a pain in the backside. I know, because I’ve tried it:

To prevent Google from accessing her data, Janet practices “data balkanization,” spreading her traces across multiple systems. She’s used DuckDuckGo, sandstorm.io, ResilioSync, and youtube-dl to access key services. She’s used other services occasionally and non-exclusively, and varied it with open source alternatives like etherpad and open street map. It’s also important to pay attention to who is talking to whom and sharing data with whom. Data balkanization relies on knowing what companies hate each other and who’s about to get in bed with whom.

The time I’ve spent doing these things was time I was not being productive, nor was it time I was spending with my wife and kids. It’s easy to roll your eyes at people “trading privacy for convenience” but it all adds up.

Talking of family, straying too far from societal norms has, for better or worse, negative consequences. Just as Linux users were targeted for surveillance, so Vertisi and her husband were suspected of fraud for browsing the web using Tor and using cash for transactions:

Trying to de-link your identity from data storage has consequences. For example, when Janet and her husband tried to use cash for their purchases, they faced risks of being reported to the authorities for fraud, even though their actions were legal.

And then, of course, there’s the tinfoil hat options:

…Janet used parts from electronics kits to make her own 2g phone. After making the phone Janet quickly realized even a privacy-protecting phone can’t connect to the network without identifying the user to companies through the network itself.

I’m rolling my eyes at this point. The farthest I’ve gone down this route is use the now-defunct Firefox OS and LineageOS for microG. Although both had their upsides, they were too annoying to use for extended periods of time.

Finally, Vertesi goes down the route of trying to own all your own data. I’ll just point out that there’s a reason those of us who had huge CD and MP3 collections switched to Spotify. Looking after any collection takes time and effort. It’s also a lot more cost effective for someone like me to ‘rent’ my music instead of own it. The same goes for Netflix.

What I do accept, though, is that Vertesi’s findings show that ‘exit democracy’ isn’t really an option here, so the world of technology isn’t really democratic. My takeaway from all this, and the reason for my pragmatic approach this year, is that it’s up to governments to do something about all this.

Western society teaches us that empowered individuals can change the world. But if you take a closer look, whether it’s surveillance capitalism or climate change, it’s legislation that’s going to make the biggest difference here. Just look at the shift that took place because of GDPR.

So whether or not I read Zuboff’s new book, I’m going to continue my pragmatic approach this year. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to mute the microphone on the smart speakers in our house when they’re not being used, block trackers on my Android smartphone, and continue my monthly donations to work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Rights Group.

Source: J. Nathan Matias

Drink Talk Learn

I’ve been to many a TeachMeet, some where alcohol has been involved. But this sounds even more fun:

Drink Talk Learn rules

Source: BuzzFeed (via Ian Usher)

 

Implicit leverage

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution asks how well we understand the organisations we work with and for:

Most (not all) organizations have forms of leverage which are built in and which do not show up as debt on the balance sheet.  Banks may have off-balance sheet risk through derivatives, companies may sell off their valuable assets, and NBA teams may tank their ability to keep draft picks and free agents in their future.

In other words, every organisation has people, other organisations, or resources on which it is dependent. That can look like event organisers not alienating a sponsor, universities maintaining their brand overseas so they can continue to recruit lucrative overseas students, and organisations doing well because of a handful of individuals that win investors’ trust.

When it comes to politics, of course, ‘leverage’ is almost always something problematic. In fact, we usually use the phrase ‘in the pocket of’ instead to show our opprobrium when a politician has close financial ties to, say, a tobacco company or big business.

In other words, understanding how leverage works in everyday life, business, and politics is probably something we should be teaching in schools.

Source: Marginal Revolution


Image by Mike Cohen used under a Creative Commons License

Blockchain is about trust minimisation

I’ve always laughed when people talk about ‘trust’ and blockchain. Sometimes I honestly question whether blockchain boosters live in the same world as I do; the ‘trust’ they keep on talking about is a feature of life as it currently is, not in a crypto-utopia.

Albert Wenger takes this up in an excellent recent post:

One way to tell that trust was involved in a relationship is when we discover that the person (or company, or technology) acted in a way that harmed us and benefited them. At that point we feel betrayed. This provides a useful distinction between the concepts of trust and reliance. We rely on a clock to tell time. When the clock breaks we will feel disappointed. But when we buy a clock from someone who tells us it is a working clock, we trust them and when it doesn’t work, we feel betrayed (thanks to philosopher Annette Baier for this distinction).

As I keep saying, blockchain is a really boring technology. It’s super-useful for backend systems, but that’s pretty much it. All of the glamour and excitement has come from speculators trying to inflate a bubble, as has happened many times before.

Now some people have been saying that crypto is exciting because it has “trust built in.” I, however, prefer a different formulation, which is that crypto systems are “trust minimized.”

Exactly. What blockchain is useful for is when you have reason to mistrust the person you’re dealing with. Instead of a complex network of trust based on blood ties, friendships, and alliances, we can now perform operations and transactions in a ‘trust minimised’ way.

We live in a world where large corporations (especially ones with scale or network effects) have often abused trust due to a misalignment of incentives driven by short-term oriented capital markets. There are different ways of tackling this problem, including new regulation, innovative forms of ownership and trust minimized crypto systems.

So let’s see blockchain for what it is: a breakthrough for international trading and compliance checking. I’m happy it exists but still, several years later, find it difficult to get too excited about. And I’ll bet you all of your now-worthless Bitcoin that governments around the world will ensure that crypto-utopias turn into crypto-distopias.

Source: Continuations

Forging better habits

I’m very much looking forward to reading James Clear’s new book Atomic Habits. On his (very popular) blog, Clear shares a chapter in which he talks about the importance of using a ‘habit tracker’.

In that chapter, he states:

Habit formation is a long race. It often takes time for the desired results to appear. And while you are waiting for the long-term rewards of your efforts to accumulate, you need a reason to stick with it in the short-term. You need some immediate feedback that shows you are on the right path.

At the start of the year I started re-using a very simple app called Loop Habit Tracker. It’s Android-only and available via F-Droid and Google Play, and I’m sure there’s similar apps for iOS.

You can see a screenshot of what I’m tracking at the top of this post. You simply enter what you want to track, how often you want to do it, and tick off when you’ve achieved it. Not only can the app prompt you, should you wish, but you can also check out your ‘streak’.

Clear lists three ways that a habit tracker can help:

  1. It reminds you to act
  2. It motivates you to continue
  3. It provides immediate satisfaction

I find using a habit tracker a particularly effective way of upping my game. I’m realistic: I’ve given myself a day off every week on top of two sessions each of running, swimming, and going to the gym.

If you’re struggling to make a new habit ‘stick’, I agree with Clear that doing something like this for six weeks is a particularly effective way to kickstart your new regime!

Source: James Clear