Bob McMillan writes:
We already know that if you use an online social network, you give up a serious slice of your privacy thanks to the omnivorous way companies like Google and Facebook gather your personal data. But new academic research offers a glimpse of what these companies may be learning about people who don’t use their massive web services. And it’s a bit scary.
Because they couldn’t get their hands on data from the likes of Facebook or LinkedIn, the researchers studied publicly available data archived from an older social network, Friendster. They found that if Friendster had used certain state-of-the-art prediction algorithms, it could have divined sensitive information about non-members, including their sexual orientation. “At the time, it was possible for Friendster to predict the sexual orientation of people who did not have an account on Friendster,” says David Garcia, a postdoctoral researcher with Switzerland’s ETH Zurich university, who co-authored the study.
This can be done through what are called “shadow profiles.” For example, if five of your friends invite you to join a new site called NeoSocial Company by punching your email address into a form on the site, the company could create a social graph based simply on your email address and who invited you, even if you don’t sign up for the service. They could even start to make some inferences about you based on what they know about your friends. Many sites also encourage you to upload your address book when you sign-up, so that i can help you connect with people you know who may already be using the service, or even to alert you if they sign-up later. If you do this, you could be helping these companies build shadow profiles of your contacts.
As Bob notes, an audit by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner confirmed that Facebook doesn’t keep shadow profiles. But the technical capability is always there, and we have no real idea what sites that haven’t been audited are doing. What’s more, law enforcement can build social network graphs based on seized address books and cell phones, or even metadata demanded from telephone companies.
So even if you don’t have a cell phone, if a friend called your landline, then traveled to your house, then to another location, and then back to your house, someone with access to that information could make an educated guess that you went with that friend to that particular location.
Three years ago Zappos founder Tony Hsieh launched a ambitious project to transformer downtown Las Vegas into a tech startup hub. It hasn’t exactly as planned. Nellie Bowles reports on a series of suicides by people involved in the project, and how the cult of positivity in the tech community may have contributed:
Hsieh seemed to work hard to keep each suicide quiet. Entrepreneurs told me there were few community resources made available, no large-scale gatherings, no cathartic outpouring, and that they felt confused about what was happening and why it was never addressed. Many in the Downtown Project, including a crisis counselor who worked with the parents of one entrepreneur, pointed to Hsieh’s philosophy — his obsession with happiness, and with imposing it upon the community — as one of the problems.
“Suicides happen anywhere. Look at the stats,” Hsieh said, sounding agitated, when I asked him about it one evening on folding chairs in the Learning Village, where speakers regularly come to lead sessions. “It’s harder for people who are really good students in school. Then they move in to this, where there is no instruction manual, and you have to be MacGyver on your own.”
My question appeared to make him uncomfortable. He scooted two seats away.
Full Story: Re/code:
I’ve linked to stuff about the downsides of positive thinking often. Here are some highlights:
A few weeks ago I decided to try out working from a standing desk. I gave up this week.
Surprisingly, the issue wasn’t my legs getting tired or back getting sore. The problem is that I couldn’t find a way to type while standing up that didn’t make my wrists hurt almost immediately upon beginning to type. I tried adjusting the height of the keyboard again and again, but never found a level that seemed to work. I don’t really think it was the keyboard height anyway. I mean, I work at various sub-optimal heights all the time and it doesn’t make me immediately sore.
This week I wrote a short thing about the Amiga and how it was never was able to capture the bohemian demographic from Apple.
I’ve never used an Amiga. But it really seemed to be something special that the technology industry hasn’t seen since. I really wonder what could have been if Commodore hadn’t mismanaged it into the ground.
John Herrman wraps up what’s wrong with online journalism today in a nice tight package that actually doubles as exactly what it critiques (in a good way). Hats off.
And speaking of journalism: Amy Westervelt writes about her experience in the “content” industry — ie, being a ghost writer for all those “thought leaders” on sites like Forbes.com, and why journalists shouldn’t take those gigs. I have to admit that my first thought was “Oh, thank god all those CEOs aren’t writing their own posts,” because that meant that at least writers are getting paid for that crap somehow. And who knows, if my career goes south I might have to resort to writing that stuff too. But seriously, these gigs suck.
And, finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about Tim Maly’s piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Making,” and so should you.
I’ve been on a big post-punk kick recently, so I rewatched Control and 24 Hour Party People this week. I’d say both are still worth watching, though as always these sorts films need to be taken with a grain of salt.
I really need to read Rip It Up and Start Again.
Watching 24 Hour Party People made me want to listen to the Happy Mondays, who I’d never really listened to before, and listening to them made me want to listen to Pop Will Eat Itself, who I’d listened to a lot. Plus Ministry, Cabaret Voltaire and a bunch of other stuff.
Up is down and down is up. That’s the default “natural” setting on my new MacBook Pro’s trackpad. As a long-time Windows and Linux user, I find that this perfectly sums up the entirety of the Apple experience for me thus far.
See below for my Apple and Linux rants for more on my current experience of tech-hell. But first, a run down of why Twitter has started to suck for many people.
I’ve got a ton of stuff in Pocket for reading, perhaps over the weekend, but I don’t have much for you today. But I did really enjoy’s Alan Jacob’s sequence of posts on the state of Twitter, which hits many of my own issues with the Twitter right now, and a few others besides:
I’m not so famous or female that I get inundated with harassment on my timeline, but I do find myself yearning for more granularity in terms of what I see and share.
Many of my friends are nostalgic for Live Journal, which did indeed do a good job of providing that granularity. But I’d hazard a guess that most of us have far more connections on Twitter and Facebook today than we did on LiveJournal in, say, 2005. That makes trying to deal with grouping friends a much more daunting task, especially if you’re starting with a big list of basically everyone you know and need to figure out which groups to put each person in.
Today Google Plus and Facebook offer similar features for publishing posts visible only to only pre-defined groups of people, but I don’t know how widely used they are. And the hassle of trying to categorize a couple-few hundred people into neat groups is a big part of what keeps me from bothering with those features.
Still, if we were able to share stuff on Twitter based on Lists (remember those?), maybe that would be something. Though I’m not sure I’d be willing to spend the time to make a bunch of new lists — I pretty much gave up on that idea back in 2010 or 2011 when Twitter hid that functionality and us worry that it would go away entirely.
Which is another part of the problem: we have no idea which new Facebook or Twitter features will stick around more than a couple months. Why spend time getting used to something when some A/B tester might say “hey, this feature isn’t getting enough traction, let’s hide it to stream line the interface and move those engineering resources elsewhere”?
The indie web can potentially help solve the disappearing feature problem (though most of us will still be at the mercy of what the developers of the software we depend on decide to do). But it could also make granularity more difficult, at least without some widely adopted decentralized authentication system.
(Or we could all just start multiple different e-mail newsletters…)
On brighter note: season 8 of The Trailer Park Boys just hit Netflix!
On a darker note, in a good way: Earth’s new album Primitive and Deadly is out!
This blog post by Alex Payne explains some of the reasons I ended up buying a Mac instead of another PC laptop, though he writes from the perspective of an ardent Windows hater, which I’m not, and from the perspective of someone switching away from the Apple ecosystem, and not to it.
The other thing is that, if you look at the actual specs on offer, Macs aren’t that much more expensive than PCs any more. The last laptop I bought, an ASUS UL, was about half the price of an equivalently spec’d Macbook. But finding an ultraportable (under four pounds and less than 14″s) with a Haswell processor, eight gigs of RAM and a solid state hard drive cheaper than a refurbished Mac proved difficult. In many cases, the equivalently spec’d machines from Acer, ASUS and Lenovo were more expensive. Most companies are now building what amount to Mac knock-offs that are just as un-upgradable as the MBP, but have shittier hardware that actually costs more. And just buying something with lower specs and upgrading isn’t much of an option either, since so many of this Apple knockoffs solder RAM and make hard drives inaccessible.
Lenovo’s ThinkPad line remains one of the few exceptions, but most of its machines way cost more than their Mac equivalents, and the amount of maintenance you can do yourself is steadily shrinking. Plus you have to deal with Lenovo’s customer support.
So I bit the bullet and bought a Mac, but I’m already thinking of sending it back while I still can.
But there are other things. For one, I hate the built in keyboard. The keys feel sludgy, sticky. The battery gets scalding hot.
And although the MBP itself was cheaper than a ThinkPad, there are tons of hidden costs. My external monitor won’t work with it, even after I went through this Linux-esque process to try to make it work. The only monitor officially supported is, apparently, its own $1,000 Thunderbold monitor, which, if I’m not mistaken, will only work with Macs. Plus I need a new external keyboard since Macs have their own layout.
Then there’s all the proprietary software I have to buy to either make things work properly (like Witch and Hyperdock), or to replace things that don’t work on Macs (Zim, which only kind of sort of works, and MyLifeOrganized, which works in Wine on Linux but which I’ve not been able to get working on OS X). That means shelling out ~ $40 each for Ulysses and Omnifocus.
So I’m looking at about $1,200 worth of extra stuff to get this $1,200 laptop up to snuff, which I can’t afford right now. That makes a $1,500 or $1,600 ThinkPad look not so bad.*
But the switching cost is one I feel like I’m going to have to make eventually anyway, because Windows is starting to feel a lot like BlackBerry back in 2010. Microsoft is still a big, rich company with millions of users, but the writing is on the wall in terms of developer support. And Linux is no better off.
*I’m also a bit confused about how PCs got so expensive. The ASUS was about $600. It was just under four pounds, had nine hour battery life and was just a little behind the bleeding edge of its time. Today’s “budget” laptops are either heavy or majorly lacking in specs or both.
I originally wrote this a comment on this article about why Linux desktop development has been slow going. But when Wired did a big upgrade and reorganization a few months ago, all the old comments got deleted:
I wrote the article in question, but I’m writing here as a computer user, not as a Wired writer.
I’m not a Mac or iOS user. I spend most of my time in Windows 7 these days, even though I still have a Linux partition (Peppermint right now, but I plan to swap this out for Ubuntu Studio).
The whole Linux/Ubuntu usability thing always comes down to personal opinion and anecdote. In my opinion, the Linux distros, particularly the various flavors of Ubuntu, are quite usable. Getting it working on laptops can still be a pain, but this can be mitigated by buying a laptop that comes with Linux pre-installed.
I’ve found that when I get someone to try Linux they can indeed do all the basics with no trouble. But that’s the problem — the basics are easy enough anywhere. There’s no incentive for someone who just uses their computer to for webmail and Facebook to go through the trouble of switching operating systems or buy a new computer from a Linux specialist. Better security and the open source ideology just don’t seem to be enough to convince people to make the switch. I don’t think I’ve gotten a single person to switch from Windows to Linux.
On the other hand since the mid 00s I’ve seen lots of people switch from Windows or Linux to OS X. Apple products have a je ne sais quoi that gets people to pay the premium. Linux just doesn’t seem to have that.
Meanwhile, when you get beyond the basics, Linux poses a lot of challenges. I went from using Ubuntu exclusively to using Windows sometimes because I needed a better video editor than was available for Linux a few years ago. Eventually I started booting into Linux less and less.
There are some great multimedia applications for Linux, including GIMP, Inkscape and VLC. There are also some really promising apps like Ardour and LMMS. But for professionals in design, video and audio Linux just doesn’t cut it yet, and most of the really good stuff is also available for Macs and/or Windows (Din, a soft synthesizer, is one interesting exception).
Gaming has often been a non-starter on Linux as well, though that’s steadily been getting better.
Then there are what I guess you could call power user apps. Stuff like Evernote, Skitch, Notational Velocity, TweetDeck, OmniFocus and Quicksilver that are available for Macs and/or Windows but not Linux. There are clones and substitutes, but nothing seems to measure up to the originals. I know there was an update to Skype recently, but the Linux version has long been a red headed step child.
Oh, and last I heard Netflix Streaming doesn’t work on Linux yet.
So while I’ve found the underlying guts of the OS/distro to be good, the lack of application support has long been lacking. The perfect clone or substitute has perpetually been just around the corner. This is the sort of stuff that keeps me in Windows all day. On Linux I’m constantly having to choose between buggy abandonware that happens to be open source, or dealing with running stuff in WINE. If it were just a matter running one or two apps in WINE, or of just booting into Windows when I had some audio mangling to do, that’d be one thing. But it just seems easier to swallow my geek pride and use Windows.
So why aren’t more apps available for Linux? I didn’t mention it in the article, but the financial incentives are far better for developers on Windows, OSX, the web, Android and iOS. For most Linux desktop developers it’s a labor of love.
There’s the chicken and the egg thing — there’s not enough users to justify developing for, but if there were more apps then there’d be more users. But if developers have been defecting to OS X and the web, then there’s not much hope of that.
I wish it weren’t true, but I’ve been slowly accepting this over the past year. I hope I’m wrong.
[I actually do think the situation has gotten better since I wrote that. I discovered Zim, which helped, and even though I don’t use it, Wunderlist supports Linux, which is nice.]
New from me at Wired:
Google launched its Quantum A.I. Lab last year to test a machine called the D-Wave Two, an intriguing but controversial system that its makers bill as a quantum computer, and it believes quantum computing could play a key role in so many of its future ambitions, from self-driving cars and other robots to better predictive analytics systems for products like Google Now to things we haven’t even dreamed up yet. Thanks to what’s called the superposition principle of quantum mechanics, it could process data for such projects at speeds that are exponentially faster than what you get from today’s machines.
But the scientific community has greeted the D-Wave machine with skepticism, questioning whether the machine is actually a quantum computer at all, and whether it can actually provide something you can’t get from conventional machines. In joining Google, Martinis lends new weight to the company’s quantum ambitions.
My latest for Wired:
The web forum 4chan is known mostly as a place to share juvenile and, to put it mildly, politically incorrect images. But it’s also the birthplace of one of the latest attempts to subvert the NSA’s mass surveillance program.
When whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that full extent of the NSA’s activities last year, members of the site’s tech forum started talking about the need for a more secure alternative to Skype. Soon, they’d opened a chat room to discuss the project and created an account on the code hosting and collaboration site GitHub and began uploading code.
My latest for Wired:
To guard the safety and health of tenants, New York and many other cities require landlords to keep inside temperatures above a certain level from October until May. But not all building owners and managers follow the rules. Each year, heating complaints are either the number one or number two most frequent complaint to New York’s government services and information line, 3-1-1, says Tom Hunter, the spokesperson for a volunteer effort called Heat Seek NYC, citing data from the site NYC OpenData.
“Last year alone, 3-1-1 received 200,000 plus heating complaint calls,” he says. “Many more tenants go without heat and don’t call 3-1-1, so we don’t know exactly how many people are directly affected each year.”
Tenants can sue landlords over this, but historically, they’ve had to rely on their own hand written records of how cold their apartments get. And these records haven’t always held up in court. Heat Seek NYC hopes solve that problem by building internet-connected heat sensors to monitor the conditions of apartment buildings in order to provide a reliable, objective record that tenants and advocacy groups can use in court.
My latest for Wired:
Levels is on a quest to launch 12 “startups” in just 12 months, and he’s a third of the way home now. One, called Play My Inbox, gathers all the music it finds in your e-mail inbox into a single playlist. Another, called Go Fucking Do It, gives you a new way to set personal goals. Basically, if you don’t reach your goal, you have to cough up some cash to Levels. Gifbook, due to launch by the end of the month, is his fifth creation.
Launching one product a month would be a major endeavor for anyone, but Levels has ramped up the degree of difficulty. For one, he’s building all this stuff while traveling the world. He has no fixed address. Instead, he lives out of a single backpack and works from coffee shops and co-working spaces. And two, each of these “startups” is a one-man operation. “I do everything,” he tells WIRED from his current home, The Philippines. “I’m sort of a control freak.”
Depending on who you ask, Levels represents either everything that’s right about the state of the technology industry or everything that’s wrong. He’s self-motivated, ambitious, and resourceful, building each of these projects without any outside investment. But on the flip side, he’s yet another young white male making products that solve what many people see as trivial problems for an already privileged subset of the population, while ignoring larger issues like global warming and wealth disparity.
Worse, as a “digital nomad” who has left to West to create new tech gizmos in places like Thailand and Indonesia, some argue that he’s exploiting wealth disparity to his own benefit. But Levels no fool. He’s deeply aware of the contradictions in his work, and he’s trying hard to sort through them. He may or may not succeed.
What I intended — and I’m not sure I succeeded — was to do a meditation/case study on the state of the tech startup ecosystem. We had to cut a lot of material from this article, and there was more that didn’t make it in, but one of the things on my minds was David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” idea. From an interview in Salon:
Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded.
But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, “well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work” – by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite—that they didn’t get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. But it’s becoming something of a trend. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it. He gave the example of translation work. But it extends to the logic of internships and the like so thoroughly exposed by authors like Sarah Kendzior and Astra Taylor. At the same time, these companies are willing to shell out huge amounts of money to paper-pushers coming up with strategic vision statements who they know perfectly well are doing absolutely nothing.
So as much as we bash on techbros* wasting time building silly apps, there’s a bit more going on here. It’s hard to find a job today, especially if you’re young, and especially one that is “meaningful.” Tech just happens to be one of the few booming industries at the moment, and one of the only ones paying living wage**. So while many people might rather be curing maleria or fighting poverty or fixing global warming, building apps for Silicon Valley startups. And what’s their real alternative? Work for a big company like IBM, or go work for the NSA? They’re probably better off working for Yo or Rap Genius or whatever.
“Get rich writing apps” may be the new “make money from home selling Tupperware,” but it’s the best many people can hope for today, and blaming young programmers, as opposed to the politicians and capitalists who got us into this mess.
*Note that I’m not calling Pieter Levels a techbro here.
**Which is part of why it’s important to change tech culture to make it more inclusive, which is another topic entirely. (One covered very well at Model View Culture).
New from me at Wired, meet revisit.link, the “Hello World” of web services:
Basically, all the site’s image effects are stored by a community of developers, much like any other open source software. Anyone can not only use these effects, but build their own and share them with the community by way of the code hosting and collaboration site GitHub. “Since everyone likes glitch art and animated GIFs, it’s a creative outlet for developers to create something new that’s outside their usual field,” say Jen Fong-Adwent, the creator of revisit.link. “But it’s also a way for new people to learn basics.”
If you’re building a modern web service, you aren’t just creating a program that will run on one machine. You have to learn how to deploy code to online servers, and teach your programs to talk with other applications. revisit.link is a good way to learn these skills, since the effects servers are simple and lightweight and can be written in any language. And once a server is built, the developer can learn how to use GitHub and how to make small changes to someone else’s code and submit those changes for review—all in a low-pressure environment with a very low barrier to entry.
See also: glitchgifs Tumblr
My latest for Wired:
Instead of using pure mathematics to prevent things like the same person spending the same money twice, Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order. And each unit of currency created using Document Coin could have different values in different situations. If you use a coin in one place, it might be worth more then if you use it in another. The goal, Anderson says, is to get people to completely rethink the entire idea of money. […]
Unlike with bitcoin—which keeps its currency scarce by rewarding it only to those who participate in what amounts to a race to solve complex cryptographic puzzles—anyone will be able to create a new Document Coin anytime they want. The value of each coin will be completely subjective, depending on who creates the coin and why. “For example, the coin my disco singer friend created and gave me at my barbeque might be what gets me past the rope at the club,” Anderson says. A coin minted by tech pundit Tim O’Reilly might be highly prized in Silicon Valley circles, but of little interest to musicians. “It’s a bit like a combination of a social network with baseball trading.”
Ultimately, he hopes to get developers thinking about the social implications of crypto-currencies, and to get people to question the idea that everything needs to have a set, numeric value. “If bitcoin is the toy version of what we’ll all be using the future, then I want to build the crazy art project version of the future,” he says. Document Coin’s usefulness as a real currency is limited, but Anderson does hope people will eventually want to use it. “If you build something, you don’t want to be disappointed if it succeeds,” he says. “You need to build things that you would be happy to see take off.”
Previously: My interview with Anderson about CouchDB