The blurring lines of ownership

There was a time when you owned your car. Once you drove it off the lot, you could do whatever you wanted with it (subject to the laws of your local jurisdiction and the laws of physics). The manufacturer had no say in the matter — indeed they had know way of even knowing what you did. But this is beginning to change.

As hurricane Dorian approached the US coast, Tesla unlocked extra range on cars in the evacuation area. That’s right: Tesla 1. has the ability to change your car’s settings remotely and 2. is selling cars that intentionally reduce the range below maximum.

Let’s take a look at the second part first. Tesla, in order to offer a lower entry price, withholds some battery range by software configuration. You can pay them to get the full range. I understand they do this because it’s cheaper for them to have a single battery. But it feels scummy to me. Tesla’s costs are the same whether you buy the short-range version or the long-range version. So unless you pay them extra, you’re forced to drive around with extra weight. It’s like if Honda required me to keep two gallons of fuel in my gas tank that I could never use.

Tesla fans will defend this, and I understand their arguments. But it strikes me as a very uncomfortable middle ground between me owning the car and Tesla owning the car.

Tesla also, as I mentioned, has the ability to change this setting remotely. What else can they change? Presumably just about anything. I got to ride around in my friend’s Tesla earlier this year and you can do a lot from the app. Lock/unlock the doors, turn on the air conditioning, turn on the seat warmers. Unless the app is down., of course. (In Tesla’s defense, owners really should have a physical key of some kind with them because computers are the worst.)

None of this is me picking on Tesla, they just happen to be a convenient example and perhaps the furthest along the evolutionary line. At some point in the future, I suspect that individual ownership of automobiles will decrease dramatically. But we are not there yet. But we’re also no longer in a model where individuals fully own their cars. As cars get “smarter” the amount that the nominal owner actually owns them will decrease. Eventually we’ll cross a tipping point.

In the meantime, you have to decide how much you trust you car’s manufacturer. How smart do you want your car to be? Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the tech industry at large have shown little respect for the privacy rights of users. Does Tesla? If it does now, will it in the future? If Ford buys Tesla tomorrow, will they shut the servers down and suddenly your car is much less than it was.

This isn’t limited to cars, either. If your smart thermostat’s manufacturer shuts off the servers tomorrow, will your heat still turn on? If your abusive ex works at the manufacturer, can they access your data? Can they change the settings on your thermostat? Abusers are already putting connected devices to nefarious use.

None of this technology is bad per se, but we are woefully ill-equipped to handle it at this point. Existing laws and regulations were written largely for a different time. As a society, we have not yet come to define what reasonable boundaries are. The nature of ownership is changing. We need to change our concepts of ownership to keep up.

Is venture capital hurting the tech industry?

Maybe.

So many of the ethical lapses in the tech industry (think Facebook or Uber) seem to be driven, in part, by the need to grow as rapidly as possible. From where does that need come? At least part of it comes from the venture capitalists (VCs) who provide the early funding for those companies.

VC firms work by throwing a little money at a lot of companies, and throwing more money at the companies that are doing well, in the hopes that they go public or get acquired. Then the VC firms get big ol’ paydays. The nature of business is that most companies fail, so in order to keep going, the VC firms need the successes to be really big successes. Grow as fast as you can, profit and ethics be damned, until someone buys you for oodles of money.

To make themselves attractive to venture capital firms, fledgling companies will sometimes go for the flashy new technology. They’ll think about how they can disrupt industries with blockchain-based crypto-cloud-crowd-AI-machine-learning whatever-whatever-whatever. Everything has to scale exponentially. Throw in all sorts of sensors and have the device do local inference. Even if all they need is to put a stick-shaker on a steering wheel.

But this growth comes at a cost. Scaling a company culture is hard. Scaling it as fast as you can spin up a new AWS region is impossible. Free-flowing capital allows companies to build out quickly, but quickly isn’t always the same as well. Having restricted capital available is a constraint that can help a company make focused and deliberate decisions.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Not just because of my experience at a local pitch night, but because it’s just past the two year anniversary of Microsoft acquiring Cycle Computing. Jason and Rachel Stowe founded Cycle Computing in 2005 on their credit card. Apart from a debt round in 2016 (if I remember correctly), the company existed for 12 years on revenue.

It wasn’t always easy. There were times when I took a far-too-early flight because it would save the company fifty dollars. We had to be careful with our expenses and we couldn’t hire as fast as we wanted. But when we did spend money, it was because we thought it was the best thing for the company’s success, not just because it was there to spend. But that also meant that when the big payday came, the employees got a nice windfall — there were no VCs to pay off first.

Companies, particularly software and consulting companies that don’t need much equipment, can succeed in low-capital mode unlike anything we’ve known in the past. You don’t need office space because your employees can work remotely. You don’t need data centers because you can run on cloud services. Pay your employees and give them laptops, and then you’re off to the races. Capital infusion can help, but often it can make it worse. If you’re in business to run a successful business (as opposed to making big money), then maybe venture capital is not the answer for you.

As an industry — and a species — we’ve grown to love big, flashy numbers. But it’s important not to mistake valuation for value.

Switching from consumer Gmail to G Suite

Last spring, I was having some trouble with my email. I had my @funnelfiasco.com email forwarding to the Gmail account I’d been using since 2005 or so. But for some reason, every so often email would silently just not make it through. This nearly cost me the opportunity to be the technical reviewer for The Linux Philosophy for SysAdmins (affiliate link). There was no real indication of what was going on, and since my friend graciously hosts my site for free, I didn’t want to push too hard. So I decided I’d just be Google’s customer instead of their product.

Here’s the kicker: Google doesn’t let you just become a paying user. So I created a G Suite account for FunnelFiasco, a “company” of one person. But this also meant that I couldn’t just magically promote my existing account. Instead, I had to migrate all of the data. This turned out to be mostly easy, but a bit of a pain in some regards.

Migrating

Chrome

Moving Chrome data to a G Suite account is very easy: you log out and log in with the new account. The main thing to remember is to not deleting the existing data when you log in with the new account. It’s that simple. If you have any payment methods stored, those are in Google Play, not in Chrome.

Voice

Moving Google Voice is less easy. You can’t import your history into the new account, which killed a lot of the value for me (that was part of the reason I decided to port my Google Voice number to my mobile carrier). You can export it and keep it locally, but that’s not entirely helpful. But once I made peace with that, I was able to transfer it to my G Suite account. However, the Google Voice support site says that’s not an option these days.

Contacts

It’s as simple as exporting from the old account and importing to the new. It took a little while for my imported contacts to show up, which led me to think the import failed. So I tried again. And then I had all of my contacts twice. So I deleted them all and imported again. This time I was patient, and it was fine. But if you switch the main Google account on your Android phone, you may be surprised when an edit to a contact doesn’t appear to be reflected on your phone (it’s still showing the old account’s version, too).

Mail

G Suite provides a data migration service for importing email. This worked very well, but very slowly. One of the benefits of Gmail, especially in the early days, was the bountiful storage space. Combined with usable search, it meant not having to delete email. So I had something like 383,000 emails in my account. This took about 10 weeks for the data migration service to import. There are probably faster ways to do this, but I didn’t really care. If I needed an old message, I could log in to the old account.

The data migration service does not move mail filters. Those can be exported as an XML document and reimported to the new account.

Calendar

I apparently didn’t take notes on this at the time, but I think what I did here was to add my G Suite account as a fully-privileged user for my consumer calendar. I had them both displayed and as I saw things that were owned by the old account, I moved them to the new calendar. Most of my calendar events are on the shared family calendar anyway, so making my new account an owner there was essentially no different.

Docs/Drive

As with the calendar, I had to add my new account as owner to the documents I still cared about. It’s an annoyingly manual process.

Other services

I didn’t have much data — if any — in other services (YouTube, etc), so I didn’t worry about that.

Life with two Google Accounts

In the end, I’m sort of stuck with having two Google Accounts. Most people don’t email me directly at my @gmail account because I’ve been using @funnelfiasco.com for so long. But the account still exists and I go check it every so often to make sure I’m not missing anything. The few people who use Hangouts Chat still mostly IM me at the funnelfiasco account, but occasionally they’ll slip up and use the gmail account.

G Suite is overkill for my needs, but it’s the only way Google will take my money. At some point, I’d like to extricate myself from Google to some degree. I know it’s possible, and I know many of the people who might read this post would strongly advocate it. But it’s also very convenient to use Google, and I’m aware of the trade-offs I’m making. I’m not interested in having that conversation.

The T-Mobile/Sprint merger might be beneficial

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his support of a proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. It’s not often that Chairman Pai and I agree on anything, so I feel I should point out when it happens. T-Mobile and Sprint are the third and distant fourth place players in the U.S. cellular market. Combined they’d be second behind Verizon.

Normally, fewer players in a market means less competition. I think this may be the rare case where fewer players makes for more competition. Right now, T-Mobile competes on price, customer service (T-Mobile Tuesdays, anyone?), and speed (where you get coverage). Speaking from my experience as a T-Mobile customer, the service is top-notch, where it exists. And that’s where a merger might help. By combining resources, the larger T-Mobile can improve geographic coverage and perhaps give Verizon a run for the money when spectrum goes up for auction.

For all of T-Mobile CEO John Legere’s bravado, T-Mobile is basically yapping at the heels of Verizon and AT&T. Sprint, meanwhile, is destined to die at some point. Allowing it to merge with T-Mobile means that Verizon and AT&T don’t get to gobble up the carcass in bankruptcy auction. The Department of Justice disagrees, so it remains to be seen if the merger can complete. But I think it would give us three big players, instead of two big players and two smaller players. That sounds more competitive to me.

Full disclosure: I am a T-Mobile customer and shareholder.

Google product shutdowns: a forest fire for the Internet

Google has a problem. Well, Google probably has many problems. But in a recent Ars Technica article, Ron Amadeo points out a particular problem: shutting down products frequently is harming the Google brand. Google killing off products is nothing new; some people are still mad about the death of Google Reader nearly six years ago.

Are we reaching an inflection point, though? I don’t know. I lived in fear of Google ending Google Voice, but that managed to survive despite languishing for a long time. But when I saw that T-Mobile offered a service that (somewhat poorly) replaced the Google Voice features I actually used, I switched. With the exception of Reader, none of the product retirements have affected me personally very much. I wanted to like Google+, but it never caught on. I liked iGoogle, but once it went away, I was fine without it.

Even though I haven’t personally been affected too much by Google’s ruthless culling of the portfolio, I’ve found that I’m becoming more likely to consider alternatives to Google services when they exist. Certainly if I were running a business, I would be very wary of relying on any software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering apart from the Gmail/Google Drive core.

I get that Google is trying different things and there’s a lot to be said for cutting off a project (particularly a popular one), when it’s not meeting whatever measure of success you set for it. Doing this in public is even more challenging. I don’t think this will end up causing too much harm to Google, despite mounting dissatisfaction. As long as search (and ads, of course) remain strong, these consumer services exist only as experiments in finding new ways to get ads in front of eyeballs.

What does concern me is Google’s ability to suck the oxygen out of the room. By creating a reliable, easy-to-use product, Google can eliminate the competition. Then when they shut it down, destruction is left in the wake. I’m thinking in particular of the diminished role of RSS after Google Reader’s shutdown and the drop in instant messaging (at least among my friends) after Hangouts removed XMPP support and essentially went on life support.

Neither of these can be entirely attributed to Google. The rise of Facebook as a behemoth helped, too. But the fact that Google weakened the ecosystem made it easier, I’d argue, for Facebook to swoop in and finish the job.

All told, I think Google’s product retirements are a good thing, as dysfunctional as they may be sometimes. They clear the underbrush of product offerings like a forest fire. Some of the strongest survive and the rest is made ready for new life to spring forth.

Protecting the privacy interests of others

Every so often, I think about privacy. Usually because Facebook or another large company has acted stupidly again. And I’ll admit that despite the lousy track record that many companies have, I make the choice to use their services anyway because I determine the value to outweigh the negatives. But not everyone makes that choice.

When we talk about protecting privacy, we generally talk about protecting our own privacy. But our privacy impacts the privacy of others. I got on this line of thought a while back while listening to This Week in Law (RIP) episode 440. They were talking about what happens to your digital property (e.g. email and social media accounts) after you die. While I won’t particularly care about what is said about me after I’m dead — I’ll be dead after all — it’s not just my content there.

Sometimes my friends tell me things about their lives. The most convenient way happens to be email or instant messaging. Now you can argue that these sorts of things should be discussed in a more secure manner, but that ignore the way people live their actual lives. Anyway, sometimes my friends tell me things that they wouldn’t necessarily want others to know. Secrets about relationships, desires, worries, etc.

If my accounts become available to someone else after my death, then so do the messages sent in confidence to me. And just because my friend felt comfortable confiding in me, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll feel comfortable with my estate knowing their secrets.

It’s a tricky situation. A generation or two ago, these sorts of things would be communicated in person, over the phone, or by written letter. Only the last of these would leave a record of the content, and even then they’re likely destroyed fairly soon. The ability to cheaply store communications en masse is both a blessing and a curse. Neither law nor societal norms have yet come to terms with this new world.

Tech is a garbage industry filled with people making garbage decisions

I work with some great people in the tech space. But the fact that there are terrific people in tech is not a valid reason to ignore how garbage our industry can be. It’s not even that we do bad things intentionally, we’re just oblivious to the possible bad outcomes. There are a number of paths by which I could come to this conclusion, but two recent stories prompted this post.

Can you track me now?

The first was an article last Tuesday that revealed AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint made it really easy to track the location of a phone for just a few hundred dollars. They’ve all promised to cut off that service (of course, John Legere of T-Mobile has said that before) and Congress is taking an interest. But the question remains: who thought this was a good idea? Oh sure, I bet they made some money off of it. But did no one in a decision-making capacity stop and think “how might this be abused?” Could a domestic abuser fork over $300 to find the shelter their victim escaped to? This puts people’s lives in danger. Would you be surprised if we learned someone had died because their killer could track them in real time?

It just looks like AI

And then on Thursday, we learned that Ring’s security system is very insecure. As Sam Biddle reported, Ring kept unencrypted customer video in S3 buckets that were widely available across the company. All you needed was the customer’s email address and you could watch their videos. The decision to keep the videos unencrypted was deliberate because (pre-acquisition by Amazon), company leadership felt it would diminish the value of the company.

I haven’t seen any reporting that would indicate the S3 bucket was publicly viewable, but even if it wasn’t, it’s a huge risk to take with customer data. One configuration mistake and you could expose thousands of people’s homes to public viewing. Not to mention that anyone on the inside could still use their access to spy on the comings and goings of people they knew.

If that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that much of the object recognition that Ring touted wasn’t done by AI at all. Workers in the Ukraine were manually labeling objects in the video. Showing customer video to employees wasn’t just a side effect of their design, it was an intentional choice.

This is bad in ways that extend beyond this example:

Bonus: move fast and brake things?

I’m a little hesitant to include this since the full story isn’t known yet, but I really love my twist on the “move fast and break things” mantra. Lime scooters in Switzerland were stopping abruptly and letting inertia carry the rider forward to unpleasant effect. Tech Crunch reported that it could be due to software updates happening mid-ride, rebooting the scooter. Did no one think that might happen, or did they just not test it?

Technology won’t save us

I’m hardly the first to say this, but we have to stop pretending that technology is inherently good. I’m not even sure we can say it’s neutral at this point. Once it gets into the hands of people, it is being used to make our lives worse in ways we don’t even understand. We cannot rely on technology to save us.

So how do we fix this? Computer science and similar programs (or really all academic programs) should include ethics courses as mandatory parts of the curriculum. Job interviews should include questions about ethics, not just technical questions. I commit to asking questions about ethical considerations in every job interview I conduct. Companies have to ask “how can this be abused?” as an early part of product design, and they must have diverse product teams so that they get more answers. And we must, as a society, pay for journalism that holds these companies to account.

The only thing that can save us is ourselves. We have to take out our own garbage.

We can’t replace Facebook with personal websites

Facebook is a….troublesome…company. The rampant disregard for personal privacy or the negative effects of the platform are concerning at best and actively evil at worst. So it’s not surprise that Jason Koebler’s recent Motherboard article about replacing Facebook with personal websites got a lot of traction, particularly among my more technoliterate friends.

But it’s not an easy solution as that. In the late 90s and early 00s, we had a collection of personal websites. There’s a reason that the centralized social media model (MySpace, Facebook, etc) took hold: a decentralized social network is hard.

The first hard part is getting people to use it. Facebook, to a degree not previously seen, made it really easy for the average person to have an online presence. They could easily share updates and post photos without having to know much of anything about computers or the Internet. They don’t have to worry about keeping anything except their content up-to-date.

The other hard part is connecting to those other people. It’s easy to broadcast your message out to the world. It’s harder to find those you want to keep up with. If someone is on Facebook, they’re findable. If you’re not sure it’s the John Doe you’re looking for, you have additional contextual cues like mutual friends, etc to make it more clear. That’s less clear with John Doe’s WordPress site.

And Facebook provides more social features. You can tag your friends in photos (for better and worse). It has group communication features. It has event management. It provides access control. Sure, you could put a decentralized version of that together, but that increases the complexity. At some point, if you want it to be widely used outside of the tech community, you need some kind of centralized service to act as a directory. And then at that point, why not just make the centralized service the host?

I’m not saying that a company like Facebook is inevitable. With regulation or better ethics (or both!) Facebook or a service a lot like it could provide similar value without trampling on democracy and privacy. But it’s clear that “just have a personal website” is not a real replacement for Facebook.

So long, Google Voice

I signed up for Google Voice in about 2008 or 2009. This was back when providers actually charged you for text messages and I didn’t really use them. So I registered for an account and didn’t do a whole lot with it until I changed jobs and ended up in the basement. RIP cell phone signal. Google Voice made it possible to call one number and ring either my cell phone if I was above ground or my office phone if I was in the office.

It turns out that was pretty useful to me, so by the time I was moved to a different office, my Google Voice number was the number I told everyone to use. Being able to text and make phone calls from my web browser was a great feature. But as carriers started catching up, Google Voice sat stagnant. I braced myself for Google to decide they were going to drop the service.

Instead, they finally added the ability to send and receive pictures. In 2014. For a long time, that was only available if you used Hangouts for your Voice messages. But then the Voice app got support and all was right with the world. Unless you wanted to do videos. It’s something Google is supposedly close to rolling out.

But a few weeks ago, I bought a Samsung Galaxy Watch. That meant making phone calls or sending texts would come from my carrier number. Since I’ve been giving people my Google Voice number for nearly a decade, I figured that would just lead to confusion. So I decided to ditch Google Voice and port my number to my carrier.

It was fairly straightforward, albeit slightly slow. This is apparently due to the fact that Google Voice numbers are treated as landlines, so there’s more process involved. But not getting texts reliably for a few days was much easier than trying to get everyone to switch to using a new number for me.

I decided that the features I use are more important than the features I don’t use. I haven’t had Google Voice forward to anything except my cell phone for years. T-Mobile’s DIGITS service provides the web-based functionality I got from Google Voice (admittedly not quite as well, but I expect they’ll catch up). While I don’t often talk to my phone, the fact that Google Assistant can’t use Google Voice to send messages is a longstanding frustration.

Google had a chance to really make a great product here. Apart from search and GMail, Google Voice was the most valuable Google service for me. But the years of seeming neglect finally took its toll. Maybe some day I’ll move my number back, but for right now, I don’t really miss it.

Naming your files is important

I recently shared a Tweet about file names.

The inspiration for this was adding a new podcast to my podcatcher. For reasons that are mostly nerdy, I use bashpodder. I run it a couple of times an hour during my waking hours and stream or copy the files to whatever device I happen to be at. It’s a setup that works pretty well for me in general.

The downside is that all of the files get dumped into a directory by date. Some podcasts (e.g. Marketplace) do a good job of naming files: I know what show it is and when it’s from just by looking at the file name. Others use the network (e.g. “GLT” for Gimlet Media) and a string of numbers without any obvious meeting. The worst offender is Art19.com, from where I get “The Greatest Generation” and Akimbo. Those shows have UUIDs as filenames.

I can understand why, on the backend, that is beneficial. The files themselves are just one part of (I assume) a database of shows. No human ever has to touch it, so you might as well name it in a way that minimizes the risk of a naming collision. But it’s extremely hostile to the user.

I suspect that most podcast listeners these days use an app and don’t directly download the files. But for those that do, sane file names are important. A friend asked about using just the date as the file name, as he apparently does for recordings from his church. That’s even worse, because it assumes that the listener saves them in a unique location.

When it comes to media that you intend for others to download, it’s vitally important to not make any assumptions how they will store it. Maybe they save everything to their Downloads folder and never move it. If two separate items were produced on the same day, one of them will potentially get overwritten. That’s probably not what you want to happen.