Fixing Jetpack’s Stats module

 
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Despite the hate that Jetpack gets for being a bloatware plugin, it is one of my favorite and the first step whenever I setup a new WordPress install. However, Jetpack does have a few irritating habits that I cannot overlook. One of these is the stats module. The module actually does pretty well, posting data to the wordpress.com dashboard and making it easy for me to quickly glance at the number of visitors I’ve had for the day.

However, every so often the module craps out and logs a large number of visits from crawlers, bots and spiders as legitimate hits, since those are not in the official list of crawlers, bot and spiders to look out for. To fix this, I went out to look for the list and to add to it. One quick GitHub code search later, I found that the file class-jetpack-user-agent.php is responsible for hosting the list of non-humans to look out for. What I found inside was actually a pretty comprehensive list of software, but one that definitely needed extending. Continue reading

How the seasons came to be.

 
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There once was a King who had two great scientists in his court. He encouraged them to discover the laws of the world and loved hearing of their discoveries in court. One day, the scientists came to him and told him that they had calculated precisely, the time it takes for the Day and the Night to come and go from the Kingdom. They told him of twenty-four of what they called hours, split into minutes of sixty each and each of those of minutes went on to become sixty seconds.

The King was delighted! Long had he wanted to know how time went on, how the day turned into the night and when he could tell his people to come visit him. Now he had that means. He could tell his people when the court of the King would start and his spies that their visitation would have to be at a set time of the night.

But there was a problem. This was not a time of mechanics. The scientists told him what to count, but not how to count it. Never one to fear progress, the King ordered a dial made that showed on its face, twenty-four hours, each hour of sixty minutes, each minute of sixty seconds. This dial was run by a man, denoted the Dialmover and the time was told by a man standing on a tower above the dial, called the Timeteller. The Dialmover would move the dial, day and night, slowly moving along the face of the clock and turning seconds into minutes, and minutes into hours, and hours into days altogether. The King hired four twins to be the Dialmovers and the Timetellers and called them the Time Guild. These brothers were the brothers Summer, happy, warm and loving, the brothers Autumn, old and wizened, the brothers Winter, cold and distant and the brothers Spring, young and radiant.

The Dialmovers and the Timetellers toiled day and night, moving the clock every second and telling the time whenever princes, noblemen or their King would ask. The Dialmovers changed duties often, as they grew tired and the Timeteller changed less often, as his job was to just sit and wait.

But one night, weary and exhausted, the Dialmover Summer slept. Watching his brother drowse off, his Timeteller brother slept too. The next morning, the King came to them, to ask the time, but they could not tell! The dial was stuck at two in the night, while the Sun was shining above them, telling the King it was time to attend court. In a fit of rage, the King threw both the erring Dialmover and the Timeteller in jail and had them beaten up as a lesson to all other Dialmovers and Timetellers, lest they ever repeat such folly.

Angry at the King for such a move, the Time Guild decided to teach the King a lesson. They wielded such power over the Kingdom that it was easy for them to do as they pleased. On times when the King was stuck with a Diplomat he did not like, it would seem that time could not move fast enough, as the dial moved ever so slowly, extending the day long beyond its allotted twelve hours, and the brothers covered up by running the dial faster at night. On days when the King was in a particularly sour mood, the day ended rather quickly and night fell much sooner and went much longer than it should have. But no one could say anything to the Time Guild, because they seemed to be doing their work more diligently and methodically than ever.

Slowly, as time passed, as it always does, the Summers, the Winters, the Springs and the Autumns got stuck to their habits. The Spring brothers were not that angry with the King and would treat the Day and Night equally, but the Summer brothers after them would run the Day more slowly than the Night. The Autumn brothers after that would balance out the Day and Night again, but the Winters were harsh and would end the Day rather quickly.

That is how it will be for all eternity.

Real people don’t fit them

 
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I love Jessica Hagy‘s site Indexed. It’s funny, published weekdays and is almost always spot on.

But, I found a problem with today’s post –

Stereotypes. Yup.

Jessica’s “Real People don’t fit them”

I don’t think you can portray a groups vs individuals analysis on a graph. So, I fixed it in my own way. Hope you like it and hope you check out her website. It’s pretty cool!

My version –

IMG_0233.JPG

 

Of course, Hagy’s Indexed is for fun and to be taken as seriously as I have. But hey, when you see something wrong on the Internet, you fix it, right?

Kill all the Uruks

 
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I spent the weekend listening to my brother complain about how the story in the game he’s playing nowadays, “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor”, is not progressing fast enough. As it turns out, the problem was that he had to kill a lot of middle level orcs (uruks) in order to entice the next level of villains to come out of hiding. He proceeded to do that and voila, the story line moved quickly after that.

Life’s a lot like that. You start out green at any task and you have a lot of enthusiasm and beginner’s luck. That makes you happy and you expect the same level of progress to keep up. Turns out, there’s a lot of work between that first instance and getting to a decent level of expertise. All it takes is consistent hard work. It’s not the neat solution. It’s the only solution.

Since it’s NaNoWriMo, here’s a tip – when you’re doing something, anything actually, and you start out with a bang, don’t forget to put your head down and consistently kill the uruks.

First 12 hours with the iPhone 6

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So, I was gifted an iPhone 6 recently. It arrived last night and because of a fairly ridiculous AT&T policy, it was about to be shipped back to China before I rescued it. I’ve spent a little over 12 hours with it now and here are some points about it –

  1. iOS 8.0 has chinks. (See how I underplayed it there?) There’s no reason to expect that Apple, the company that created the OS, has been through 8 iterations of it and literally is one of the richest companies in the world can’t hire a few testers. You know, those people who test your stuff and tell you what’s wrong with it.
  2. The iPhone 6 is too big. The iPhone 6+ is bigger still. These are interesting positives (specially for me as a writer and reader), but huge negatives too. When I take out the phone from my pocket and start using it, it tilts forward. If I’m not careful, it tilts just enough to fall. In fact, in this short 12 hour period, it’s had one serious fall and many little falls. Which leads me to my third point.
  3. Please buy Apple Care. Up until now, I’ve had very little use of Apple Care, since I tend to care for my devices just enough to extract maximum use from them before they crash and burn (not literally). But this time, I’m sure that no matter how much I care for this phone, it’ll fall, slip, drop, dive (yes, dive) and slide away from me and towards the hard, cold earth. Which means that 6-8 months from now, I’ll need it replaced. Time to fill Apple’s coffers now so we can raid them later. Also, when you do get that inevitable replacement, make sure to run every possible hardware test on it, because Apple will give you a phone which will have a bad wifi, or crappy LTE antenna, or weird memory defects. You’ll have only 7 days to return the thing and ask for one which actually works, so use those 7 days well. Over and over again if necessary.
  4. This phone is too thin. That kinda got covered above, but the point is, Apple, that you could have done a slightly better job with the battery. Mine works well for now, but it could have been better. Your future phone is the iPhone 6S, not the iPhone 6++, no matter what phony tech analysts and market gurus say to the Wall Street Journal. So yeah, here’s a spine; now please put a real battery in the phone. I will prefer, nay, demand, a fatter phone in the future.
  5. The lock button being on the side is weird. Screenshotting is going to be a challenge now. I get why you did it Apple, I’m just saying I’m one more person not used to change. Or maybe I am, we’ll find out.
  6. Reachability, Apple’s innovative approach to ridiculous screen sizes, is a Godsend. Whoever thought of that in the Apple UI/UX team deserves a Medal or something. This is literally the thing I’ve used more than anything else on the phone till now. Samsung, this is your cue. Copy this. People need this. But one thing – the person who implemented the actual features needs to sit down with their manager for  . The thing works in at most half of the OS. There are so many menus and screens where I’m double-tapping the home button but nothing is happening.
  7. About the Touch ID, the less I say, the better. I’ve had an iPhone 4S all this while, so I’m slightly behind the curve. Also, the new keyboard is good, but it could have been better.
  8. Apple, here’s a tip – next time, please release iOS 9 as late as possible. Take all the time in the world. There’s a misconception in the enterprise world that if you don’t release software on a fixed time table, your customers will hate you and abandon you. You know when they’ll hate you? When you bring crappy code to the table. Somehow, Apple seems to have adopted this yearly time table thing. It was cute for the first few tries, but it’s time to retire this habit. Wall Street will bash on you for a bit, but who are those puny mortals to question the behemoth that you are?
  9. I saw that my iPhone was downloading 5 concurrent apps last night. That’s 2 more than my iPhone 4S does. Awesome!
  10. There are a lot of apps that I have had to drop because of shifting to a new phone, apps like Sunstroke and Neater. I’ll miss them. I might still be able to get them loaded through iTunes, but they’ll probably not work well. I’m sad because of that. On the other hand, I opened up iBooks and loaded Lionel Shriver’s “We need to talk about Kevin”. The bigger screen is definitely a plus there! Loved the reading interface.

Oh well, there’s my 10 points about my new iPhone. Tell me what you think about yours.

 

Word of the Day: Fungible

 
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Fungibility, according to Wikipedia, is an economic term used to describe the property of a commodity whereby it is directly interchangeable with something else. For example, if you don’t care whether the rental car you get is a Mercedes or a BMW, then they are fungible. It was used by journalist Stijn Debrouwere in an awesome article about the future of newspapers and media companies in the age of the Internet, by calling his article –

A treatise on fungibility, or, a framework for understanding the mess the news industry is in and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Source: Fungible

The article, pointed in my direction by GigaOm, talks about an interesting situation about the news industry – that newspapers are being replaced by something completely different than online newspapers. They are being replaced by sites and services that have nothing to do with the news, or journalism as such. Sites like CraigsList, Gawker, Byliner and IMDB are replacing individual sections of the newspapers and there’s not much the newspaper can do about that.

To understand this, let’s look at what a newspaper is. It’s made up of various sections and those are – National/International news on the front page (reddit, iGoogle, Yahoo’s Homepage replaced this), local news and information (Pinwheel, Facebook, Foursquare replaced that), Entertainment (OMG, what hasn’t replaced this? YouTube, TMZ, various fashion blogs, Engadget), Sports(twitter. Seriously, twitter has replaced this), Comics (webcomics, here you stand united), ads(are everywhere on the Internet and also on CraigsList, which deserves special mention), Editorials (?).

Now, the quick newspaper reader looks at headlines, ads, sports and entertainment and all of those are covered by services I listed above. This means the core of how the newspaper earns money is gone. What’s left is the Editorial. I’ve left a question mark there because a lot of companies have tried to become the online thought leaders, the OpEd page of the Internet and it invariably fails. Byliner came up with an excellent model – charge small amounts of money to people interested in reading good stories. But they were nearly out of business when someone acquired them. The Magazine, an interesting attempt to conquer the attention span of geeks and non-geeks alike failed and is ceasing publication soon. Medium has, of late, done a really good job of being the Editorial destination of the Internet, but they’re opening it up to everyone, which will invariably lead to a decline in overall quality.

The solution, at this point is unclear – editorial-only publications have failed, trashy listicle sites are loved as a time pass but hated as serious news (BuzzFeed, anyone?), there have been some wins for Internet journalism on both sides – startups and newspapers going online (I’ve talked about Quartz and their take on journalism before) have both had some wins and some losses. But one thing is clear – newspapers are not just fighting online news any more. They are fighting everything that catches the user’s eye. Any website or service that gets eyeballs means less attention paid towards the news. This is specially true for sybaws (smart-young-bored-at-work) since they look towards the Internet as a distraction (and so, why would they read serious journalism, they’ll read BuzzFeed).

But there’s no need to dispair. As the Internet-always generation comes of age, they’ll ask for serious journalism, they’ll ask for editorials and be willing to pay for them. They’ll need a view of the day’s news before they start the day. Perhaps that’s where online newspapers will flourish. Facebook, Yahoo, iGoogle could never capture people’s attentions for everything from social to personal to political because of perceptions – if I’m going to my social network site, why would I want all my news there or if I’m reading a funny listicle, why would I need news about terrorism on the same page? But that’s not true for newspapers – we know they do everything. So here’s my advice – built platforms online. Build communities that interact with you, that value the information you put out, whether it be local ads or opinion pieces on international issues. Be the CraigsList+Twitter+Medium+Dilbert for someone. People are bound to find value in that. But don’t just put everything analog online, think about what the entire direction will be. Sit back and think; that’s what  you folks are good at! Heck, acquire a few companies you like, that shouldn’t just be the birthright of tech giants.

Because if you don’t, you’ll be fungible with just about any information dissemination website out there, even if it’s a one page list of daily news items.

 

License, don’t acquire

 
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Silicon Valley has a bad habit – that of buying outright any company that might prove useful to them and the tech community. When Google bought Waze, Facebook bought Spool and Pinterest bought Icebergs, they all did it to bring to their platforms, users and companies, ideas, technologies and features that they believed would be a good fit with their own setup.

But they did it wrong. Waze is a great app and when it finally disappears (as do all Google acquisitions), it will be a great loss for it’s users. Waze has a unique UI, a dedicated user following and features that are not at all present in Google Maps. While the integration went well, Google Maps is an overloaded app with too many features. Eventually, they’ll simplify and drop a few features, getting rid of many core things that Waze is known for. In no circumstance will Waze ever recover from this setback.

Spool was a good app. Today, it’s site is a default “Apache is working on your cPanel server” message and it’s features are nowhere to be seen in the Facebook app (a bloated, messy app as is). Icebergs was something I signed up for and promptly forgot. Recently, I got an email from them to tell me that Pinterest was acquiring them. The email was very upbeat and listed out how Icebergs would be ‘joining forces’ with Pinterest, adding private messaging features to the platform. Icebergs would feel perfectly at home at this visual discovery tool. Unfortunately, in the second last paragraph, Icebergs was planned to be discontinued from the first of this month, it’s users asked to download their data. There’s nothing like Icebergs out there. There’s no place for Icebergs data and no open-source or a thin-client which users can use offline. It’s dead.

All of these calamities could have been avoided. Each service could have benefitted hugely if the larger company would have licensed their technology instead of acquiring the company outright. The users would have benefitted from a company that has a steady source of corporate income, the company would have been able to think long term and use the incoming money to expand features and services for their core product and their ‘free’ users. Waze could easily have licensed to Google, providing them with the data that Google Maps now uses to show me traffic patterns on my routes, Icebergs could have used their internal design team to help guide Pinterest into making better services for their users and Spool, though a two-man effort, could have spent time helping Facebook and raking in potential millions through that effort; though sadly, many apps out there are made often with the express interest of getting acquired.

Currently, silicon valley has an unhealthy obsession with acquiring companies. This manifests mostly in VCs forcing entrepreneurs into making services that are ‘acquirable’ and entrepreneurs often trying to game the system by making apps that gather huge following only to sell them to the highest bidder as soon as possible. This is bad because –

a. It’s a system that can be gamed. (Kind of how VCs and PE Firms make ‘real money’, I guess)

b. It promotes short-term thinking and very little real problem solving.

c. Large companies get into fits of trying to become lean, firing teams, cutting down features and splitting apps and services into multiples, thus destroying the value created by the acquired app.

d. It leads to distrust in the users. Any new app or service is looked upon as potential deadweight. The more popular the service, the faster it’ll start talking of getting acquired and the worse it is for users. In this, the users are still trusting folk and keep falling for the same old trap of spending way too much time and effort in build ecosystems around platforms that die out too quickly. But eventually, they’ll wisen up to the act and start punishing new services.

e. Dont even get me started on investors eternal question of “So how exactly did that old acquisition add value/provide ROI ?”

Licensing is a good thing for the larger companies too – it gives them the opportunity to dictate the general direction of the service while maintaining the necessary distance from the actual operation. If at any time, they feel that the service isn’t worth their time any more, they can simply walk away at the end of the contract, without costly layoffs, shutting down of services and disrupting their own apps and features too much. This’ll only lead their users to trust them more, because when they see a new feature, they’ll realize it’s coming only after a good amount of thought and effort, instead of a hasty acquisition from the head honchos.

There are, of course, risks in licensing instead of acquiring. While a license (and contract) gives them some control over the service’s future, the larger company cannot be guaranteed complete control over every aspect of the smaller service. This headache is reason enough for the larger fish to swallow the smaller one whole. But the contract can be binding in drawing a roadmap for the future of the smaller company and in case of financial issues or creative differences, the larger companies can then acquire the smaller one out-right anyways. The habit of buy-first-ask-later is bad for the image of the larger companies and the trust of the users of the smaller ones.

I don’t expect this modus operandi to change overnight or to change at all, but it’s time for companies to stop thinking of acquisitions as the ‘easy way out’. It’s more troublesome and less healthy for the industry, the users and the companies themselves to acquire than to license, and the exhaustive large list of “failed” acquisitions are a testament that something needs to change, and this is just ONE recommendation!

 

Note: This post was edited by my brother and lifelong editor, Nipun Khanna. His changes are extremely valuable to the shape of this post.

On Fear

 
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I was recently thinking about fear, particularly that fear is a genetic gift. Our forefathers instilled it into us to ensure we stay away from predators, darkness, and other harmful things. But there are two things about the nature of fear that confuse me –

  1. What about fear of our parents? Is that genetic? Is it instinctive for us to be afraid of our parents’ anger? Or is that something that comes to us after we’re born? If the latter, think about the immense sense of abandonment and betrayal a child must feel when their parents scold them for the absolute first time. At first, it may well be a very odd phenomenon for the child – an angry parent. But slowly it would dawn upon the offspring that the progenitor is expressing a negative emotion, a negativity asserted towards them and in context of something they did recently. After that, is it because of our lack of genetic fear that some children do not pick up on fear of parents, even when faced with physical punishment; while others become so afraid that even the idea of an angry parent that their tendency to do the “right” thing supersedes all other emotion.
  2. What about fire? When the flame is big enough that we feel “hot” instead of warm, we instinctively stay away from fire. But every time I see a candle flame, I feel like I must touch it. It is an enigmatic phenomenon which just be explored by touch and that urge overpowers all logic that cautions me to stay away. Is this because fire came into our knowledge a little too late to be a part of our genetic makeup? Had it been with humans longer, maybe it would have gotten stuck into our genes as something to use, but be wary of. If that is true, I wonder what other things came too early? Could a fear of large animals or snakes or cliffs be because of such circumstances and maybe we shouldn’t be afraid of them as much as we are?

I’d love some of my readers to respond with what they think about these fears. If someone has specific knowledge about fear, I’d love to have a conversation, either in the comments below, or you can email me or find me on social media. Thanks for reading.

VRL – The Virtual Record Label

 
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Most of us know what an MVNO is. For those who don’t, an MVNO is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator – a company that doesn’t known any mobile phone network of it’s own, but piggybacks on someone else’s network and simply puts their own branding on top of it. US MVNOs that I am aware of are FreedomPop, Boost Mobile and Cricket Wireless. They all resell AT&T or Sprint’s network under their own labels. This is a good business because it fosters competition while still providing best-in-class facilities to consumers. Of course, the profits of the MVNOs go in part to the parent Network Operator, because they are essentially leasing out their network to these smaller companies.

We’ve looked at online music streaming companies as libraries of music. In our minds, Spotify, Rdio, Pandora and Google Play are subscription services where users pay a monthly fee to listen to any music in the entire collection, instead of buying the music personally. Of course, the trade-off is that you never own the music, no matter how long you pay for the service. Thus, the ‘library’ analogy works and we tend to think of these services as places to ‘borrow’ music. Obviously, since we’re ‘borrowing’ music, we’re not paying full price for it and so the music industry has this big complaint that streaming doesn’t pay the bills. That makes sense. Where they were selling CDs at ridiculous profit margins and the only ‘free music’ people ever heard was on the radio, record labels are now contending with super cheap single-song sales and even cheaper streaming services.

But is the next step forward or back? Will record labels clamp down on streaming services and force them into either paying more (like Netflix) or risk losing their collection or will they force companies to reduce user choice in a Pandora’s Box scenario (pun intended)? I’d say the ball is in the streaming services’ court. Those companies will need to recognize that if they’re the only player left in the music-sales game, the costs of playing music are going to increase. The best step forward would be for streaming services to become virtual record labels, pushing sales of genuine goods (music) instead of tertiary goods like merchandise. The streaming companies would then be responsible for reeling in interested users to buy music instead of just renting it, much like MVNOs push people to using the same mobile networks by changing the branding.

This model is starkly different from the library model because by default libraries are looked at as places that reduce the need for personal purchases of books. This is great if the books cost a lot (as hard covers do) or if there’s community value being derived from the establishment. But this is no longer the case for music. iTunes and Amazon Music have reduced the cost of buying music by a huge margin and the next step in the game is to increase profits. This can only come if music streaming goes hand in glove with music sales, instead of opposing it. As usual, Apple is slightly ahead of the curve and their iTunes Radio service seems like an interesting solution (where you are encouraged to buy the tracks you enjoy listening to). But like I pointed earlier, Pandora (and FM Radio) are steps back, not forward. All streaming services need to recognize that people who stream music could also be convinced to buy high quality versions of those tracks and that is the best way forward.

Note: This post was driven by the topic and links provided in this post on the TeleRead website, where the author Juli Monroe was trying to decipher if streaming services hold some kind of lessons for eBook sales and subscription services.

Well, what about the jailbreak?

 
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iOS8 is here today and as I always do before an iOS update, it’s time to audit my jailbreak. Of late, I’ve grown distant from the jailbreak idea as such. I still have a jailbroken iPhone 4S and iPad Mini 1, but there’s barely much happening there.

RAM? What’s that?

The first problem with my jailbreak is that it’s on a device that’s now, well, old. The iPhone 4S has 512 MB of RAM and as much as Apple fanboys will tell you that you don’t need RAM because Apple has a) tight integration with their hardware or b) amazing tricks up their sleeves that put apps to ‘sleep’ as soon as you minimize them, the truth is that if you jailbreak, you need RAM. Continue reading