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.

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?

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.

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.

Google accounts have gravity, too

When Dave McCrory first wrote about data gravity in 2010, he described the effect data has on apps. The more data that exists in one place, the more that place will pull in applications that act on the data. This makes sense. In fact, it’s at the core of the business strategy for many as-a-Service providers. But it turns out that it’s not just data in databases and files that have gravity.

Email is kind of important sometimes

Over the past month or so, I’ve had occasional trouble with email delivery to my domain. Since my friend is gracious enough to host my site for free, I didn’t want to push too much. But I nearly missed out on an opportunity to be a technical reviewer for a forthcoming book. I worried what other messages might not be getting through.

A few quick attempts at fixing the problem didn’t work. I got the sense that I was starting to become a burden. So I decided to take my friend’s advice and get a GSuite account. This turned out to be less easy than I expected.

Okay, so creating the account and getting my DNS settings updated was easy. The hard part is what to do with all of the data.

Accounts are data, too

The biggest challenge is that – as far as I can tell – there’s no way to take a free Google account and “promote” it. I’m an organization of one, so it works out really well for me to just say “change the domain name on this account and start charging me money for it”. That doesn’t seem to be a use case that Google supports.

No matter, they have tools for transferring (some) data. Email, calendar, and contact data can be transferred. But not settings, which may end up being a pain. (Mail filters, which I use heavily, can be exported and reimported, so that’s nice.) Oh and my Google Voice number? It looks like it can be transferred, but that’s my primary number so I’m hesitant to test it out. And what about my Chome data? And my Android data? Or the sites where I use my Google account as the login?

Yes, I am heavily invested in Google. More than I realized, even. I don’t mind that. I am aware of the tradeoff I’m making and I choose to make it. But it turns out there’s a lot of pain in switching all of my accounts over.

Reaching escape velocity

For now, I POP mail from my paid account into my free account. That seems silly, but it’s a functional setup for now. Part of me thinks I should keep doing that, since it means I don’t have to change anything and it’s easy to give up the GSuite account then. But I’ll probably move everything over at some point. I’ll find some annoyance that gives me just the boost I need to reach escape velocity. In the meantime, I’ll stay stuck to the planet.

Drawing conclusions from proxy data during extraordinary events

Note to the reader: this post refers to traffic data published by an adult video website. I do not link to that site directly, but pages linked in this post link to said website. I try to keep the content of this post safe for work, but use your own judgement.

How do people alter their behavior when they think they’re minutes from death? We got a chance to see just over a week ago when officials in Hawaii made a mistake. A very big mistake. They accidentally sent out a warning that a ballistic missile was inbound. For 38 minutes, people in Hawaii thought they were about to die in a nuclear attack.

An adult website that rhymes with “Corn Bub” found that their traffic dropped off dramatically during the time between the initial alert and the announcement that it was a false alarm. They compared traffic from Hawaii on that Saturday with the preceding two Saturdays and found at one point it was 77% below normal. After the all clear, page views spiked to 48% above normal.

One blogger used this to conclude that “nobody [engages in self-gratification] while waiting to die in a nuclear fire.” I cannot accept that conclusion without more supporting evidence. Under normal circumstances, I’d buy traffic to a mainstream adult website as a proxy for self-gratification. Not everyone uses such material, and those who do don’t all use the same website, but it’s probably a relatively stable representation of patterns. But the imminent threat of a fiery death is a (thankfully) unusual event that could drastically alter behavior.

Popular culture is rife with jokes and “sure, that totally happened’ tales of sexual activity when death looms (e.g. a crashing airliner). It’s entirely reasonable to believe that people figured “well, if I’m going to die, I might as well take care of this first” and immediately got down to business. Given the time constraints and the general stress of the situation, I would not be surprised if they didn’t partake in online content as they normally would.

Now I’m not saying that people did or did not engage in self-gratification during that time. I am saying using a particular website’s traffic as a proxy for that behavior is questionable. Even if it is reliable in normal circumstances. This is a particularly awkward example, but it’s a good lesson. If you’re not directly measuring something, don’t assume your proxies are valid in unusual situations.

Users will always find a way

A while back, I read an article about how people in Angola are using Wikipedia to shared pirated content. It reminds me of Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park”: “life…………..finds a way.” Given limited access to the Internet, clever people will find a way to use their resources in unintended ways.

At the time of the article’s publication, most Internet access in Angola was by way of mobile phone. The local carrier provided zero-rated access to Wikimedia sites, which means reading and writing to Wikipedia is free. With most of the rest of the Internet billed by usage, this makes Wikipedia an obvious hub for information exchange. And that’s what Wikipedia is intended for, but the copyright implications make this behavior dangerous for the site. Wikipedia functions as a public library in this sense, but with legal landmines.

The idea is a noble one. Wikipedia is a non-profit dedicated to sharing factual knowledge. Of course it is beneficial to give people access. But there’s a bit of “we did our part, time to move on” here. In a country where people make less than a thousand dollars a year, it takes more than an encyclopedia set to improve the standard of living.

Much like in centuries past, developed nations have no hesitation raiding poor countries for desired resources (how many companies buy foreign domain names so they can spell something cool?) in exchange for knowledge that the locals never asked for. Instead of religious missionaries, we give them an encyclopedia. Again, I’m not saying giving people access to Wikipedia is bad, but are we helping in the way we think we are?

Book review: Inside the Tornado

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm is perhaps the single most influential technology marketing book. When I first read it a few years ago, everything in it made sense and it gave me a better feel for where my company was (spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily where we thought we were). So when several people recommended Inside the Tornadoa sequel of sorts – I was ready to dig in and love it.

But I didn’t love it. It’s not because Moore is wrong. I don’t claim to know enough to assert that, and in fact I think he’s probably right on the whole. My dislike for the book instead is a matter of literary and ethical concerns.

The literary concern is what struck me first, so I’ll start there. Whereas the metaphor in Chasm is very straightforward, Tornado is a mess. You start in the bowling alley and then a tornado develops and eventually you end up on Main Street. Also, you want to be a gorilla or maybe a chimpanzee, but probably not a monkey. In fairness to Mr. Moore, some of this is because the concepts he tried to communicate became more complex in Tornado. Instead of the broad concepts of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, he focuses on the more intricate motions that happen on a smaller scale. As a meteorologist, I can appreciate this. Nonetheless, the roughness of the metaphor distracted me from the message of the book.

I’m also not particularly keen on what Moore tells us we must do to achieve dominance in the market. “To hell with quality or what your customer wants” may be the best way to achieve the market position you want when conditions are favorable to you. That doesn’t mean it’s what I want to do. Reading this book made me think of Don McLean’s third-most popular song: “if winning is what matters I respect the ones who fail.”

I suppose it may be a disconnect between my goals and what Moore assumes my goals are. Although I am a very competitive person, I am not interested in winning for winning’s sake. I want to do work that makes the world better, and if we’re in second or third place, that just means that others are also making the world a better place. That doesn’t seem like losing to me.

Inside the Tornado is one of those books that every technology marketer should read. But that doesn’t mean I recommend it.