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.

 

 

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.

Who’s competing with whom?

In Sunday’s Lafayette Journal & Courier, the USA Today section included an article by Matt Krantz comparing Microsoft and Apple. He treats the two companies as arch rivals, comparing them to the Cola War participants and to the longstanding animosity between fans of Ford and Chevy pickups. And he wasn’t wrong 20 years ago, but he is now. The OS wars are, if not entirely over, at least in a state of permanent cease-fire. Microsoft has very clearly won in volume; Apple turns a handsome profit. With the move toward a browser-based world, the OS on desktops and laptops is becoming increasingly irrelevant to mainstream consumers.

Indeed, the desktop and laptop are becoming less relevant (though not irrelevant, despite the slower sales in recent years). Over half of Apple’s Q3 2014 revenue came from iPhone sales. Macs (and the attendant Mac OS X) were a mere 15% of revenue. Apple could completely abandon the PC market tomorrow and still be fine. They’re clearly in the mobile device (and services) business today. Sure, Microsoft has a mobile offering. I’ve used a recent Windows Phone and it was pretty nice. But Microsoft is competing with Apple in the mobile space the same way that Apple is competing with Microsoft in the desktop OS space. As a hint, it’s the same way that this blog competes with Ars Technica.

If Apple is a mobile company, then who are they competing with? The obvious answer is Google. While Google doesn’t really do devices, they control the Android ecosystem (although the degree of control is debatable). Steve Jobs was willing to declare “thermonuclear war” on Android. I’m not aware of him harboring a similar hatred for the Windows Mobile devices that existed many years before.

I mentioned this on Twitter, and Krantz argued that Google is an ad company, whereas Apple and Microsoft are “technology companies”. The distinction is lost on me. Technology is such a broad term that it is effectively meaningless. And while Google may derive most of its revenue from advertising, it’s only capable of generating that revenue because of the technology it produces and acquires.

There’s just not much meaningful competition between Apple and Microsoft these days. Both of these companies compete with Google, but in different spaces. The recently-announced partnership between Apple and IBM may bring Apple back into competition with Microsoft, but that remains to be seen.

So what are the lessons here? First: just because a guy has a money column in USA Today, that doesn’t mean he understands the technology (overly-broad term used intentionally) industry. Second: just because you were once bitter rivals with a company (or a person), you may not stay that way forever. Third: it is very important to be aware of who is in the space you want to be in so you can do it better than they do.

 

So long, Google Reader

In case you haven’t been paying attention in the past 24 hours, the Pope has killed Google Reader.

What? Oh! Okay, Google is killing Google Reader. On July 1, the best RSS client I’ve ever used will be no more. One of the more interesting aspects of the reaction is seeing how people have used it. I never really got into the sharing feature of Reader, so it didn’t bother me when it was discontinued in favor of Google Plus. For some people, that was apparently the main selling point.

My own use was generally selfish. I just wanted to know when something new was posted to a site. This is especially important for sites that don’t update regularly, as I’m not likely to keep checking a site every day on the off chance it’s been updated. I also don’t want to rely on social media to get updates. If I’ve been offline for a few days, I’m not going to catch up on all of the Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ posts I’ve missed. I will scroll through the entire collection of articles in Google Reader, reading those that seem interesting.

I can buy that RSS has seen a decline in usage (not in utility, but that’s a separate matter). I can understand that Google doesn’t find it worthwhile to keep Reader going. Like Casey Johnston, I suspect that it won’t go away entirely (as you may recall, the real-time editing technology in Google Wave made an excellent addition to Google Docs). But here’s the thing: I don’t really care.

Yes, I use Google Reader on a daily basis. I’m not tied to it, though. Reader doesn’t integrate with any other Google products in a way that’s meaningful for me. So while I have probably spent more time watching this woman’s face than my wife is comfortable with, I’ll make do without Google Reader. I don’t know what I’ll migrate to yet. NewsBlur has been brought up several times, although they currently aren’t allowing new free accounts (presumably due to being crushed by new users in the wake of yesterday’s announcement). I may also go the self-hosting route and set up tt-rss (which may also present an opportunity to run it as a paid service for those who can’t/won’t run it themselves). I still have a few months to figure it out.

GooBuntu: playground arguments against RPM-based distributions

Full disclosure: I’ve been a contributor to the Fedora Project for several years and am nominally the maintainer of Fedora’s RPM Guide, which will probably never actually be released.

Earlier this week, ZDNet reported on Google’s use of Ubuntu on desktops. While I’m sure they chose a distro based on a variety of of factors and the final choice was the one that best met their business needs, the article could stand to include some additional detail. It appears that all RPM-based distributions were immediately disqualified because “packages and apt (Debian’s basic software package programs) are light-years ahead of RPM (Red Hat and SUSE’s default package management system.)”

I have some philosophical disagreements with how Ubuntu’s parent company operates, but I’m a big proponent of the “use what works for you” philosophy. I have no objection to Google using Ubuntu if that’s what works for them. What I do object to is basing the decision on non-reason.

The first problem is that the argument always seems to be apt vs. RPM, but this argument is a non-starter. apt and RPM aren’t at the same layer. Comparing apt and yum is more reasonable. Both tools have advantages and disadvantages. Comparisons can be made using various metrics, but there is no objective measure of “better”, because fitness for use varies by use case. Similarly, RPM and .deb have overlapping-but-not-identical strengths. The philosophy of building packages differs, and some people prefer one method over the other. I’m weakly-rooted enough to find both philosophies compelling.

I’d be willing to grant that RPM, and the tools around it, have improved over the past few years. Even if the RPM ecosystem was formerly terrible, I’d have expected that the man making the decision at Google would base it on something more substantive than what amounts to a religious argument.

Privacy in the 21st century (or at least this week)

Digital privacy has been in the news this week. The first story involves a judge ordering a woman to decrypt her laptop. There has been a lot of uninformed commentary surrounding this story, and I thought I’d add my own to the pile. My initial reaction was that it was a pretty blatant violation of the Fifth Amendment, but after further reflection, I’m not so sure. I still struggle to find the right parallel to the physical world.

I don’t believe that decrypting the data is self-incrimination, in and of itself. A person can’t avoid a search warrant by simply locking the door. On the other hand, the police already have the data (in some form) in their possession. There’s no requirement that the data be in a form that the state finds convenient.

Overall, I’m not that concerned with this decision. A valid warrant should be sufficient to require a person to turn over documents in an unencrypted form. Failure to comply is rightly contempt of court. The only problem is when a person legitimately forgets the key, because it is nearly impossible to determine if they have legitimately forgotten. Still, I’m not at all convinced that this ruling is a death knell for the Fifth Amendment.

The other story in the news came from Google, who announced that they are changing their privacy policy for accounts (this does not include search, Wallet, and Chrome). This story has caused no end of hand-wringing, but it seems to me like a severe overreaction. From what I can tell, interactions with third party sites hasn’t changed. The changes mostly make it easier for Google services to share data internally.

To me, that’s part of the appeal of using the variety of services Google offers. What’s the point of a single account if the services aren’t tightly integrated? The lack of an opt-out isn’t a compelling argument to me. Anyone who doesn’t like the privacy policy doesn’t have to use the service (though I’ll admit that if you just bought an Android phone, the cost for leaving (assuming an early termination fee with the carrier) can be prohibitive). There’s an adage that states if you’re not paying, you’re the product. I’m fine with my data being more available across my Google services and hope the promised cool things come to pass. If it ever becomes unacceptable to use Google services, I’ll take my ball and go home.

Google Earth gets packaging wrong

A while back, I needed to install Google Earth on my 64-bit Fedora 15 machine. Being a smart guy, I grabbed the 64-bit RPM and installed it. When I launched it, it failed because it needed a library provided by the redhat-lsb package. After installing redhat-lsb, I expected Google Earth to work. But instead, I was greeted with the same error. That’s when I began to realize that it was looking for /lib/ld-lsb.so.3 not /lib64/ld-lsb.so.3. So I checked the binary. It’s 32-bit.

To me, this seems like the exact wrong way to package this. The best way would be to build a 64-bit version and package that for 64-bit machines. The acceptable way would be to say “sorry, we only offer 32-bit builds of Google Earth”. The bad way is to pretend the 32-bit package is really 64-bit. This does not make installation more convenient, as Google says, it makes it less convenience because it breaks dependency solving. yum dutifully installs the 64-bit redhat-lsb because that’s what the package says it needs. It’s only after the binary is in place that it becomes evident that the 32-bit redhat-lsb package is needed.

If this bothers you, too, I’ve left feedback for Google. Feel free to pile on.

My phone, my calendar

I’d like to preface this post by saying I have no qualms with Microsoft Exchange per se. It’s actually a pretty amazing tool, especially when it’s integrated with Sharepoint. The problem is that it doesn’t work so well with third-party clients (or indeed, Microsoft’s own Entourage client). I have an Exchange account at work, and I’d love to be able to use it.

Here’s the problem: I can’t. There are plenty of clients that will handle the e-mail with an IMAP connection, but nothing that could properly be called an Exchange client. (Evolution used to work, until Exchange 2007 came out. Since then, I’ve had no luck with either the old-style (via OWA) or the MAPI plugin.) Fortunately, Google also has a pretty slick service, so I finally just set my e-mail to forward to my GMail account.

GMail worked great. Almost any device can connect to both e-mail and calendar because it uses standard standards. Most of my incoming mail goes straight there, and the rest gets POPed off once an hour (I’m not sure if it’s an Exchange “feature” or just the way our servers are configured, but mail sent from the Exchange server goes to my Exchange account, even when sent to id@employer.edu, not id@exchange.employer.edu).

Only one problem remained: sometime people would want to schedule meetings with me, and they’d look at my Exchange calendar thinking it was accurate. I wasn’t about try to maintain my calendar twice, but my Google calendar was far more accessible. Enter my phone.

The N900 has support for Exchange accounts via its Mail for Exchange (MfE) settings. I simply set MfE to sync my Exchange calendar to my phone’s calendar (I don’t have it sync e-mail because GMail already handles that). That’s step 1. When last I checked, Google did not have a native calendar app for Maemo, but there is this nifty little program called Erminig. I also set Erminig to sync with my phone’s calendar. That’s step 2.

With these two steps completed, my calendars stay in sync. Now I can continue using my Google calendar, but my Exchange calendar remains accurate. The sync is bi-directional, too — if I schedule a meeting in Exchange, it’ll show up on my Google calendar, which means I’ll see the notification. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well this has worked.

Google DNS: A rare miss?

I’ve been a big fan of Google’s services for many years. GMail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Voice, and Google Docs are all a regular part of my day.  (Admittedly, I haven’t quite figured out how I’ll use Google Wave, but I’m sure there’s a use for it somewhere.) So when I heard about Google offering a DNS service, I was very interested.  DNS (the Domain Name Service) is a vital part of the Internet.  It is what allows people to visit Funnel Fiasco without having to remember that the IP address is 72.52.153.36. Or to visit www.facebook.com without typing in 69.63.181.11.

A while ago, I switched from using my ISP’s DNS service to OpenDNS.  OpenDNS gives users the option to filter domains by content, which is a somewhat useful tool for parents and businesses.  Unfortunately, OpenDNS, like most ISP DNS services, returns a search page when a domain isn’t found. Sure, that might be handy for web browsing, but other services expect to be told a domain doesn’t exist when it doesn’t exist.  Google said that they’ll return appropriate responses for non-existent domains.

Before I made the switch, I decided to investigate which DNS service gave me the fastest responses.  I tested 8 DNS servers from 4 different services (Google, Comcast, OpenDNS, and Level3) at different times over the past few days.  The final result surprised me.  Google’s service was slower than both Level3 and OpenDNS, and slower than one of the two Comcast servers I tested.  Box plots are below, although it seems some of the calculation is off (for example, a DNS resolve time < 0 ms is not reasonable).

DNS resolve times for google.com

DNS resolve times for google.com

DNS resolve times for funnelfiasco.com

DNS resolve times for funnelfiasco.com

DNS resolve times for facebook.com

DNS resolve times for facebook.com

Average hostname resolve times in milliseconds

Google #1
(8.8.8.8)
Google #2
(8.8.4.4)
Level3 #1
(4.2.2.1)
Level3 #2
(4.2.2.2)
OpenDNS #1
(208.67.222.222)
OpenDNS #2
(208.67.222.220)
Comcast #1
(68.87.72.130)
Comcast #2
(68.87.77.130)
Google.com 51 42 25 25 25 26 24 62
Funnelfiasco.com 41 40 46 26 37 26 41 87
Facebook.com 39 37 26 25 25 29 25 63

So what’s the conclusion?  Well, it looks like the Level3 servers (4.2.2.1 and 4.2.2.2) are the fastest.  Tests by intMain.net support my own conclusions. Google’s DNS service might be faster for some people, but not for everyone.  If Google adds more servers, that might change.  In the meantime, it looks like I have some resolv.conf edits to make.

(P.S. Box plots created thanks to software from Vertex42.com)