How writing leads to empathy / why does anybody waste money on a speaker like Google Home

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This morning I saw a Tweet with this graph showing the top things people ask their Alexa and Google Home devices:

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Since you’re probably too lazy to click the image for the full-size version, the top three things people say to their Alexas are:

  • Tell me the weather
  • Set a timer
  • Play me a song

After I saw this, I decided I was going to write a post about how I think products like Google Home and Amazon Echo are stupid and I don’t get why people would waste money on them, especially if they’re just using them to see if they need to bring an umbrella to work tomorrow.

I was going to write about why people don’t just use the “Hey Siri” function on their phones to set a timer for that soufflé. Inspired by the graph, I tried it after work tonight and it worked great. When I said “Hey Siri, play the new Sufjan Stevens album,” she got it and soon I was listening to Greatest Hits for the tenth time today.

I was going to write about how Siri also set a timer and told me tomorrow’s weather, all without me having to touch my phone or talk to a $100 speaker.

Then I realized that the reason people want these stupid speakers is because not everyone lives in a studio apartment in Brooklyn where one set of speakers is more than enough to carry the sound throughout my home.

But that’s the cool thing about writing. Not only does it force you to examine the validity of an argument, it also helps you empathize with other people. There had to be a good reason this guy at work was bragging about the Black Friday deal he got on a Google Home today, I thought to myself. I should write about why that guy is stupid.

I guess I’m the stupid one.

Image from the Amazon Alexa product page.

You are what you consume: Facebook v. Twitter

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You are what you read, watch, and listen to. The content you consume changes how you think about the world, and determines what topics you’re aware of and concerned about. Over the past century, countless thinkers have explored this idea, and from a variety of perspectives.

McLuhan focused on the media type (i.e. books vs. television), and asserted that the medium through which content is delivered changes how the content is encoded by the creator, and decoded by the recipient. More recently, Nicholas Carr argued that ways digital media affects our ability to focus and follow complicated arguments. Eli Pariser coined the term filter bubble to describe the way social media is designed to show us content we already agree with—clustering us into like-minded groups infrequently exposed to ideas that challenge our existing attitudes and beliefs.

But what if social media, the same technology that helped create today’s highly polarized political environment, could be used to reverse the trend? What if you could assemble a custom feed of diverse thinkers representing an eclectic range of voices from across the political spectrum, or whichever thing you’re into. And since your thoughts are influenced by the content you consume, this could help your thinking be more inclusive of a range of views. It’s a personalized news feed more directly curated by you, rather than Facebook’s engagement algorithms.

That’s how I use Twitter. I follow an eclectic mix of artists, journalists, comedians, entrepreneurs and startup influencers, and political thinkers from both sides. When I open my Twitter homepage, I’m exposed to views I agree with and those I do not. It’s a way to take me out of my bubble every once and awhile, and remind me that “the other side” often has good points to make and  deeply held beliefs to defend.

I suppose I could use Facebook to achieve a similar result. But in my experience, this isn’t how that service is used. Facebook is more for private, personal news and achievements; people seem to be acutely self-conscious when posting there. Twitter is more free-form, public, and informal. Twitter starts with the assumption that you’ll follow people you might not know (i.e. famous people); Facebook is based on precisely the opposite premise.

And really, you could achieve this type of thought diversity by reading different books, picking up magazines from “the other side” every once and awhile, etc. But the cost of engagement is lower on Twitter; all you have to do is click the “follow” button.

Why I use a VPN (most of the time)

Control keyShort answer:

I’m paranoid and easily impressionable

Long answer:

Earlier this year, Congress voted to repeal rules that restricted ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and T-Mobile from selling information about the websites you visit. (Go here for a good overview courtesy of The Verge.)

I don’t have anything to hide; my internet history is basically just Twitter, New York Times, Amazon, and a few banks. But it’s not about whether or not you have something to hide. When combined with other publicly available data and information companies can buy about me (i.e. credit report, job history, location of home and work), my web browsing history can convey a fairly robust and accurate picture of my life.

It’s just another way we lose a bit of our privacy (and ourselves) to private corporations, so they can better target us with stuff to buy. Using a VPN is a way to get back a bit of control back.

How a VPN protects your privacy

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A typical internet connection links your device up right to your ISP’s infrastructure.

When you connect to the internet via VPN, there’s a middleman that encrypts all traffic to and from your ISP. This means that your data is anonymous to your ISP, and certain information your browser automatically shares with other websites are anonymized, too.

Why I said I use a VPN “most of the time”

I always use my VPN when on public wi-fi. Even if the coffee shop wi-fi is protected by a password, it’s super easy for a bad guy to steal your logins and passwords. (Learn more here.)

At home, my internet connection isn’t usually fast enough to support a VPN connection. But if you have a normal internet situation (i.e. cable internet) you probably won’t even notice a speed difference.

How VPNs work:

You can add a VPN in your device settings. Most VPN services come with their own apps, that make setting everything up super easy.

I use PureVPN, which has apps for Mac and iPhone. I tried another service, but it didn’t work as reliably as PureVPN. It’s usually $11/month, but they’re having a promo now for an annual subscription for $80.

From “War of the Worlds” to Benghazi

A recent article by Adrian Chen about fake news in the New Yorker begins with my favorite myth: That a 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’s *War of the Worlds* caused a mass panic. (It very likely did not.)

Next, Chen pivots to a more contemporary concern about the truthfulness of news content: the election of Trump, and Facebook/Twitter’s role in it. Much has been written about this topic. (Here are some of my favorites: Stratechery, Nieman Lab, Wired, Bloomberg).

What the hot takes I’ve read so far seem to miss is that we’re looking at this as a computer science problem. That is, since technology created the problem, it can fix it, too.

Chen:

It’s possible, though, that this approach comes with its own form of myopia. Neil Postman, writing a couple of decades ago, warned of a growing tendency to view people as computers, and a corresponding devaluation of the “singular human capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions.” A person does not process information the way a computer does, flipping a switch of “true” or “false.” One rarely cited Pew statistic shows that only four per cent of American Internet users trust social media “a lot,” which suggests a greater resilience against online misinformation than overheated editorials might lead us to expect. Most people seem to understand that their social-media streams represent a heady mixture of gossip, political activism, news, and entertainment. You might see this as a problem, but turning to Big Data-driven algorithms to fix it will only further entrench our reliance on code to tell us what is important about the world—which is what led to the problem in the first place. Plus, it doesn’t sound very fun.

As Chen explains later in the piece, automated solutions to the “fake news problem” also lend themselves to manipulation (i.e. people reporting news they don’t like as fake) and claims of bias directed toward the tech company themselves.

While I agree with the dangers of automated solutions to the fake news problem, I think the tech-rooted discussion also miss a larger issue with social media and the ways it’s changing how we interact with the world: the algorithms themselves, and the *types* of news they promote.

Facebook and Twitter are optimized for engagement, which is a bias that affects what you see when you use those platforms.

Alexis C. Madrigal:

Facebook’s draw is its ability to give you what you want. Like a page, get more of that page’s posts; like a story, get more stories like that; interact with a person, get more of their updates. The way Facebook determines the ranking of the News Feed is the probability that you’ll like, comment on, or share a story. Shares are worth more than comments, which are both worth more than likes, but in all cases, the more likely you are to interact with a post, the higher up it will show in your News Feed. Two thousand kinds of data (or “features” in the industry parlance) get smelted in Facebook’s machine-learning system to make those predictions.

Spreading false information on the platform itself is a problem that has a feasible solution. But the larger effects Madrigal talks about are the more worrisome ones, and have far less obvious answers.

Hi, I live in Williamsburg Brooklyn and don’t have internet in my apartment

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Not to brag, but my wife and I live in a studio apartment with exposed brick walls and hardwood floors in what was Brooklyn’s hippest neighborhood until Whole Foods opened in the summer of 2016.

It’s a nice place, but in the rush to secure an apartment earlier this year, we neglected to ask what I thought was an unnecessary question: Does this building have internet access?

Had we asked, the answer would’ve been, yes, if you count DSL as internet.

But since we didn’t ask, I looked around the perimeter of the apartment only to find a phone line. So I emailed the management company and asked where the cable hookups were. The building is only wired for DSL, I think, was the response.

Next, I called every other ISP in the New York area and had the same conversation with each of them.

Me: I’m calling to see if I can get your service in my building.
Person on phone: What’s your address?
Me: [address redacted]
Them: No.

I quickly ran out of options, so I called Verizon and signed up for “high-speed” DSL, even though I doubted the salesperson’s claims that I would be able to stream video with speeds of 3–7 megabytes-per-second.

In fact, the fastest connection speed I ever recorded was 0.8 mbps. It was completely useless.

Plan G it was. I cancelled Verizon and added an extra iPhone to our T-Mobile plan and picked up a $49 Lightning-to-HDMI cable so we can stream Netflix right from the extra phone to the TV. We use the personal hotspot to go online with our laptops.

It’s a reasonably sufficient solution about 75% of the time; the remaining 1/4 of the time is spent watching web pages slowly come in to focus or staring at a black screen waiting for Hulu to load, and wondering how the heck it’s possible to not have internet access in New York City.