The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Tue, 2011-Jun-07, 06:09

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The Irony: Twitter and Apple

Yesterday was precisely either the right day or the wrong day for Apple to announce that the next release of Apple's operating system for the iPhone will integrate Twitter.

As Apple announced their new Twitterized features, back in New York City Representative Anthony Weiner (D-New York) called a press conference to admit that he'd lied about his use of Twitter to send an embarrassing photograph of himself.

Apple may view Twitter integration as a win for their users, and that might even be the case for some of these users (and if Twitter proves reliable enough to provide service and remains profitable enough to continue as business). But I know that I don't want to accidentally send all my emails out in my Twitter feed; that I don't want all my photos uploaded for the world to see; that I don't care for anyone other then my spouse to know my location at all times. Apple's integration of Twitter should make everyone nervous — a single misplaced tap on the screen away from sharing corporate secrets, vacation plans, or your child's birthday party photos with the entire world.

I'd say that Weiner's timing was impeccable. Weiner inadvertently performed a public service with his demonstration of the pitfalls of improper use of Twitter. With Apple's integration of Twitter into every nook and cranny of the iPhone, expect to see an entire new level of inadvertent disclosures.

Tue, 2010-Dec-21, 12:58

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Net Neutrality: The FCC's Life Preserver

During Britain's war against Napoleon in the 1800's, with France poised to invade England, the British military established an important job. A watchman would stand, looking out across the English Channel, and if the French fleet were to approach his job was to ring an alarm bell.

This job was abolished in 1945.

Nothing is quite as resilient to time and changing circumstances as a government agency. No matter if the original mission vanishes: the agency will attempt to find a new mission. For example, now that all of rural American has electicity, did you ever wonder what happened to the Federal agency in charge of "promoting" rural electrification? Hint: it's now part of a larger organization proving equally redundant services.

Today's hearing by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may seem to be about "net neutrality," but the subtext is about the FCC itself. The FCC's predecessor organization came into existence almost a hundred years ago to reglate what was then thought to be a scarce resource, the radio spectrum; the FCC also regulates telecommunications.

Pity the poor FCC. Just maybe the idea of radio spectrum allocation made sense back then; regulating the AT&T telecommunications near-monopoly never did. And today, with — at my last count — over seven hundred long-distance companies in the US, the monopoly days are over and FCC control makes even less sense. As more telecommunications migrates to the Internet, we've got all the telecommunications we can possibly want and ten times more besides. The FCC, which regulates scarcity, is drowning in abundance with no reasonable mission.

Hence the lastest go-round with "net neutrality." By seizing control of Internet operations — by dictating how traffic will flow, what prices will be charged, who gets to use the Internet and how — the FCC will have a new, more powerful, and vastly longer-lived empire. Forget Google, Verizon, and the rest; they're pawns in the FCC's institutional chess game. Bureaucrats will expand their empires and, when retirement beckons, escape into the private sector to consult on how to live with the regulations they themselves promulgated.

As for the collaborators in this FCC power grab: If you can afford the paperwork and the lawyers, if you know how to play the regulatory game, then you can support "net neutrality" rules no matter what they are and game the system to hobble your competitors. The rest of us, who don't have the time or money to file endless forms with the FCC, who don't have the resources to fight back against bureaucratic interference, who won't be able to evade censorship: we're the ones who will suffer as abundance turns to scarcity and opportunity turns to dust.

Mon, 2010-Nov-22, 12:17

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eReaders for the Android Phone

I've just spent a couple of days working in eBook readers for my Android phone. I've tried Moon Reader, Aldiko, FBReader, Wordaholic, WordPlayer, and perhaps one or two more I've already forgotten.

None of them, possibly with the exception of FBReader, seems to automatically import eBooks that are just placed directly onto the Android phone. They want you to fiddle around to import the books; some readers come from companies that quite explicity expect you to purchase books from their online stores.

I'm going to give FBReader another chance since it did manage to read my directory file automatically this time. Maybe I'll have better luck with it. Other readers were more polished, but I don't need the headache.

As for what all this means, the lowest common denominator in this foodfight is the format of the eBook itself, and the winning format is "epub." The web site that offer books for free download seem to be standardized. Other than that, I'm not certain what's happening other than a mad scramble for revenue.

I will say the the free, open-source, user-supported software "Calibre" to manage your eBook library works just as advertised. And when you push it to its limits, like I did, the developer will step in to support you. Give it a whirl.

Wed, 2010-Nov-17, 08:50

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What's Wrong at Starwood Hotels?

Last weekend I stayed at a hotel in the Starwood group; I'm a Starwood Prefered Guest, and until now they've been good about respecting my email preference — namely, none. In the three days since I left the hotel I've received two pieces of email from Starwood, neither of which contained interesting or for that matter accurate information (my reward balance is really zero?). If this continues I'll simply block the email address and move on.

Whenever sort of thing happens, when a sender acts against my explicit wishes and therefore their own best interests, I can't quite make out what the sender has in mind... Is it desperation in a search for new business? (That was my theory about Land's End, years ago.) Is it utterly clueless marketing departments? ( comes to mind.)

Or is it just clumsiness? One post-stay message — hope you had a good time, please let give us feedback, etc. — would be acceptable. Not that I read that first one, of course, since it was captured by my spam filters. The second email contains three separate sections from three different corporate entities and a warning that links provided by outside entities contained in the email might violate my privacy. Makes me wonder if Starwood runs the rest of their business the same way: "We hire room cleaning from outside entities, and they might rifle through your pockets and bags to find interesting stuff."

Let's see what happens next. If they're sufficiently entertaining in their cluelessness, I might actually read some of these emails for a while before I shut them down.

Sun, 2010-Apr-04, 16:06

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Motley Fool Fooled or Fools?

Today's email inbox includes spam from an outfit that calls itself "OptionAlarm," which offers some financial service or other that I of course would not touch with a ten-foot pole.

This particular piece of spam arrived on an email address that I gave only to the financial information web site Motley Fool. Two possibilites exist: either Motley Fool sold my name to spammers, or spammers hacked into Motley Fool to obtain the information. Neither alternative does Motley Fool any credit.

Sun, 2010-Apr-04, 07:56

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Now I Know Why American Express Wanted My Email Address

Now I know why American Express wanted my email address: to send me spam.

Each and every time I log into the Amex web site, the site begged me for my email address. I finally gave them one just see what would happen, and I even carefully set my preferences to make certain I would receive only the most essential communications such as messages about potential fraud in my account.

Overnight — Saturday night, the time when in Internet tradition spammers would emerge while system administrators had some time off — Amex sent me spam about one of their marketing programs. I've disabled the email address they're using, and no doubt they'll whine about it next time I log in.

I do have to marvel: what type of fool deliberately sends spam from to a customer who has taken the time and trouble to warn in advance that he doesn't want any? I'll think about this while I consider the move to a new credit card provider, one that respects my privacy.

Wed, 2010-Mar-24, 21:14

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On Automated Tracking

Insight into automated services that send your location to your social network:

Too bad. I wanted to stay in touch with my friends, not their software.
Once again, we face the challenge of sorting the wheat from the chaff in a world that can generate chaff without limit.

Mon, 2010-Mar-22, 09:14

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Two Added to My Block List

I continue to marvel at the patience people have with the torrent of unsolicited commercial email (better known as "spam") that arrives in their inboxes daily. Each and every one is a distraction from other tasks — it's a tiny bit of theft by someone in a marketing department. I don't ever do business with spammers, and I work hard to keep spam out of my inboxes.

As part of the effort, I welcome two companies to the list of servers that can't send me email: iContact and Resultsmail. Both companies allowed others to sign me up for mailing lists without my permission; while the two companies might adhere to the appropriately named "CAN-SPAM" act, it's absurd to think that I have to spend time unsubscribing from lists that I didn't want to be on in the first place. If they ever decide to adhere to Internet etiquette and require confirmed opt-in to add someone to a mailing list, I'll unblock their servers; in the meantime, everything from them will silently vanish into the "bitbucket."

Tue, 2010-Mar-02, 14:29

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But If It Really Is Happening, Is It Yelp?

The Wall Street Journal blogs that somone filed a lawsuit against Yelp alleging extortion. The lawsuit alleges that Yelp will take down negative reviews in return for money; others allege that Yelp will take down positive reviews if you do not purchase an advertising package.

Let's say that someone is collecting money for removing negative reviews from Yelp. Is it really Yelp?

I expect it's easy enough for a criminal ring to target business owners. They crooks put up several negative reviews; instead of waiting for the business to complain to Yelp, the crooks contact the business directly and offer their "package." The business owner, convinced that he's doing business with Yelp, pays up; the negative reviews disappear; maybe the crooks are smart even smart enough to pay some of the ill-gotten gains for promised advertising.

When I want to prove I own a web page, the person I'm doing business with will ask me to put a comment into the web page's source code, a token that only the web page editor can insert. That's a level of sophisticated identity authentication that I expect most business owners do not have.

Now I admit I'm curious... even if this lawsuit does not involve crooks, does a ring such as the one I describe exist on Yelp or elsewhere?

P.S. The most damage to Yelp would not be to their reputation, or even the proceeds from the lawsuit. I will guess that the most damage would be to their loss of Section 230 safe harbor protection — a smart lawyer could easily (and very profitably) argue that Yelp loses that protection if they manipulate positive and negative reviews to force businesses to subscribe to their services.

Wed, 2010-Feb-03, 08:46

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Of Quail Eggs and Twitter

Does everyone in the world need to know that I had quail eggs for lunch on Monday? I think so, so I'll broadcast that on Twitter in a few minutes. But sometimes the most surprising people read Twitter.

Early Tuesday morning I mentioned on Twitter that I was not going to vote in the Illinois primary election. Although I almost always vote in the primaries (and I never miss a general election), this year I was too thoroughly disgusted with the choices on tap and decided to protest by staying at home.

And then I got a telephone call from a reporter at The Chicago Tribune, who interviewed me about the reasons for my refusal to vote. The reporter had noticed my comment on Twitter and was curious enough to ask me.

I do admit that I'm curious about what tool he uses to scan Twitter so effectively, but that's not the point. The point is that the most innocuous short remark can provide information to someone, perhaps not very efficiently but in real time. Twitter has accomplished something profound and I think we don't quite understand the implications just yet.