Fixing Facebook

When news of the Cambridge Analytics scandal broke I was all on board the #deletefacebook movement. I deactivated my account and started thinking about what I would do to replace the features I currently use on Facebook. What I discoverd is that it’s not as simple as I might have thought. Facebook is actually pretty useful. I like using my Facebook account as a defacto identity on other sites. I like connecting with friends that I may not see often or who may live far away from me. I enjoy looking at photos of what my friends and family are up to. I like the simplicity of sharing interesting things or small thoughts with my friends. All of these features make Facebook a really compelling product. All of this convienience comes at a high cost though. You really are selling yourself to Facebook and it’s advertisers by giving them a detailed account of your life. Is it worth it? I’m not so sure it is. Can it be fixed? I think it can and here are some ways we can try:

Let me pay for it

As I mentioned, I actually like a lot of the things Facebook offers me. I like it so much that if you told me I could have access to all these tools and all my interactions would remain private AND I was in control of my data I’d absolutely be willing to pay a monthly fee. This is a product that is worth paying for. Seems simple enough right? Provide a premium option with no ads and privacy as a priority. Here’s the problem with this: Facebook’s entire business model is built on selling you not selling to you. For them to completely change this model at this point would be a herculean task. Not to mention the complexities of how you handle privacy between users on different plan tiers. A lot of the most valuable data about you is the people you interact with and how you interact with them. If suddenly there are missing connetions in that data then it becomes much less valuable to potential partners and advertisers.

Let someone else do it

Facebook is so ingrained in their current business model that it may be more feasable for someone else, preferably a non-profit, to come along and re-build it. The platform itself is not really all that complicated from an implemtation standpoint. The hardest part is scalability but even this is a problem that’s been solved multiple times. A company like Wikimedia who already runs an incredibly high-traffic website could easily rebuild the core functionality of Facebook and architect it to be equally as scalable. A donation model works for Wikipedia I don’t see why it couldn’t work for a new Facebook. Of course, one of the biggest issues with this is that of any new social media platform. Namely, you need people. If I log on and can’t find a single one of my friends chances are I’m leaving and never coming back. This is probably what is holding back geek darling Mastodon from putting a dent in Twitter’s dominance even though it offers all the benefits of Twitter while being decentralized. You’re talking to a mostly empty room.

Stop using it altogether (#deletefacebook)

If you’re impatient or you just don’t trust Facebook at all you can go ahead and delete it entirely. It’s a bit difficult to replace all that convienience but it’s not impossible and the funny thing is that you can do it with technology that’s been around for years. Group discussion? Try sending a good ol’ email to the group. Direct messaging? Again, email or straight-up text messages work great. Posting stuff to the world? Try creating your own site (much like this one). It’s really simple these days and you get the added benefit of owning all of your content. When you add an interesting post or photo to your site you’re adding value to your own platform and not simply helping to line the pockets of some large corporation. What about following friends, news etc.? Well, there’s this old technology called RSS that solved that problem years ago. Facebook didn’t invent these technologies, they just consolodated them to make it easier. Remember that old adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? It holds true here as well. By putting all of your online activity essentially in one place you are providing a wealth of valuable data to them that can be used to manipulate you without you even realizing it. With RSS I build my own feed directly from the sources without having to worry about what the algorithm is showing me or hiding from me. If you’re looking for curated content consider subscribing to some email newsletters. They have been making a comeback of late and althought I was skeptical at first I’ve come to really look forward to my daily and weekly newsletter deliveries. Humans do a much better job of finding quality content than algorithms do. I consistently find great articles and interesting tidbits in my newsletters each week.

Give them a chance to fix it themselves

Maybe they’ll learn some hard lessons with this whole Cambridge Analytics mess. They could tighten privacy and give us all the tools we need to make sure our data isn’t being used without our permission. This would mean that data sharing would almost certainly have to be opt-in which would decimate their current business model so this idea seems unlikely but hey, let’s see what happens.


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Samsung Galaxy S8+: A Review

I’ve been using Android phones for about 5 years now and they’ve come a long way in that time. When I got my first Android phone (an HTC One) there was little doubt that the comparative iPhone of the time was the superior product. It’s now 2017 and that is no longer the case. Today, flagship Android phones stand side-by-side with iPhone and often come out on top. For a long time I shied away from Samsung phones for various reasons that I’ll get into later but this year after reading a lot of reviews I thought it was time to give them a shot. I’ve had the device for a few months now and here are my thoughts.

Hardware

The newest trend in smartphones seems to be the bezel-less display and the Samsung GS8+ is no exception. The screen goes from one side to the other with nary a bezel to be seen. It has a slight curve on each side which gives the illusion that the display disappears over the edge. The top and bottom bezels are minimal in order to avoid the “notch” issue that the upcoming iPhone X suffers from. I must say that the screen is, in a word, excellent. The edge-to-edge design really makes it feel like the entire device is screen (unfortunately putting it in a case pretty much destroys this illusion) It begs to be used as a tiny TV and videos look fantastic. There’s a big caveat here, however. Because the entire front of the device is display it leaves no room for front facing speakers and I have found that the speaker location can be very problematic when you are watching videos. My hand tends to cover up the speaker and I have to adjust my grip to hear the sound clearly. This may seem like a trivial issue but it begs the question: is the bezel-free display actually better for users or is it just a marketing ploy to make the phone look more unique compared to its competitors. That screen does looks fantastic on the poster:

The new Pixel 2 by Google was announced last week and it takes a more pragmatic approach by leaving large bezels on the top and bottom but using that space for front facing speakers. Now, I haven’t had the opportunity to use this device but I can imagine that the overall experience of watching video on the Pixel 2 is more enjoyable than the S8+. Once you’re engaged in what you’re watching do you really notice the bezels anyway? Probably not. You will, however, notice if you suddenly can’t hear anything because your hand is covering the speaker.

The other major flaw which has been well documented is the location of the fingerprint sensor. Generally speaking I think the fingerprint sensor works a little better on the back than the front of a device since it’s where your finger tends to rest naturally. However, in this case, Samsung really dropped the ball placing the sensor right next to the camera near the top of the back panel. This is a problem for 2 main reasons: 1.) It’s hard to reach, especially on a tall device like this one and 2.) You end up smudging the camera with your finger all the time. I imagine there was a valid reason for the decision whether it be technical issues or efficiency reasons but it just feels like a major miss on hardware that gets lots of other things right. I suspect this will be remedied in the GS9.

There is a headphone jack. I use it a lot. Thank you Samsung. Do me a favor and keep it moving forward.

Battery Life

Battery life so far has been very good. I usually go to bed with between 40 and 50% power remaining and have forgotten to charge it overnight a few times without worrying that it would die out the next day. Check back in a few months though as my experience with Android phones and battery life is that it falls off rather quickly and, in the case of my LG G3 took a total nosedive when I upgraded from Lollipop to Marshmallow.

Software

This is the first Samsung device I’ve owned but I’ve known a bunch of people that have had other Galaxy phones and I’ve always been critical of the amount of crapware, redundant apps, and extraneous features that Samsung tends to ship. With the GS8 I feel like they’re getting better but there are still a ton of duplicate apps that are just Samsung versions of existing Google apps. That being said, the Samsung apps that I do use seem fine. There is one piece of software that Samsung insisted on adding that does need some discussion:

Bixby. Samsung…seriously just stop. There is just no reason for Bixby. It tries to do the things that Google Assistant already does but it doesn’t do them as well. They even went as far as adding a hardware button on the side of the phone entirely dedicated to launching Bixby. Thankfully, they recently rolled out an update that allows you to turn this off because it was so easy to accidentally hit this button and find yourself staring at the Bixby Home screen instead of your actual home screen. It’s very clear that Samsung wishes they controlled the entire ecosystem but since they’re tied to Android and Google, the only way to do that is re-invent the wheel in the hopes that no one will notice. They try so hard to make everything feel like a “Samsung” experience instead of an Android experience. Now, maybe this makes good business sense. Separate yourself from the pack of other Android devices so that customers don’t realize that they can get virtually the same experience on any one of Samsung’s competitor’s phones. Unfortunately, this means that the customer gets an inferior experience because no matter how hard they try, Samsung can’t out-Google Google. So, users who aren’t as tech-savvy as myself will use Bixby, as well as Samsung’s apps and they’ll sync their data with Samsung’s cloud and they won’t realize that they don’t need any of that stuff.

Another software feature that I feel needs to be mentioned is Face Recognition. Apple is making a big deal about face recognition on the iPhone X because they have to. By removing the fingerprint sensor, face recognition becomes the only viable option for unlocking the device securely using biometrics. Here’s the thing, face unlock has been available on Android for a few years now. That being said, I would have expected it to work much, much better than it does on the S8+. It is extremely unreliable. Sometimes it works almost instantaneously and the next time just not at all and I’m forced to use my fingerprint or my unlock code. I seriously hope that Apple has figured this one out because this inconsistency make the technology essentially useless in my opinion. If you can’t rely on it to unlock your phone every time it just becomes an annoyance rather than feature.

Other than that the skinning that has been done to the OS and the overall feel of the phone is very polished and slick. There are some nice little touches here and there that are actually welcome additions to the stock Android experience. I especially like the always on display and the “swipe up” gesture that brings up the app drawer from the home screen.

Camera

As an amateur photographer I would love to do a more in-depth review of the camera some time but for now I’ll just say this: The camera on the GS8+ is excellent. Is it the best camera on any smartphone right now? I have no idea. But it takes sharp pictures, performs admirably in low light, and is packed with all of the software features you would expect in a modern smartphone camera like: HDR, manual controls, Instagram-like filters, portrait mode, and even some Snapchat-esque augmented reality filters. I haven’t played around with a lot of these features but I will say that the portrait filter, while rather impressive technologically seems a bit heavy-handed.

Speaking of those software features: It’s starting to become clear that smartphone cameras have begun to reach the maximum of what can be done from a hardware perspective. I mean, there is only so much you can do with a sensor that small. Because of these limitations companies are moving more and more to software in an effort to provide higher quality photographs. In recent years we’ve seen the addition of dynamic HDR, cameras that take multiple photos and merge them, real-time software filters that provide blurred backgrounds (portrait mode), and now, with the newest iPhone, even dynamic lighting control all done by AI powered software. As I mentioned above, these features are very new and are only pretty good at the moment. That being said, it’s very easy to project a couple of years into the future and imagine improvements to this software that would make it possible for these devices to compete toe-to-toe with much more expensive mirrorless cameras. It will be interesting to see how far the can push those boundries in the coming years.

Verdict

It’s interesting, because when I started writing this review I generally felt as though this was an excellent phone with very few flaws and, in many ways, it IS a great phone. The screen is beautiful, it’s fast, the battery life is very good, and the camera is excellent. However, the more I wrote about the devices flaws, the more I realized that Samsung is trading the best user experience for the best profit experience. They are building phones that are designed to lock people into an virtual walled garden that doesn’t need to exist. Even the hardware is optimized for commercials and posters and not for actual use. I bit the bullet on this phone and I’m stuck with it for at least the next 2 years. Now, honestly, I’m fine with that. It does all the things I need it to do, it looks good, and I’m savvy enough to ignore all the Samsung nonsense and use the phone the way I want to use it. But barring a major change in how Samsung approaches the way it builds phones, this will probably be my last phone made by them.


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Reading Bucket List: A Confederacy of Dunces

Reading Bucket List is an ongoing series in which I read a classic book and share my notes and thoughts about it. This is the second post in the series

This book is considered a modern classic by many and, although highly entertaining, I found it difficult to deduce exactly what the author was trying to tell us beyond “here’s how not to live your life” The book’s protagonist, one Ignatious J. Reilly is a rotund individual of questionable sanity and even more questionable morals. He spends the majority of his misadventures blaming his plight on the mythical Fortuna, his mother, some “mongoloid’ or another, or even his misbehaving pyloric valve. Ignatious is the model of fecklessness. Constantly pointing blame at anyone or anything but himself.

Much of the story centers around Ignatious attempting to hold down a steady job to help his mother pay back a small debt she owes. The absurdity that ensues is no doubt some of the more ridiculous and creative (mis)adventure ever put down on paper. It is a cautionary tale about what happens when a person has an unyielding world-view, has no regard for how his actions impact the people around him, is willing lie to protect himself, and refuses to take responsibility for his own actions. In many ways he is the worst manifestation of a human being that you can possibly think of. That being said, I think everyone will probably be able to find a little bit of themselves somewhere in Ignatious. And once you see it you’ll almost certainly be motivated to make some changes so as not find Ignatious so relatable.

One interesting fact about the book that I didn’t pick up on initially is that it’s really all about money. Ignatious needs to work because his mother owes money. Jones needs a job because he doesn’t want to be picked up for vagrancy but is constantly complaining about only making $20 an hour. Ignatious is always trying to squeeze an extra dollar here and there to pay for his movie habit. Mr. and Mrs. Levy are sued for $500,000 due to Ignatious’s actions. Really, the only part of the book that isn’t about money is the ill-fated attempt to create a political party.

Overall I found the book extremely readable, amusing, entertaining and insightful in many ways. It is, without question, one of the most creative and unique books I’ve ever read and it’s because of this that I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.


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Reading Bucket List: The Swiss Family Robinson

Reading Bucket List is an ongoing series in which I read a classic book and share my notes and thoughts about it. This is the first post in the series

The Swiss Family Robinson, published in 1812 by Swiss novelist Johann David Wyss tells the story of a family (of Swiss origin no less) stranded on an island somewhere in the East Indies after their ship was wrecked. The story was written as an instructional guide on “family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance.” 1 The author’s goal becomes self-evident early in the story when, soon after arriving on the island of New Switzerland the father, William, spends little or no time securing the family’s rescue. Instead, the family dives head-first into working toward a permanent settlement on the island. It’s clear that the author used the shipwreck as a means to get the family together in one place without outside influence so that the lessons could begin in earnest.

The story spins out as a series of lessons masquerading as adventures that teach all kinds of things from how get sugar out of a fictional sugarcane plant, to creating shoes, to training all sorts of animals. Although the individual lessons are mostly useless in the modern world (and probably even if you were stranded on a deserted island), the major underlying points regarding the evils of idleness, cooperation, and self-sufficiency are always in the background making themselves known. In fact, Wyss cleanly summarizes his own story with an excellent statement near the very end of the book:

Children are, on the whole, very much alike everywhere, and you four lads fairly represent multitudes, who are growing up in all directions. It will make me happy to think that my simple narrative may lead some of these to observe how blessed are the results of patient continuance in well-doing, what benefits arise from the thoughtful application of knowledge and science, and how good and pleasant a thing it is when brethren dwell together in unity, under the eye of parental love.

As an aside, one aspect of the story I felt was rather odd was the way in which the family treats the wildlife on the island. Certainly the animals they domesticated for use as beasts of burden makes perfect sense given the resources available to them not to mention the state of technology in the early 1800s. That being said, there were a number of occasions where mischievous animals (mostly monkeys) were subjected to capital punishment for simple acts of trespassing. All manners of methods were used for the execution from shooting, to traps, to poison with only the slightest hint of regret. It was, of course, a very different world 200 years ago when the book was published but I have to wonder if this was the prevailing mentality on the treatment of animals at the time then it’s no wonder humans did so much damage to the natural ecosystem in those times.

Although The Swiss Family Robinson is clearly a book aimed at children of the day, the dedication the family shows to each other and their resourcefulness is nothing to be ignored and can be rather inspirational at times. Certainly the lessons that Wyss is trying to teach have value no matter the century. As a father of 3 myself, I would love to see my kids working harder towards their goals, and enjoying the satisfaction of being self-sufficient. If nothing else, reading this book has encouraged me to try to work harder to instill these values into my own children so that they may reap the rewards of a life well-lived.


1 quote taken from Wikipedia article


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Book Review: Off To Be The Wizard

In Off To Be The Wizard author Scott Meyer tells the story of Martin, a regular guy living a regular life who discovers a hidden file on the Internet that controls the entire world. A simple edit to the file can teleport Martin to new locations, send him back in time, or even fill his bank account. This last one gets Martin in a little bit of hot water with the authorities so he decides that the obvious solution is to go back to medieval England and become a wizard. Little does Martin know that not only is he not the first person to find this file but he’s also not the only one to think it might be a good idea to go back in time in order to use the files powers to be the next Merlin. Martin soon meets a wide variety of colorful characters who ultimately need to team up to defeat a Rouge wizard who is using the file to violate the natural order of things.

Despite the very far-fetched plot line, I found Off To Be The Wizard to be a very entertaining read. The story is fast paced with just enough action and humor to keep you turning pages. The humor in the book leans heavily on geek culture and the book is clearly geared towards readers who are self-described “geeks.” Meyer uses a lot of computer vernacular when describing how the wizards interact with the file that may be a turn-off to anyone who isn’t very computer literate.

On the character front, Off To Be The Wizard is really dominated by the the wizards themselves and their interactions with each other. There is really only one or two scenes in which the wizards have any lengthy interaction with the common folk of medieval England. This doesn’t really pose a problem since much of the story revolves around Martin coming to grips with his new found power and the community of wizards he is trying to become a part of. I’m interested to see if Meyer takes the story in a different direction in the second book of the series.

Off To Be The Wizard is not without its flaws. As I mentioned before, the plot line is very far-fetched. There is only a brief discussion of the implications of time-travel. The changes that the characters make in the past have no effect on their future. However, they really don’t get into how the changes will impact some other future. Meyer is hoping you don’t spend too much time thinking about the paradoxes that his world produces. There is also the matter of how all these wizards end up going back to the exact same time in history. This is discussed briefly but seems like another area where the author is just hoping you suspend your disbelief.

In conclusion, if you are a self-described geek who enjoys computers, time travel paradoxes, and fantasy then I think you’re going to enjoy the first novel in Scott Meyer’s Wizard 2.0 series. If you find any of these things boring you may want to stay away.

3.5/5 stars

Buy Off To Be The Wizard from Amazon


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