On monopolies

Winners in the tech industry turn into giants via vertical integration and predatory pricing. They keep adding stuff related to the segment they first won in. They keep making stuff cheap or free to undercut competitors.

There are many examples of this and we have two big examples in the US of anti-trust regulators stepping in and hobbling the giant: IBM in the 60s/70s and Microsoft in the 90s/00s. In both cases the government forced the giant to change its behavior and the industry eventually experienced a new wave of small firms that filled the void, competed, and innovated.

Notably in both cases the giant also got off relatively easy in the end (no breakup). And both are successful companies to this day. But they were tied up in court long enough to lose their ability to squelch competitors and dominate new markets.

Now you could argue this was not fair to IBM or to Microsoft (in the future, to Google?). In both cases you’d be right. I’d argue you don’t have to be fair to the winner especially once he starts playing dirty tricks to keep others down. You be fair to the little guys and you get tough on the big guys, that’s the foundation for both a healthy market and a healthy society.

You could also argue that making things free is good for consumers. You’d be right again, except in the case where the freebies are designed to kill off competition and stagnate the product category (Internet Explorer being a classic case where Microsoft bundled it, gave it away for free, then stopped improving it for years).

We have 50 years of precedents and the people at the DOJ know their history. I suspect it’s just a matter of political winds and timing before Alphabet has to follow in IBM and Microsoft’s footsteps.

Social discussion vs social soundbiting

The centralization of social media is a problem, but I think maybe we’re dealing with an even deeper problem. I joined Mastodon, the potential is clear, and there is already an early adopter audience sharing content I find more interesting than Twitter/FB.

But it only took me a few days to realize that I wasn’t thrilled with Mastodon’s content either, and I realized why: it’s all still short-form.

The best and most enlightening discussions I’ve had are usually slow, drawn-out exchanges of a few hundreds of words per message.

And the Internet has had a thing for this very early on, it’s mailing lists. Well-curated mailing lists and newsgroups (almost the same thing) were long a mainstay of the Internet’s best communities. Unfortunately they are not webby and they have declined in popularity over time.

I think there is another reason the discourse is all short-form these days. Short-form is easier on a phone. No one writes a couple hundred words of their best thoughts from their phone. Almost universally if you look at the content we post from our phones, most of it is lightweight, low intellectual value, not a product of critical thinking. It is either a straight up bad idea (Elon Musk style career-ending pedo and stock tweets) or it is low value stuff (share a news article, food photo #120,315,838,284,942).

It’s very bad for our public discourse to be so heavily influenced by throwaway content.

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message. Maybe we are all producing crap because we spend so much time on devices that are crappy at authoring. (On the other hand, radio, a medium where you can’t reply at all, produced Hitler — by moving to a medium where you can make shitty replies, have we moved forward or backward?)

I don’t know of many social media platforms which promote thought-provoking discourse (and I’m not really talking about 3,000 word Medium-style longreads which no one can possibly respond to in full). I always go back to Hacker News as my favorite one and I think they are successful in large part due to having a narrow focus and strict, pro-intellectual moderation.

The history of web self-publishing from a certain angle.

About 20 years ago something new arose on the Web, it was called web logging, or ‘blogging. People would write long and thoughtful articles about their interests.

And a few years later we got RSS, which was a way of syndicating the content of your blog. Other people could read it in whatever app they preferred.

And a few years after that, Google (back when they still had “do no evil” in their mission statement) invented Google Reader, which was an easy way to scoop up and read the content from your favorite blogs. The combination of using Google Reader to follow the RSS feeds of your favorite blogs created a complete and compelling ecosystem around high quality, independent publishing.

In the mid-2000s a few other publishing services came into being, and a few big winners emerged — notably Facebook and Twitter. These services were very different from the old blogging ecosystem. They were centrally controlled and their design encouraged people to spend many hours consuming bite-size, throwaway content because that was the best way to sell more ads. Google entered this category with Google+ in 2011, and shortly thereafter discontinued Reader. Reader could be seen as a competitor to G+ and it never made much money.

The old blogging and syndication scene never really recovered from the death of Reader, it is still used and appreciated by many today, but it’s Facebook, Twitter and (kind of) Google who shape the world zeitgeist. A zeitgeist in which we grapple with fake news, elections rigged by foreign powers, privacy relegated to a past age. Congressional hearings and EU regulations to keep these monsters at bay.

One wonders if the world itself might be a very different place today, had Google shown some vision and doubled down on something like Reader. Doubled down on promoting thoughtful, independent content instead of A/B optimizing for maximum engagement with advertising.

Maybe economics dictated that the world of today was inevitable, maybe not. But from Mastodon to Medium, most new publishing tools are seeking a cure for an industry that is quite clearly sick. One wonders.

What is the future of Mastodon?

TL;DR it will grow. Twitter/FB will remain the largest players but become increasingly censored and uninteresting; clusters of Mastodon instances which don’t federate with each other, as well as other services, will absorb the resulting exodus. 2023 is a future where social is fragmented.

If you look at the adoption pattern and growth rate of Mastodon, it has around 1.5M users, the majority of which have arrived via three big waves.

The first wave was people with left wing identities who were tired of being harassed on mainstream platforms like Twitter.

The second wave was Japanese lolicon enthusiasts (without diving too deep down this rabbit hole, lolicon is a popular but weird and nerdy thing to be into in Japan).

The third wave was sex workers in response to SESTA/FOSTA eliminating platforms they used in the past.

All these waves set up their own instances, and they don’t communicate much with the other waves.

If you look at what these waves all have in common (aside from using the software), there’s just one thing. They were all posting stuff that didn’t fit in on a mainstream platform. In the first case it was due to harassment, in the second it was embarrassment, in the third it was legality.

The users are already bifurcating the network, admins routinely share blocklists of sites that they don’t want included in their version of the fediverse. Being able to block instances and people you don’t like is one of Mastodon’s killer features.

I don’t think it will become the next outrage machine, people will just block and bifurcate. I do think users will keep setting up Mastodon instances in waves similar to the first three. I’d be surprised if Mastodon ever powered a better version of the commons we currently have on FB, Twitter etc. [1] The feature Mastodon added to federation (and that made it more popular than similar software) is the ability to not federate with people who are different from you.

[1] The “fediverse” at large has some potential to do this if it receives mass adoption. Think of a scenario like WordPress integrating federation features into the Core. This would bring federation to the mainstream.

What’s the difference between antifragility and resiliency?

The concept of antifragility is frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted, partly because Taleb contradicts himself when defining it and partly because most people haven’t actually read his book. Taleb defines resiliency as being suffering adversity and remaining the same. Antifragility builds upon resiliency; when an antifragile system suffers adversity it actually responds by improving itself.

The simplest path to resiliency is redundancy, for double the cost you can acquire two of everything and if the first one fails or runs out you have a replacement ready to go. This principle can be applied to many things. You can train two employees to do the same thing in case one quits. You can buy two rolls of toilet paper so you don’t have to run to the store with poopy pants. You can date two people at once in case one of them turns out to be a sociopath.

Antifragility manifests most commonly as a system of resilient competing entities. A free market is a generic example. If the price of oil spikes the guys who sell gas heaters ramp up production and can even benefit from economies of scale. Applying this concept on a personal level is tricky. Taleb cites an options contract as an application of antifragility. He uses the example of the philosopher Thales who optioned an olive press. In a year with a poor harvest he didn’t exercise the option and his sunk cost was low. In a year with a good harvest he exercised it and made a lot of money. No matter what happens in the world of olives, Thales wins.

Broadly speaking you can apply optionality in your personal life by not making assumptions about the future, and keeping your options open. Keep your fixed expenses low and save your money for investing when prices drop. Build skills that are transferable to other jobs/industries. Get a prenup before you get married. And so on. These opportunities are harder to spot and define than resiliency/redundancy. But I think Taleb would argue they’re the difference between survival and success.

Leaked Emails Show Google Expected Lucrative Military Drone AI Work to Grow Exponentially

https://theintercept.com/2018/05/31/google-leaked-emails-drone-ai-pentagon-lucrative/

I submit:

  • If you’re American, you should support Google developing technology for the US military.
  • If you’re human, you should support a foreign policy that only considers military action as a last resort.
  • If you’re human, you should support early, aggressive, global regulation of the military applications of AI and drones. We made this mistake with nuclear. We leveled Hiroshima, we leveled Nagasaki, we fueled decades of animosity between the Soviets and the West that still plagues the world today. We need to do better next time. The biggest abuser might be the US again but it could just as easily be China.
  • If you’re human, you should support regulation that forbids Google from using your personal for military applications without your express and informed consent.

Substitute Google for any other tech giant’s name.

Amazon follows Google and Apple and bans system-wide ad blockers on app store

Amazon, Google and Apple have all now banned ad blockers from their App Stores: https://adguard.com/en/blog/goodbye-amazon/
 
The Internet is filled with abusive advertisers who run ads that are loud, distracting and even loaded with malware that can damage your PC. Many users have turned to installing ad blockers which prevent these ads from displaying.
 
But Amazon, Google and Apple all get a cut of the revenue from these ads so they don’t want you to use an ad blocker. And when you use their software, your device is under their control.
 
Switch to Firefox, which is free software that anyone can modify. Install the AdBlock Plus or uBlock extension. It works just as well as Chrome or Safari. (Unfortunately on iOS, Apple has banned alternative web browsers, too!)
 
 
“Either the users control the program or the program controls the users” -Stallman

Deep Work vs. Collaborative Environments

The typical knowledge worker functions on some blend of the manager and maker schedules — sometimes they need to do deep work without interruptions, sometimes they need to look up from their desk and communicate to make sure their output is aligned with the company. A private space free of distractions facilitates the former but an open plan is actually pretty good for the latter.

The best solution (I’m surprised more companies have not implemented this) is to provide both environments and give the employee some guidance in terms of where they choose to work. Most knowledge workers will not benefit from the monastic strategy described in this article but almost all will benefit from a bimodal or rhythmic strategy.

If you already have an open plan office this is as easy as telling the employee he/she can work remotely a few days a week as long as they select a quiet space that’s free of distractions (so if they have kids running around at home during the day, maybe better to advise them to go to the library instead).

The manager should provide some guidance in terms of how much time the employee spends remotely vs. “on the floor” with everyone else. Graham’s maker vs. manager article is great on this topic, engineers often err a little too far in the direction of isolation, managers err too far in the direction of having everyone in the collaborative environment, the solution is a little dialogue.

With very light guidance and very little additional cost to the business you can improve both productivity and morale this way. Our team functions best very far down the deep work end of the spectrum — we have one day a week where everyone goes into the office or gets on calls and gets aligned. For the rest of the week communication is mostly async and work is mostly remote.

Bring on consensual browser-based Bitcoin mining

Salon now lets you choose between viewing ads or allowing them to mine Bitcoin with your spare CPU cycles.

I have no problem at all with websites using browser mining as an alternate monetization strategy to ads, as long as:

1) Permission is requested first

2) The UX is good (it stays out of my way and doesn’t slow down my device)

3) The mining finishes when I leave the site

Most of the problems with the modern web stem from the failure of browser vendors to implement a good user-centric permissions model. They all hold an unquestioned belief that more power in the platform is always better, and they’ve all spent the past 15 years kowtowing to developers, advertisers, and profit-motivated corporations instead of protecting their users from the above.

I want a simple, limited, fast, secure, document-centric platform which allows the site to request the execution of additional functions. Publishers unsurprisingly abuse the freedom they currently enjoy to throw up popovers on every page, secretly steal CPU cycles, load-on-demand videos that follow me as I scroll, and track every move I make online. I don’t want any of that to work by default.

A common, well-intentioned argument against my point of view in the last few years has been that the web platform needs to compete with native mobile apps. That argument carried a lot more weight when everyone was installing tons of native apps. But increasingly we’re at the point where we’re sick of native apps for all the same reasons we’re sick of the web — they too are bloated attention + data thieves.

We need a true user-first platform. I’ll pay for sites or apps on that platform, or I’ll let them use my CPU to mine crypto. I just want them to not suck.

Microsoft, Mozilla and Apple could all lead the way in shipping browsers that are pro-user. Mozilla’s got the heart for it, Microsoft and Apple have little to lose. Leaders at all these companies have failed to lead and demonstrate vision, relegating themselves to playing second fiddle to Google on the web because they think shitty popup ads will be the final word in web history.