Google Duplex and the future of phone calls

For the longest time, I would just drop by the barber shop in the hopes they had an opening. Why? Because I didn’t want to make a phone call to schedule an appointment. I hate making phone calls. What if they don’t answer and I have to leave a voicemail? What if they do answer and I have to talk to someone? I’m fine with in-person interactions, but there’s something about phones. Yuck. So I initially greeted the news that Google Duplex would handle phone calls for me with great glee.

Of course it’s not that simple. A voice-enabled AI that can pass for human is ripe for abuse. Imagine the phone scams you could pull.

I recently called a local non-profit that I support to increase my monthly donation. They did not verify my identity in any way. So that’s one very obvious way for causing mischief. I could also see tech support scammers using this as a tool in their arsenal — if not to actually conduct the fraud then to pre-screen victims so that humans only have to talk to likely victims. It’s efficient!

Anil Dash, among many others, pointed out the apparent lack of consent in Google Duplex:

The fact that Google inserted “um” and other verbal placeholders into Duplex makes it seem like they’re trying to hide the fact that it’s an AI. In response to the blowback, Google has said it will disclose when a bot is calling:

That helps, but I wonder how much abuse consideration Google has given this. It will definitely be helpful to people with disabilities that make using the phone difficult. It can be a time-saver for the Very Important Business Person™, too. But will it be used to expand the scale of phone fraud? Could it execute a denial of service attack against a business’s phone lines? Could it be used to harass journalists, advocates, abuse victims, etc?

As I read news coverage of this, I realized that my initial reaction didn’t consider abuse scenarios. That’s one of the many reasons diverse product teams are essential. It’s easy for folks who have a great deal of privilege to be blind to the ways technology can be misused. I think my conclusion is a pretty solid one:

The tech sector still has a lot to learn about ethics.

I was discussing this with some other attendees at the Advanced Scale Forum last week. Too many computer science and related programs do not require any coursework in ethics, philosophy, etc. Most of computing has nothing to do with computers, but instead with the humans and societies that the computers interact with. We see the effects play out in open source communities, too: anything that’s not code is immediately devalued. But the last few years should teach us that code without consideration is dangerous.

Ben Thompson had a great article in Stratechery last week comparing the approaches of Apple and Microsoft versus Google and Facebook. In short: Apple and Microsoft are working on AI that enhances what people can do while Google and Facebook are working on AI to do things so people don’t have to. Both are needed, but the latter would seem to have a much greater level of ethical concerns.

There are no easy answers yet, and it’s likely that in a few years tools like Google Duplex will not even be noticeable because they’ve become so ubiquitous. The ethical issues will be addressed at some point. The only question is if it will be proactive or reactive.



LISA wants you: submit your proposal today

I have the great honor of being on the organizing committee for the LISA conference this year. If you’ve followed me for a while, you know how much I enjoy LISA. It’s a great conference for anyone with a professional interest in sysadmin/DevOps/SRE. This year’s LISA is being held in Nashville, Tennessee, and the committee wants your submission.

As in years past, LISA content is focused on three tracks: architecture, culture, and engineering. There’s great technical content (one year I learned about Linux filesystem tuning from the guy who maintains the ext filesystems), but there’s also great non-technical content. The latter is a feature more conferences need to adopt.

I’d love to see you submit a talk or tutorial about how you solve the everyday (and not-so-everyday) problems in your job. Do you use containers? Databases? Microservices? Cloud? Whatever you do, there’s a space for your proposal.

Submit your talk to by 11:59 PM Pacific on Thursday, May 24. Or talk one of your coworkers into it. Better yet, do both! LISA can only remain a great conference with your participation.

Facebook, but for dating

Women who have received unsolicited…solicitations… on Facebook may be surprised to learn this, but Facebook doesn’t have a way for lonely singles in your area to meet each other. Or at least it didn’t. Mark Zuckerberg got on stage last week at F8 and announced to the world that Facebook is entering the matchmaking game.

This may seem pretty tone deaf, coming just weeks after we learned about Cambridge Analytica. Rest assured, it only seems that way because it is. And even though #deletefacebook seems to have been more bark than bite, it doesn’t seem like a great time to roll out a service that gets more directly at people’s most personal parts of life. So why would anyone use this?


Creep factor

The creep factor is definitely in play here. I’m not talking about the rando you get matched up with, but the service itself. Facebook took some PR damage from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Given what Facebook already knows (or surmises) about us, do we really want to feed it more information?

Morality play

From what I understand from other reporting, this is only available to people who indicate they are single. I know several couples who are openly polyamorous, which means I probably know twice as many who quietly polyamorous. It seems like Facebook is missing out on that demographic. I guess they figure it’s worth alienating that group to avoid being the place where non-poly folks go to commit adultery?

It’s 2018

The matching is done by having people select nearby events and places they’re interested in. This means matching only happens with geographic proximity. I’ll grant that it’s generally easier to have a long-term relationship when you’re nearby, but online dating has been a thing for a while now. Users should be able to select the radius that’s appropriate for them.

In a relationship

But not everything about is bad. Facebook gets it right on a few points, too.


Facebook is explicitly not matching people to their friends. The assumption being that if you wanted to date someone you already know, you have a means of doing that. That’s probably a wise course of action. Unrequited desire could make life awkward for everyone.

Courage in (no) profiles

A person’s dating profile will not be generally visible. That strikes me as a positive, because it means you can’t go trawling through profiles. And if you have something embarrassing in there (say you’re interested in a Nickelback concert), your friends won’t see it.

It’s complicated

The markets are betting that this new service spells danger for competitors. The company that owns, Tinder, and other dating services broke up with 20% of its share price the day of the announcement. After a day and a half of trading, it’s down over 26%. By the time this post publishes, who knows where it will be?

But I’m thinking that now might be a good time to pick up the stock on the cheap. People aren’t running away from Facebook, but that doesn’t mean they’ll jump onto this new service when it rolls out. And given the aging Facebook user base, there may be less of an audience than they think.

Other writing – April 2018

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?


Disrupting our way to the old days

My coworker recently shared an article from The Economist about changes in insurance. As more workers forego traditional employment to participate in the so-called “gig economy”, they find they’re in need of insurance. So companies are working with insurance companies to provide part-time insurance coverage.

Some of these cases make sense. Couriers are ride share drivers may not have auto insurance that covers their job-related use of the car. A pay-per-minute model of relevant insurance that’s in effect when the app is in use makes sense. What I struggle to understand is how coverage “against illness, disability and death” works under such a model.  The article mentions an agreement between Uber and an insurance broker that charges on a per-mile basis, but is coverage similarly rated?

But what gets me is how this brings the gig economy a little closer to traditional jobs. Gig economy companies have fought very hard to have participants labeled as contractors, not employees. But by offering benefits, aren’t they weakening that claim? In the same way that ride sharing companies have re-discovered the concept of buses, I look forward to the day when they’re indistinguishable from traditional employers. Of course, they’ll find a way to boast about how disruptive their 401(k) matching and generous paid time off plans are.

Combating money laundering with free books

Well that’s a weird title, isn’t it? But it turns out that Amazon is an excellent place for all kinds of commerce: buying goods, selling services (Mechanical Turk, hello!). Oh yeah, and money laundering. One author recently discovered some of his titles were being used as part of a money laundering scheme. Since Amazon is essentially unwilling to do anything about it, he did the only thing he could: he made the books free.

Of course, that won’t stop people from “selling” used copies for large sums of money. It does give people who are actually interested in the book a way to get it for free. And by driving people to his website instead of Amazon, he helps readers avoid the illegitimate listings. But I suspect most people go to Amazon first when they’re looking for a book (or just about anything else). In that case, visitors are more likely to find the illegitimate, expensive copy and give up.

No matter what the effect on readers, there’s a clear effect on Mr. Faber: he’s not making money. Faber probably doesn’t need the money from book sales. As the co-founder and Chief Investment Officer of an investment company, he’s probably doing pretty well. But someone who makes their living – or at least a substantial portion of their living – from book sales has more to lose doing this.

Of course, authors shouldn’t be the ones to fight Amazon’s fraud problems. The last I heard, Amazon has a few dollars that they could throw at it. On the other hand, they get a cut of the money that gets laundered, too. It’s in their (short-term) financial interests to try not to notice this. The only real losers I see are the banks who have to cover the losses from the stolen cards (and the poor saps who get stuck with the bogus 1099). Could the banks put pressure on Amazon to fix it? Or will it require a big fine from the feds?

Be like Harry

Editor’s note: This is a lightly-edited version of the introduction to my most recent newsletter. I’m reproducing it here in the interests of having #content on this blog and because Harry Anderson meant more to me than I realized.

Last week was rough for famous people. R. Lee Ermey, Carl Kasell, Barbara Bush, Avicii, and Verne Troyer all passed away. But one name stood out for me: Harry Anderson. I first got to “know” Harry when I was young. My parents would often watch the TV series “Dave’s World”. Since we only had one TV, that meant I watched it, too. I have no real memories of the show, but I remember being amused by it.

The memory that sticks out most is a recollection from a road trip to visit my grandfather in Florida. It was a two-day drive for us, and I remember one particular time we stopped in a motel on the way down. My parents turned the TV on to distract us kids while they got the room ready and the toothbrushes unpacked. I saw Harry Anderson and said “oh good! ‘Dave’s World’ is on.” It was actually “Night Court”.

Years later, I began watching “Night Court” in earnest, largely through clips on YouTube until my wife started a tradition of buying me a season on DVD for each Gift-Giving Occasion™. The show is an absolute gem of popular culture. Some of the jokes were probably funnier 30 years ago, but most of it holds up well.

Part of what makes it so great is Anderson as the goofball Judge Stone. Stone is not perfect – he’s a real jerk sometimes – but he’s fundamentally a decent person who wants to do right by everyone. Harry Stone had the ability to see the best in people and bring it out of them. Funny one moment, sappy the next, Harry Stone wasn’t just someone you could aspire to be, he was someone you could be.

I don’t know what Harry Anderson was like as a person, but I’d like to think he was a lot like his Harry Stone character. I think we should all be a little more like Harry Stone.

The resurgence of the web forum

I saw an interesting thread on Twitter recently. The Ghost community shut down their Slack instance in favor of a forum. Yes, those mainstays of mid-aughts online socialization seem to be making a comeback. And I get it. As much as I appreciate Slack for work chat, it’s kind of a pain to use socially when you have a lot of groups.

I’ve written before about the downsides of Slack for communities. But in that, I was thinking more of the individual perspective. John’s thread brings the group perspective to mind.

As communities grow, it’s harder for people to feel a sense of belonging. Slack’s fast pace and emphasis on the moment make it hard to step away. Indeed, in a large community using the free version, you lose history pretty quickly. This is true of other group instant messaging, too, of course. But there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of thousand-person chat rooms (or dozen-person group texts). Many-to-many communication gets noisy quickly.

If a community’s messages are largely of the question-and-answer variety, forums make a lot of sense. Keeping the answers near the questions makes it easier for future visitors. Both the questions and answers become easier to find. Of course fora have their own issues. You have to remember to go to the website and check for new messages (or else get a barrage of emails that you’ll ignore anyway). But it goes to show that technology is cyclical. And even good products can fade as the newness wears off.

Beware weather forecast snake oil

Snake oil salesman are found in every industry and weather forecasting is no different. So how do you identify weather forecast snake oil? One major sign is that the forecaster doesn’t talk about it until after the fact. Another is that you only hear about the successful forecasts. And of course, if it seems to good to be true, there’s a good chance it is.

I recently saw someone talking about severe weather forecasts months out. The man behind these forecasts isn’t just some rando with a website. He has a PhD in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma and is a forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center. So it’s entirely possible that he’s on to something here. But I’m suspicious.

He recently posted about his forecast for March tornadoes. The forecast is ostensibly from three months before the outbreak. I looked through the archives and there was no indication prior to the fact. His website contains no forward-looking forecasts. There’s no methodology. There’s no discussion of busted forecasts.

I don’t know Dr. Cook. I don’t want to say anything about him as a person or a forecaster. But until he shows more transparency on his forecasts, I’m inclined to call it weather forecast snake oil.

Woz deactivates his Facebook account

USA TODAY reported Sunday that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak deactivated his Facebook account. “Woz” said “The profits are all based on the user’s info, but the users get none of the profits back.” I read this quote and I wondered where he had been. Certainly we’ve learned more details in recent weeks about how Facebook makes their money, but I didn’t think the general mechanism was hidden. Woz is much smarter than I could ever hope to be, so I found his sudden realization a bit confusing.

Now Woz is hardly the first person to deactivate his account. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, “#DeleteFacebook” is a popular topic. But despite the popularity of the topic, users don’t seem to be following through. I still use Facebook, although I’m spending less time on the site. My engagement has been trending downward for a while, and I can’t say that Cambridge Analytica had much of an effect one way or another.

It’s been said a bazillion times before, but it bears repeating: if you’re not paying for the service, you’re the product. I don’t view that as a value judgment, though. I’m willing to trade data for free services that are valuable to me. The question is: does the data I give up equal or exceed the value I get from the product? If it does, I keep using it.

Facebook is a good tool for passively keeping up with people I like. It’s algorithms ensure that I can’t use it to actively keep up on my friends, but it’s better than nothing. I was talking to my friend’s mother over the weekend and she decided to attend her 50th high school reunion because of the reconnections she made with Facebook. Meanwhile, I haven’t bothered with any high school reunions in part because Facebook allows me to keep in touch.

As with any economic exchange, each person needs to weigh what they give and what they get. Facebook can stand to be more transparent about what happens with user data (though that’s not even the issue they need to be most transparent about). But just because the users aren’t getting the profits, that doesn’t mean they’re not getting value.