My apartment building has an event going on – a blind date with books. In this, participants part with a book from their personal collection, the organizers wrap books in opaque paper and write the first sentence of the book on the front. If you find that sentence to be interesting, you pick up the book and walk away.
So far so good.
As part of our Diwali cleaning, my wife and I reorganized our books into a few stacks – those we want to read some time in the future, those we want to read in the near future, those we’ve read, and those we will never read.
From that last stack, I picked up a book that I started to read and just, couldn’t. I decided that this book is popular enough that someone will like having it. But for me, it just wasn’t the right fit.
But, as I was walking out of our home and into the elevator, I realized that I have a bout of separation anxiety. As the metal box sped downwards, I thought about it.
I dislike this book, I dislike the author, I dislike the entire concept. Yet, I had serious anxiety about giving it away. I looked the book all over. It’s priced at seventeen dollars. I probably didn’t pay that much. But it’s still worth something. The font is nice, the line spacing is comfortable, the paper rich.
Yet, it’s the content. The book is The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac is said to be a pioneer of the Beat Generation, a 1950s literary movement related to a post World War II, spiritual, anti-materialist thinking, and apparently the the precursor to hippie culture of the next decade. The book itself is recommended as a sort of intro to Kerouac, a good first read to dip into his interpretation of Zen Buddhism.
So I was surprised when the book was just… crass. It was a warped appropriation of Buddhism. The title is very apt – it’s a couple of aimless bums who are exploring Buddhism from the bits and pieces they come across. They have no conception of dharma, having established that the author will just jump on a moving train and stowaway his way to another place instead of building a life and living it. That ideology of stealing his way on to a goods train just rubbed me the wrong way and it was downhill from there.
For Westerners, this romanticism of a life of running might seem intriguing and beautiful. But that is not in any way what we’ve been taught to be the meaning of life or spirituality in India. If you think about it, being a bhikshu is the very beginning of Buddhism. Yet the way Kerouac does it, alternating between binge partying and self-exploration atop a mountain seems haphazard and decidedly crude.
I could not digest this book and though I’m sure others might find it interesting, I am glad to have gotten rid of it.
Next, I’m eyeing my copy of The Crying of Lot 49. Thomas Pynchon is an author I thought I’ll enjoy, and the novel is included in Time Magazine’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”. But it is steeped in a hatred of womanhood and is an absurdist’s dream-come-true. Maybe I’ll shed it the next chance I get.
Just came across this post in my RSS reader and yeah, I have these “bad thoughts” too. Mostly in the spur of the moment when I’m thinking of someone or something and a negative thought just pops in my head. I massage it away, telling myself that these things won’t happen. The lingering feeling of guilt remains – for having thought of someone’s death or a mishap.
But at the end of the day, they’re just figments of an overactive imagination. As long as there are enough positive thoughts to counteract these negative ones, it’s all good.
I love bargain hunting for apps. And the best price for something is free, or so they say.
Whenever I chance upon an iOS App Store link that is set to Germany (‘de’ instead of ‘us’), I notice that the price for the app, if it’s free, is written in German as “gratis”. This gives me a bit of a kick, because the US version just says “Free” and it doesn’t ever encapsulate the true price of an app.
I’ve worked on a few personal project apps, websites, and services over the years, though I’ve never really released anything, specially not for any price above free. It’s because I know that from alpha to production is a hellish journey, filled with all sorts of pitfalls and work that I’m not suited for. From design to marketing to copywriting to user feedback collection, there’s a lot that indie devs do and kudos to them. But whenever we get something for free, we take it for granted. “Hey, they gave it away for free, so it must not mean much to them.” But the months of work, the blood, sweat, and swearing that goes into making anything in software makes it so that the app is never free.
Thus, when I see the price of free, even though I’m elated that I got something for free, I know that it’s anything but.
Gratis feels a better suited word for it, because a) it’s by the gratitude of the developer that you’re getting it without paying anything, and b) because you should be grateful back to the developer for it. All these words have the same root – *gwere – which, according to etymonline.com, means “to favor”.
So the next time you get some software for free, know that the person spent months working on it, and they’re doing you a favor by giving it to you for free. Maybe you’ll be a little more thankful to them for it.
Look at this app, do you think it’s “free”? It’s anything but.
When I was about thirteen, we had, as part of our English curriculum at school, a class on writing telegrams. The idea was to teach us how to write in concise form, with as much legibility as possible.
At that time, I was already somewhat good at the English language and started off the lesson with some gusto. The first task was to write a telegram about a house on sale. (Why? I dunno.)
The ask was to describe the house, throw in a price, and get away with the least number of words as possible.
Most of my colleagues wrote the following phrase –
Three bedroom one bath STOP
Where as I, thinking I’m smarter than the rest, wrote –
Three bedroom bath STOP
Now, in my mind, this was perfectly acceptable, but my teacher was quick to point out that there is a lack of clarity as to whether my house has three bedrooms each with a bath attached, or in fact, three weird rooms with a bathroom built into them. It was embarrassing in the moment, but a great lesson for me.
There’s a famous quote, which since I’ve forgotten, I’ll paraphrase here. It goes something like, “if you want to change something, you have to master its basics first.”
The gist of it remains with me to this day. When, nowadays, I see people using English in every shape and form, bending it to their will, I notice this trend more and more – people who are proficient at the language are able to bend it better, so that they do something innovative and fresh, yet are easily able to get their point across. On the other hand, people who are yet learning the nuances of the language are also using all kinds of shortcuts and short forms because of the restrictions put on us by messaging systems and twitter. But these latter people are often not able to get their message across clearly.
This is not to fault people for whom English is a second language. I recently saw a meme that said that if you see someone speaking broken English, have more respect for them, because it means they know some other language as their first language. Chances are, you who are judging them will not have the exposure and mental agility of knowing a second or third language.
Regardless, when people stick to the basics, they are able to make leaps and bounds of progress to build upon. This is true for pretty much every system/language/process in the world.
Have you ever come across a badly written passage by a neural network and it’s very easy to tell that it’s computer generated? What made you realize it’s not written by a person? There would be some basic level language mistakes made by the software which you’d pick up immediately. This gives people working on NLP a clear direction – make your algorithm better at the basics of the language, and teach it fifth standard level coursework instead of Shakespeare.
Recently, I was writing some code in JS. Whenever I’m writing quick getaway code, I opt for a simple for loop. But this one time, something irked me. Writing the same code over and over again is good muscle memory, and it frees up mental space to think about ways to improve one’s process (cue hat tip to Atomic Habits by James Clear, which I heard recently as an audiobook during a road trip). I started looking at map, which is a function I’ve gazed at before, but never bothered with. As it turns out, map fit perfectly in my code, as I wanted to apply the same function on every item in the array. So I replaced the for loop with map, and from then on, I’ve started looking at other things, like filter, to further remove the for loop from my code.
But since I came to programming as a tool, I first went through years of the basics, repeating them, partly in a fog of ignorance, till I was aware of my own abilities, and hankering to change things for the better.
There’s a flip side to this – I hate reading documentation. I rather jump into learning by doing. This is not just true for programming. I hate looking into English grammar. I can never tell you about what is a pronoun, what’s a participle, or what is the correct spelling of a complex word. But that doesn’t stop me from using English in my own writing, thinking, and blogging.
When I talk about focusing on the basics, I’m not talking about the grammar and structure of whatever it is you’re learning. I’m talking about the every day basics of doing. Focus on those, and once you’ve mastered those, you’ll be able to soar.
“About 40% of Apple’s install base, based on our estimates, have not upgraded for three and a half years. If you combine that into a 5G, four phone release, we believe that really creates a perfect storm of demand,” Ives said, predicting that Apple could sell more iPhones this fiscal year than the 231 million it did in 2015.
It’s yet to be seen if consumers really care about 5G, too: A study from April found that “65.7% of consumers said they weren’t very excited,” while recent analysis has shown that 5G is in many cases slower than 4G. “5G coverage is still limited, and it’s unlikely consumers will pay extra for features they can’t use,” analyst Gene Munster recently said, adding that he expects 5G iPhone sales to quicken toward the end of next year once coverage has improved.
Watch Apple’s stock after the iPhone event on Tuesday. Facebook’s new Oculus ships on the same day.
I’m becoming a frequent reader of Protocol, if for no other reader than that they publish every day and the pressure of it flooding my RSS makes me scan it for interesting reading every day or so.
I’m one of those 40% install base that hasn’t upgraded in a few years. My family sometimes laugh at how old my phone is, since I’m on an iPhone 7 Plus, but when I buy a new phone this winter (because I’m not expecting to get it in the first run of phone sales, and because Apple screws up the first set of hardware anyways because of the sheer volume of hardware they put out), I’ll have a phone that’s newer than anyone in my family by at least a year and change, so that’s that.
But regarding 5G, I’m going to steer clear from those phones. First, I know that Apple will price them differently. But would you buy a phone with a network technology that’s not supported by a majority of the geographical area yet? Sure, in some places you’ll get faster-than-WiFi speeds, but those will be far and few between for at least two more years. Knowing USA’s shit record at rolling out new network technology (network vendors love spending on backend networking hardware that saves them money, but they’ve always been slow on customer-facing rollouts because those take a lot more money), I’d say 5G is still a good 5 years out.
This is the same as when we were buying a TV three years ago. The choice was between a Ultra-HD 65 inch behemoth that was moderately priced (this model’s price has fallen to CRT-TV rates now), or a 45 inch 4K TV that was grossly overpriced. I stayed away from the 4K even though my brother was trying hard to convince me otherwise. His ideas on 4K content being the norm are still not true, three years past. It’s just too much to expect from media and backbone tech companies to move too fast on expensive technology. Not their thing. Maybe with the coming 5G, 4K content will get a boost. But again, that’ll be 5 years from now, when South Korea will be swimming in a sea of 7G and 8K content.
Now, the fear is that Apple will introduce something radical in the 5G phones that will not be present in the 4G LTE phones. They’ve done this before with the larger phones getting an extra camera module, or OLED screens instead of LCD. They could very easily toss in a much better camera, making their 4G models less appealing, or add back the fingerprint scanner, which is infinitely more convenient than face scanning at night, or when you’re wearing a mask, or when you’re on the move, and so on.
But will they? They might have some ridiculous hardware thing up their sleeve – like a heart rate monitor (from Android phones of a few years ago), or a dedicated Siri button that you could customize to run shortcuts (again from Android phones a few years ago). Or maybe they’ll do something stupidly expensive, like throwing in a pair of airpods with the 5G phones (though this would fail if the airpods are not in the iPhone box, because them being a separate product will feel very un-Apple like, as in a small physical discount to get you to buy their product).
But most likely, they’ll toss in a year (or two) of their Apple One software subscription with the costlier phones. That would be perfect, because I couldn’t give two shits about their software subscription model. I’m not into Apple Arcade, or Apple TV+, or Apple Music, or News+, or extra iCloud storage, and certainly not their Fitness+ product.
I exclusively play one or two games on the iPhone – mostly sudoku and Call of Duty: Mobile. I have subs for Netflix and HBO and a good Plex Media Server. I prefer Spotify for their content and their high availability on Google Home devices. I find News+ to be a stupid, overpriced offering that everyone should run away from. I am impatiently waiting for Dropbox’s Family plan to drop, because that will forever solve all of my storage problems. And, well, have you seen the freely available catalogue of fitness videos on YouTube? Blows everything else out the water. Get lost Peloton, YouTube is the king of fitness videos!
So, yeah, if Apple sticks to only offering Apple One for free with their 5G phones, it’ll be very easy for me, and millions of others to stay away from those phones this cycle. Will this hurt Apple’s stock? Maybe.
I found it interesting that Protocol mentioned that Facebook’s Oculus ships the same day. Does it matter? No. Facebook took and effectively killed the Oculus. The latter was probably burning money like crazy and needed a sugar daddy, but Zuck isn’t the kind you want. Maybe, maybe, the next iteration of AR/VR will be propped up by 5G, ML-GPU chips, and Nvidia-ARM superchips. But as of right now, the more interesting thing Protocol could have pointed out is that Amazon’s Prime Day is on the same day as well! Amazon has granted me a $10 credit, which I’ll feel obligated to spend on something a lot more than ten dollars that day, as I ponder upon how much I’m going to enjoy my new iPhone, when I finally get it a few months later.
Last weekend, we watched the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, and over the week, I’ve been discussing the content with my wife. We came to several conclusions, including that there are some algorithms and some services we are too dependent on for our entertainment needs. But there are others we can very much get rid of and should, as soon as possible.
The ones we are dependent on are Instagram and YouTube. We’re constantly on Instagram from the moment we wake up to when we go to sleep. It’s unhealthy, and we’re trying to reduce our time on these networks, but it’s a way to cope with all that’s happening out there. We’ve pivoted from just using Insta for getting jealous about travel bloggers to using it for memes, current affairs, and TikTok overflow bloggers. YouTube is our coffee companion. Whenever we sit down after a long day of work, we use it to get the news, weather, movie and show trailers, and catch up on our interests.
In line with that, we’ve noticed that these networks have both gotten better and worse at latching on to our needs. Instagram has gotten frighteningly good with their ad-focus. I’m generally immune to ads – I rarely see them on my computers thanks to uBlock. But the ones I see on Insta are almost always tech focused and I’ve started really salivating on those. On the flip side, Instagram is a well known negative-thought-bringer and I’ve started noticing the general tone of negativity it brings in our lives. YouTube is great at generally recommending time pass videos, but it’s gotten horrible at surfacing new, good content. The same few videos are shoved down our throats every day, all day, until we watch them. Part of the problem is that our main place to watch YouTube is their Apple TV app. This app has terrible UI. There’s no refresh button and the app doesn’t make an API refresh call even if you kill it and start it again. It’s like the algorithm is stuck on these recommendations no matter what you do.
Lately, for my wife, the YouTube app has been recommending a YouTube produced documentary about Paris Hilton’s life. This is despite that she’s never seen any content related to Paris Hilton or her corollaries, has never seen anything related to obscenely rich and spoilt people, and actively avoided this video every day for the past five days. But, like the demon from the movie It Follows, that video recommendation follows her everywhere. Sometimes it’s at position two in the recommended list, sometimes four. It’s present in the Entertainment section of the app, and in the News section, and in Originals. It’s obvious why this is happening – YouTube produced this content and wants to earn it’s money back. It’s like they hired a Netflix PM and he (definitely a HE for ruining a good product) brought the same stupid ideas he implemented there, here. We’ve discussed starting the video and downvoting it. But my wife pointed out that the lesson from The Social Dilemma is that the algorithm doesn’t care about the vote. It just sees engagement as a good sign for their vested interests and will simply count that, discounting everything else. She has actively started skipping over the video, hoping YouTube will finally get the hint one day. Can’t wait.
One of the things our eyes were opened to was how inherently evil this dependence on shady algorithms is. One of the interviewees says, “but it’s easy to forget how much good these technologies have done, how they’ve connected long lost people and found organ donors.” Another says, “when we were building these, we just wanted to build a tool to connect […] but we forgot to look at the flip side of the coin” (quotes fuzzy and from memory, please watch the docu). But every new layer they peeled in the story felt like a revelation that every decision in these companies is made to cater to the bottom line instead of ever bothering to wonder if it’s good for the masses that use the social platforms mentioned. The design ethicist from Google at least mentioned thinking about how their actions affect millions. The folks from Facebook can’t be bothered.
The thing is, none of this is necessary. But it was inevitable. The Internet was always poised to take over the rest of media. A free travel blogger, vlogger, Instagrammer will always throw out the need to subscribe to a travel magazine. A labor of love tech blog will always dismiss the need to pay for PC Magazine. Someone posting news snippets and their commentary in their free time will completely upend the newspaper business. That’s just bound to happen. Video will always kill the radio star.
But this is not just because of the inherent freedom that comes with the Internet. It’s because our society, our norms, and our laws have always operated in whiplash mode, always catching on with something after it has just become passé.
As the documentary moved from the first half to the second, it started focusing on the political ramifications of the freehand these Internet behemoths got and a message came across. It’s not just social. Yes, YouTube is social and Facebook is a place for video. But Google is just as much to blame for inherently bad search algorithms, and Amazon for terrible facial recognition technology as Facebook and twitter are for letting foreign powers turn American politics into a sham, as WhatsApp is for enabling mass state-sponsored violence in parts of the world, and as tech companies are for promulgating the problem of racial and gender inequality while talking about the Internet as an egalitarian utopia.
After the docu, I sat for a long time in conversation with my wife and we discussed ways that we can improve our interactions with the Internet as it is today. We decided to move from Google Search to DuckDuckGo. We decided to uninstall the official twitter client and exclusively use tweetbot and others. We decided, over these past few days as YouTube inundated us with a Million Heiress’ documentary, that we will actively stop using the YouTube recommendations section and start using it’s Search and Channels to find content we want to watch. It’s not like their search is any better, since it shows only a fraction of the content on the service before giving up on you. But at least it’s better than their silly recommendations algorithm, which really needs an overhaul. Lastly, we decided that we’ll police our time on Instagram and tell each other to get off the network as much as possible.
In other news, I was recently reading an article about what Google is doing to keep bad results out of their Search, and here are my notes on the topic –
Yup, we often overlook it, but search is actually way more important in people’s perceptions of the world than we think.
Social media has proved that “people read it and shared it” has no correlation to expertise, relevance or truth.
I would say that there always has been a more discerning, a more learned clientele of knowledge than the common folk. Though it’s not true that common people are in any measure lesser educated, they certainly are less discerning and more prone to peer pressure. If they see something being shared, they are more likely to jump on it as their new belief than some folks who would rather investigate, even though that investigation doesn’t take more than a few minutes in today’s information soaked era. Speed of information veracity has already reached a pretty good point and algorithms and machine learning continue to make it faster. But people’s willingness to ignore all that is also increasing.
So the technological solution is to create better tools to nudge people towards the truth. But the societal solution is what will matter in the end, and one societal solution is to make people less busy in their work lives, giving them more time to look outwards to what’s happening in the world. The current working generation doesn’t have the brain space to deal with everything going on in the world on top all the work they’re expected to do. We’ve all seen the chart where productivity has risen disproportionately to income levels in the last few decades. This has led to a form of inequality where the only people who have the time to ponder over important things are those who are either content with their current means, or have enough means to not worry about money. Now, this has been the case since the time of Socrates, but should not be the case today, should it?
Update: I was thinking about a simpler time when we used to own the knowledge that we bought – whether as newspapers, or books or magazines. Similarly we used to own music and video. But moving online liberated and democratized all these – people who could not afford music players or expensive books could enjoy streaming music, or ad-supported music videos, or read Wikipedia or blogs to gain knowledge. People have built entire careers through learning programming or handiwork on YouTube. We used to own apps on our phones five years ago, and today we’re moving to subscription models and rundles. But this means that if we want to share something, we have to do it on the platform it’s on. If you’re sharing an Instagram post, or a medium blogpost, the receiver is forced to login to see it. If you own Kindle ebooks, you can “lend” it, but only on Kindle. There needs to be a whiplash where we start paying for our knowledge again, for our media again, our ability to share and spread our sources. But that needs a perspective and longer term thinking that’s a longer conversation.
I have been adoring Oskar Stålberg‘s budding idle gamer Townscaper for some time now, but today I realized that it’s available on Mac on Steam! So I immediately got it and started playing with it. It’s a blast to have a beautiful blank canvas to play with!
Here are some towns I’ve built. I’ll be adding more here over time. (design saves at the end)
My first design! I love the colors, and the lighthouses look fabulous!
I went a little crazy with this one. It was interesting to build a town that’s accessible even to it’s own residents mostly by water. The houses on the right are beautiful single family (single person?) homes and the central tower is 29 floors! I had a different design in my mind, but this one just came about.
I love the French town of Mont Saint Michel and hope to visit it one day. It’s a strange place and Oskar has said that it’s one of his inspirations for Townscaper, so getting this game was just meant to be!
Wishlist for the game –
I hope Oskar adds the following –
Actual lighthouses – I would love these!
Proper beaches – right now, in certain cases, a small beach shows up near some houses. I’d love a proper beach area!
Trees! I would love trees that I can manually place!
Little people – Birds are aplenty in Townscaper and it’s a lot of fun to watch them fly around. But I’d love to see little humans cycling around our towns!
If you’re reading till here. Go buy the game. It’s awesome and only six bucks!
I missed watching the Apple event live yesterday. Late in the evening, I looked at my phone and realized that I’d missed a notification. As I browsed YouTube to find an appropriate explainer video to watch, I also messaged my brother to ask if he’d seen the event.
I settled to watch the official video from Apple. Of course, I didn’t want to sit through the whole thing, but their human interest stories in the beginning are always nice. Most of the times, these stories help Apple get a theme across. But this time, I noticed one that was out of place – one of the participants talked about their diabetes and how the Apple Watch helps them somehow. This story would have been a great preface to if/when Apple releases a watch with a glucose monitor. If they’re able to miniaturize a transdermal glucose monitor, and launch it without unnecessary health insurance companies in the way, that there would be a great sell and a true service to people with diabetes!
But till that happens, look, new watch bands!
My brother replied that he didn’t see it live, and then followed it up with this ridiculously succinct summary of the event –
No surprises there, I guess, other than the new straps/bands.
I stopped watching the video and we got to discussing the Solo Loop and the Braided Solo Loop. He rued that the braided will cost a hundred dollars. I joked that soon there will be Amazon knockoffs priced at twenty five dollars. Then I jokingly plugged the name into Amazon.
But that’s not the best part. THE best part (found by my brother), if you scroll down that Amazon product page, is that this band was first made available on September 6, 2019. So who stole from whom? Did Chinese manufacturers get wind of this upcoming accessory way back when and started producing it a year ahead? Did someone at Apple see this, buy it, love it, and decide to pirate it? I don’t know the answer, but it’s awesome!
The other day, my wife was showing me her iPhone leather case. It’s her first official case, and the one she’s proudly had on her phone for a long time, though she’s had other cases for a longer duration. But it’s also her first case to actually fall apart. The outer covering slowly started peeling away and is almost ruined now, to the point that it’s ugly and almost destroyed.
Official Apple accessories are not something they’re particularly good at. Their cables get ruined easily and are better replaced by Anker braided cables, their wired earphones were always too easy to tangle, and their iPad smart cases are always overpriced and under-performing. So if you’re going to ask me to buy a $100 band that I can absolutely get for $25 outside, I’ll go for the latter.
I’ve been playing COD:M on my iPhone since the last few… months, and I’ve been really enjoying it. It’s a no-fuss game, with graphics settings to match even my older iPhone 7, and really good development cycles and fast moving seasons (storylines and season passes).
They’ve done a bit of work to gamify the interface though, with lots of pre-game notifications and pop ups that try to convince you to buy the season pass or individual weapons and characters. It’s just enough to not irritate me and feels not more than a hurdle to cross and get to the actual gameplay.
I’ve been getting good at the game. So good, in fact, that in the last five days I’ve gotten banned twice. Both times, I was playing really, really well, and came in first on the scoreboard, so I assumed that one or more players from the other team reported me as probably using a cheat.
I’m not, but that’s a sort of rite of passage of playing FPS games well – you get accused of cheating. Problem is, the first time I was banned for an hour and the second time, for a day! Now I’m worried that if I play too well and get reported again, I might lose access for even longer! And in typical fashion, there is no recourse in-app to contact the moderators when banned.
I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to the game, but who am I kidding. I’m afraid to lose access and this might affect how well I play in the future. But hey, every time I got banned, I ended up spending time on coding on side projects, which is awesome!
All said and done, I’m really enjoying Call Of Duty Mobile and I’d recommend it to everyone! It’s a free download.