Things That Have Caught My Attention

Dan Hon's Newsletter

s4e01: umbra 

 0.0 Station Ident

8:25am on November 29, 2016. Happy birthday, me. Today, a break from the usual newsletter programming and a continuation of s2e33: Black Design[0]. I am, of course, the kind of person who starts NaNoWriMo at the least best Mo of No. Posting this (of which, I’ll post more… infrequently… maybe?) seems like as good an excuse as any to switch to a new season.

[0] s2e33: Black Design

Have a good day, everyone. It’s okay to feel angry, and the only one who can tell you whether feeling angry is warranted is yourself. Be kind to yourself and others. Assume everyone’s trying to do the best they can, until they show otherwise.

As ever, send me notes. See you on the other side.


1.0 umbra


Wednesday, February 10, 2017


Matt was in a foul mood this morning and had shut himself away in One, the meeting room with the large, black conference table and the Polycom with a custom red paint job that in a company with a higher Whimsy Score on Glassdoor (not a real thing, I need to remember to write that down for work) would have a name like Monolith or Kubrick.


Matt being shut away meant that the review we were supposed to be having wasn’t happening. Instead, I slacked a copy of the Emotional Labor PDF Metafilter thread to Rebecca, the agency’s head of creative resourcing because at least part of me thought that she’d get something out of it and the other part of me though that it would be funny. Turns out it wasn’t exactly that funny in the first place.


It’s not like Rebecca didn’t know that she was already acting as a den mother to the creative floor (Top five den mother things that Rebecca does: 1) keeps a list of good doctors as reported by her charges; 2) keeps a list of good psychiatrists and therapists; 3) aggressively reminds people to take vacation; 4) spends (uncompensated) time during the day listening to peoples’ shit; 5) controversially, spends so much time on doing emotional labour for those in her care, she doesn’t have time for her own relationships).




Matt had shut himself away and wasn’t responding on any sort of messaging app. Stacy had even spent a few minutes trying to look up his phone number (no luck), to try calling him as a last resort. Other Tom thought he was hiding because he’d gotten the not-black-enough reaction on our latest review from Karla. The not-black-enough reaction is one of the few custom emoji we run on our instance (Whimsy Quotient, again) and is a high-information-density reminder that a particular piece of work isn’t… doing as much as it could do to make sure that user needs are being met.




I am alanchen@umbra. My business card says that I’m a Senior Designer at umbra’s San Francisco office. It isn’t a fun business card. It’s a very serious business card, and Dan, Karla and Tom have gone on record saying that there’s a time and a place for whimsy, and that those spacetime coordinates won’t ever be found inside umbra’s lightcones.


Just like the business cards, there isn’t anything fun about any of the San Francisco office: unlike most of the startups colonizing Bay Area buildings like a sort of ophiocordyceps unilateralis, our office doesn’t have any esoterically named conference rooms. There’s no pinball machines or arcade machines. (At least, not for free play. There are some, but they’re in labs or reference books). There aren’t any brightly colored hallways adorned with commissioned art. Instead, our building looks like a more professional, better designed and somewhat mentally healthier version of the inside of Lucasfilm’s offices out at Skywalker ranch.


Walking around Google’s campus, you might see a life-size dinosaur skeleton or a replica of the first commercial sub-orbital spaceship; walking around Facebook’s campus, you’d see inspirational poster art about how awesome it is if you break things as quickly as you can and have some sort of ineffable Gehry-ness infuse into your non-duality sense of being. Walking around our office, you’d see a bunch of quiet open working areas, lots of closed office doors (better productivity, right?), an LED-lighting significantly better than the kind most people would only ever see on a Dreamliner, and conference rooms where people still have trouble connecting to the A/V.




These are the applications in my Dock:


  1. Finder (duh)
  2. Siri
  3. Safari
  4. Chrome
  5. Mail
  6. Calendar
  7. Address Book
  8. Notes
  9. Messages
  10. Twitter
  11. iTunes
  12. Slack
  13. Illustrator
  14. Sketch
  15. Photoshop
  16. Terminal


I share a house with Caitlin, Tom and Amy in the Mission. Caitlin owns the house; she’d joined empathy_engine early on enough that when we got acquihired her options were actually worth something. She cashed out enough to buy a place in the Mission when we arrived three years ago, and since then, a) the house has become more depressingly unaffordable and b) the rest of her stock has become even more depressingly valuable. The options that I had in empathy_engine converted to an anaemic amount of stock in our acquirer which means that while they won’t ever be enough to afford a house here, I will be able to visit New Zealand before it’s mostly underwater (Ha: a stock options valuation joke).


Caitlin is just one of many friends who, by dint of luck, have a net worth in the hundreds of millions. I have a net worth that might actually be negative, if I had the courage to properly look.




umbra’s a black design company. “Black design” got coined five years ago when umbra were profiled by Fast Company (the magazine, as the cover story. Not some throwaway piece on the website that serves as Hacker News bait, this sort of thing is important when you’re trying to explain to your parents what you do) as being the design company (like Frog or IDEO but, you know, good at Internet stuff?) behind the then-outrageous Chinese citizen reputation ranking project that had leaked out.


At the time, everyone (that is, the insular industry) was going crazy over design fiction and whimsy and making things playful. umbra aggressively went in the other direction: selling design as a way to control, for greater profit, to the highest bidder.


Those Tide-branded Dash buttons, to make it easier for you to order laundry detergent? umbra. Algorithmic surge pricing, along with opaque driver/rider feedback mechanisms? An umbra patent, licensed by Uber. Automatic license plate recognition systems with a sort of “hello, what would you like to look for today?” cute wizard that’s easy enough to use so system integrator employees can succeed at creating new traffic violation revenue streams, first time, without help? umbra.


*I* ended up at umbra when they bought empathy_engine, the company I worked for, a few years ago in an acquihire. empathy_engine’s founders did well out of it (life-changing fuck-you money, with the four-year earn-out handcuffs that come with it. There are a few people I know who blew away their fuck-you money by being high time preference people. I like to think I’m not a high time preference person, but so far, the evidence doesn’t look good), but the rest of us just got visas (I got an H1B, Caitlin got an O1) our moving expenses, a few months of some really fantastic corporate housing and the chance to make it big in America, where they invented the idea of anyone being able to get rich if you can persuade enough of the money people on Sand Hill road that your idea is going to disrupt everything.


So that’s me. I’m paid stupid money to work at an evil design company and, even then, I live more or less slightly above paycheck to paycheck because I don’t have a problem living in a house share with co-workers.


And this is me doing my escape plan.

s3e35: Interesting Times

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12:09pm on Monday 28th November 2016 on a puddle-jumper from PDX down to Sacramento for the day. I am now the kind of person who irregularly commutes by plane for the day. It takes around 90 minutes to fly down to Sacramento on a prop (turbo-prop?) plane, so it’s a *bit* like, I dunno, going from Brighton to London. Of course, it costs around $150-300 depending on when I get the tickets, but it means that I can get down to Sac, have a meeting and get home and either be around for breakfast with the pre-schooler or bedtime with the pre-schooler.


1.0 Interesting Times


I haven’t written any newsletter episodes since the Event because, well, there’s been a lot to deal with and process, never mind the overwhelming feeling that there’s so much to *do*. And there’s been lots of doing going on. I’m on my way down to Sacramento to present a digital government strategy and, fingers crossed, will be helping to put in place some big, substantive changes that will build upon what I’ve been doing with the Child Welfare Digital Services demonstrator.


I guess there’s a couple big things that I’ll write about in this episode: i) something to do with the digital transformation work I’ve been doing in California and ii) something to do with some recreational whiteboarding I did in response to wondering out loud “what would an ACLU digital services team make?” So, let’s just see what happens when I start typing…


1.1 Fixing Government, Starting in California


(a.k.a. everything I ever learned about Digital Transformation I’m getting to do right now, and I need help)


I’ve a draft Medium (I know) post that I’ve been working on for a while about how a) I’m doubling down on getting things done in California and b) what that means in terms of real opportunities for people who want to build digital services that meet user needs (ie: come work in California and work on stuff that matters for everyone).


The thing about draft posts is that they feel like they require a lot of thinking and then they invariably get bogged down in a sort of how-can-I-make-this-perfect, *despite* me knowing that it’s better that something exists than not at all. So, I’ll try in this medium, the medium of stream-of-consciousness newsletter, to at least get some thoughts out to people who might already be interested. And for everyone who’s new, this is my Short Version of why there’s a big opportunity in California to do good work, right now.


Bullet-point back-story:

  • a long time ago, we (as in: society) decided that it’d be a good idea if we made sure that people who couldn’t afford food had help so that they could afford food. Enough people agreed that it was a good idea that we turned it from an idea into policy into legislation. Thus: food stamps, also known as SNAP, the supplemental nutrition assistance program.
  • these days, if you want to get food stamps, you need to apply for them. The process for applying for food stamps is, more or less, a clusterfuck everywhere. It is not user-friendly. In fact, it’s so user-hostile that you’d be forgiven for thinking, while you were applying, that *maybe the government is actually trying to make sure you don’t get it*
  • enter Code for America: one year, a fellowship team took a look at the process for applying for food stamps in California and saw that it was… not ideal? So they built a better process. Much better.
  • This better process impressed California’s Department for Social Services, who administer food stamps in California, (but the program is itself delivered by counties) so much that they wanted to find out a way to work with Code for America more.
  • As a way of testing that relationship, California’s Department for Social Services asked Code for America to do a review of a request for proposal of their new Child Welfare System, an estimated $500m, 7-year project to replace a 25 year old legacy system.
  • While at Code for America, I reviewed the request for proposal and saw that it was a fairly traditional monolithic (ie: one big project), waterfall (no iteration, spend a lot of time coming up with a spec/requirements, then spend a lot of time building exactly to that spec, then testing it, then… everything works?) project that, given all other monolithic waterfall projects, was most likely doomed to a) not delivering what was promised (not “working”), b) being over budget and c) being late.
  • My attitude in writing the review was one of a take-no-prisoners, “I have no fucks to give”, and following the advice and exhortation of Ed Catmull in his book [Pixar], I decided to experiment with being bluntly candid.
  • In the end, the State decided to throw out the $500m 7-year monolithic waterfall project and go with a modular, iterative, focussed-on-user-needs approach.
  • That project is now the Child Welfare Digital Service and it’s a demonstrator project for state technology projects focusing on meeting user-needs and delivering iteratively.


This new user-needs focused, iterative delivery approach? It’s working. The services have working code. They are working in the open, because it’s better.


In the previous approach, the Child Welfare project wouldn’t even have started working with a vendor until around mid-2017. The new approach has had working code since August 2016.


The timeline that Child Welfare Digital Services have been working to is unprecedented in State government, never mind potentially even Federal government.


There’s more: California now has the nattily named ADPQ, the agile developer pre-qualified pool. It’s a pool of agile software development companies that the State has pre-qualified by getting them to complete a technical exercise. The developers were given a problem and a public data set through a California Health and Human Services Agency API, a deadline, and asked to show their work on Github. Then, the State did a technical evaluation of the quality of their work *and* got users to try each of the services to see if, well, they would meet user needs. Many development companies submitted work that, bluntly, didn’t pass the user test.


We’ve been able to do this in California because right now, there’s unprecedented political will to do things better. Cabinet-level political will. The Secretary for Government Operations, Marybel Batjer, talked about this at the Code for America summit[x].


As an aside: the Harvard Kennedy School is putting together a case study on California’s Child Welfare Digital Service. As part of my interviews with them, they kept saying: hang on, this sounds too easy. If all you had to do to move from the monolithic waterfall model to the user-need focused iterative model was to point out the problems with the former, how come everyone else hasn’t done it? To which, I figured out in conversation – yes, part of this is to do with the fantastic political will to do things better and the recognition that the current way just isn’t working and isn’t delivering upon the social promise and compact of government. But, then I remembered another thing that I haven’t really talked about in public: my give-no-fucks candid review of the request for proposal indicted the entire structure of technology delivery in the State of California. A good way of putting it is this: the RFP that I reviewed was a genuine best-effort attempt by everyone involved *under the constraints they were in*. And ultimately, those constraints were imposed by state technology policy. My final set of recommendations addressed not necessarily the RFP but pointed out that the commissioning department – social services – actually had no power to substantively improve the outcome, even if they implemented all of my recommendations that they did have the power to implement. My final set of recommendations was, more or less, a revolution – not an evolution – of state technology policy. The thing is, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t have a productive (ie: get anything done) conversation about the recommendations with the State’s CIO. So I didn’t. I had a conversation with his boss, instead. Again: no fucks to give. And his boss was someone that I did know was actively interested in finding a better way of delivering technology. In the end, after the decision was made to go ahead with the demonstrator project – the user-need-focused, iteratively delivered Child Welfare Digital Services – that State CIO ended up taking early retirement. California has a new State CIO now.


All of this is to say:


  1. How government works matters
  2. Policy and legislation doesn’t matter if delivery is terrible. That is, when government is bad at technology – horrible user experiences for applying for food stamps, antiquated technology for child welfare case workers, making it difficult to start a business – then for you and me, for citizens and residents, the *intent*, the policy or legislation doesn’t matter. If *in practice* it takes 150 screens worth of forms to apply for food stamps when it *doesn’t need to* then government has failed you and not met its promise in the social compact
  3. In this way, government fails everyone and people lose trust in government
  4. This isn’t just about cheaper technology delivered on time. Yes, government wastes billions of dollars on tech that is late, over budget and doesn’t work.
  5. Government technology that doesn’t meet user needs is an absolute failure of government *for* the people


So. I need help. I’m in Sacramento today for a huge digital services strategy presentation. Part of that presentation is covering how the state fills its talent gap, and making the case that the state people with the critical skills needed to deliver digital services that meet user needs. And yes, delivering those digital services will always involve working in partnership with the private sector.


If all goes well, California will be needing people very, very soon. We have a lot of work to do, and we’ve got a window to do it in. And if California can do it – and they’ll do it open source (most likely viral open source too, if they accept my recommendation) – then all America’s other states have no excuse.


I can’t promise a market rate salary. But, I’m recommending that the State is able to pay something close, I think


You’ll even have to spend some time in Sacramento. This isn’t the kind of work that can be done remote – yet, but it will be. Enough of this job is culture change as much as it is having the right skills and experience. Culture change means you’ve got to be there.


I’m collecting names. If you’re interested and you want to make a difference somewhere where you *can* make a difference, then get in touch. Who are the kind of people I’m looking for? Digital product or service managers. Designers. User researchers. Content designers (aka: writers, content strategists). Technical / architecture leads. People who know about legacy systems and look forward with relish to updating and replacing them. Is that you?


1.2 Recreational Whiteboarding


Ugh, I spent what feels like so long writing that stuff about California above that I’m going to do this one as bullet points as well.


  • I started off by thinking: what if organizations like the ACLU built digital services? What would they look like? What user needs would be in their remit to meet? What do digital services designed to (understand and meet the needs of users who want) protect civil liberties look like?
  • And then: why did I think of the ACLU? Three (in the end, four) reasons:
    • Reach (also known as “brand recognition”): the ACLU are well known and have large earned reach – when they talk, lots of people listen. Lots of people also want to hear what the ACLU have to say.
    • Results: the ACLU are known for getting things done. They take court cases and then take them all the way up to the supreme court to preserve civil liberties. People know that the ACLU are zealous in fighting for civil liberties in court.
    • Focus: they don’t try to do everything. For example, people know that the ACLU cares about first amendment rights and profiling, for example.
  • There’s lots more organizations like the ACLU, then, that you can apply these “interestingness” criteria against: the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Planned Parenthood, the Sunlight Foundation and so on.

Here’s my gut-reckon non-researched user need that I’d go out and get validated through qual research and, you know, building something. Let’s assume that I’m a user who cares about womens’ reproductive rights and making sure that they don’t get eroded. As a user who… cares about women’s reproductive rights and wants to make sure that they don’t get eroded, I want to:

  • understand *what* is going on a) right now, and b) at what level (eg county, state, federal)
  • understand *why* that’s bad or important or how it affects womens’ reproductive rights
  • be able to *do* something about it

For example: right now, Mike Pence may have *said* something about womens’ reproductive rights. What he said is bad or important because he’s going to be VP. Given that I care about womens’ reproductive rights, what can I do to prevent the bad thing that might happen? Is there something better to do than donating some money?


At this point, I defer to Farrah Bostic, whom I hope I’m able to now refer to as a good friend. Farrah and I had a chat about this, about a) building stuff that helps people *do* things and get things *done*, and in particular, b) the role that news and media plays in this. Farrah reminded me about That John Oliver Medical Debt Episode, the one where he a) explained what medical debt was, b) showed how many people it affected, c) explained why it was bad, d) did something about it, e) showed the rest of us how to do something about it.


Here’s a framework of how I think “media” can work better in the environment that we’re in. I’m not necessarily interested in an argument or discussion about whether this environment is a good one or not, merely about being effective in it.


John Oliver’s Medical Debt Episode is a great example of “news” reporting doing three new things packaged together when it only used to do one or two at best. Here’s the three things:


The What: John Oliver explained *what* medical debt is. News media thinks that its job is to do just this. Whatever, it’s a product of when it evolved. But I’d argue that in the end, a way to look at news in satisfying user needs is “I need to understand the world so that I can make good decisions”. Sure, you can drive a truck through “good decisions”. With my never-ever-an-actual-journalist naive reckoning, thinking out loud hat on, this is what happens when the news media sees its job to report facts and, as they say, “all the news that’s fit to print”. But! Facts are only useful to the extent that they inform decisions, right? Those facts, in the end, are useful to people when they help you *make decisions*.


The Why: John Oliver explained – using rhetoric, emotion and so on, as well as facts, why medical debt – as it is right now – is bad from a societal point of view. He did this in a seamless move. He moved from what straight into why. Or, even, he mixed what in with why all along. Traditional news doesn’t do this! It’s why we got a whole bunch of headlines saying Donald Trump has said some things, but none of the papers were able to report on page A1 that those things were Bad and he Shouldn’t Have Said Them. Newspapers are only able to have an opinion about these sorts of things – for historical, structural reasons? – in the opinion section. So you get a headline about a fact, that Donald Trump Said A Thing. And then, much later inside the paper, you get an op/ed that says, Hey, That Thing Donald Trump Said Was Horrible, We Shouldn’t Stand For It.


(An aside: do you know who’s good at the mixing the facts (and, in some cases, not-facts) with the editorial? I’ll give you a clue – it’s the kind of organization whose publisher is now the chief of strategy in the White House.)


(A double aside: the atomization of news and its insertion into feeds means that you lose the context and the brand values when a New York Times op/ed appears in your feed vs the actual story. When you mix news and editorial together in one story, then you retain your “message” when your message appears in the feed. This is Important, for Later.)


The Do: As soon as you’re able to admit that you can a) report facts, and b) take a value position on them (this is good/bad/complicated), then you may as well double down and go through to c) which is Do Something About It. Organizations like Breitbart and Fox News will exhort letter-writing campaigns and so-on, but traditional (liberal?) media will go about as far as having an annual campaign to, I don’t know, raise money for orphans or something I’M LOOKING AT YOU, FINANCIAL TIMES. But! Digital is great at *doing* stuff! Digital makes it easier to *do* things than ever before! So, what’s the do? Each news story can and should become a campaign and a call to action because, hey, you wanted engagement, right? John Oliver, again: the do was him *buying up debt*, forgiving it on TV and *showing you how to do it* too. He could’ve gone even further and made it *really easy for you to do, too*.


So, the open question: what infrastructure is needed to build new journalism and new civil liberties protection services that package up the what, the why and the do, complete with metrics and measurement to measure performance?


That’s what we put on the second whiteboard Jesper Andersen and I recreationally whiteboarded the other day. Maybe time for next episode.


2.0 Grab bag


  • Researchers at MIT have published a paper about a deep-learning artificial neural network implemented in photonic circuitry instead of traditional Von-Neuman/Turing silicon, although there’s a comment on Hacker News that there’s one part of the entire stack that hasn’t been implemented in optics yet. If I read their paper right, their experiments have shown a 2 order-of-magnitude (100x) increase in speed and a 3x order-of-magnitude (1000x) decrease in power.[0]
I was going to put more stuff in the grab bag, but ran out of time.

[0] [1610.02365] Deep Learning with Coherent Nanophotonic Circuits

Um. So. Got to go to a meeting. Send notes! Mwah! Bye!


s3e34: Netflix Should 

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1:55pm on Wednesday, November 2 2016, sitting in the California Child Welfare Digital Services (CWDS) panel at the Code for America summit. I’m incredibly proud of the team and the work that they’re doing. I’ve talked a little bit about how I was involved in helping set up the CWDS, but if you’ve ever been involved in a government technology project (or know about them) or an equivalent corporate technology project, that team has gone from a brand new set of RFPs issued in December 2015, to awarding to two vendor partners to join as members of a multidisciplinary team, to *live code* within 6-8 weeks of the vendors joining. That’s live code as in: does real CRUD stuff against a legacy mainframe system. This is *insane*! Government never moves this fast. And, that live code? They’re showing it in a demo in this panel.

(I did my quotient of trouble-making this morning by texting the panelists and saying that they should show a live demo in the panel, giving them only 2-3 hours to get things ready. They did it!)

Anyway. The whole thing about the strategy being delivery? They’re delivering. They’re showing it. It works. This is massive.

I couldn’t be more proud.

1.0 Netflix Should

OK, so Twitter friend and newsletter reader Elena Yunusov tweeted today that “Netflix should release a dating app, matching people based on their taste”[0]. And, I said, Elena! I have thoughts about this! So I’m going to write about them today.

Ideas like this came up every so often in my advertising life at Wieden+Kennedy Portland. They fit the brief of a “digital” thing that does something, meets a user need (we’ve done research and it turns out people date!) and is related – in some way – with a brand. In this case, Netflix knows stuff about you, and hey, people go to movies on dates, and wouldn’t it be awesome if Netflix could help you meet other people based on the movies you like. Sounds reasonable, right?

(First: sorry, Elena! Please don’t take any of this personally! I don’t mean it personally!)

My reckons are kind of along these lines:

First – just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I know, it’s trite and not really helpful so I’m going to explain more. Netflix certainly has the data to do matching amongst users based on their viewing habits. But, should it? If Netflix created a dating app, what problem would it solve for a) Netflix and b) Netlix’s users?

I mean, Netflix’s job is to meet peoples’ entertainment needs and it does that through a combination of providing licensed content (some exclusively) and original content (definitely exclusively). So if they made a dating app, the value of the dating app to Netflix would be… what? It only works for people who *already* use Netflix, right? So we’re not really acquiring additional paying users. Is it just a brand thing? That reminds people how awesome Netflix is? It strikes me that it’d be better for Netflix to focus on their core competency of stuff like a) making sure the content available on Netflix is stuff people want to watch and b) improving the quality of their recommendations so that users can find more awesome stuff to watch to meet their entertainment needs.

So… who should release a Netflix dating app? Well, no-one can because they closed down their API. Which, when thinking about things this way, kind of makes sense – it doesn’t make sense in terms of prioritization and resource for them to offer an API. In the end, the hook for Netflix’s customers is the quality of their content, and then secondarily the quality and usability of their interface. Any time spent on a third-party API that someone could use to build something like a dating app, is time that isn’t spent on making sure that Netflix’s interface, recommendation engine and streaming infrastructure is as good as it can possibly be.

I think the deal is this: “digital” means that there are lots of things that we *can* do, especially when we’ve got stuff like useful/interesting/deep user data. And, dating is a legitimate need that needs filling! But, focus and prioritization is always a big deal! What needs are you deciding to meet? What needs are ones that you don’t want to meet or focus on? What problems does this digital thing fix?

Like I said, part of what’s exciting about digital is all the stuff that we can do that we couldn’t really do before. I think it’s incumbent upon us to also be able to clearly explain *what the problem a digital service/app/tool solves* when we pitch them and to do so in a reasonable way. I now have a bit of a weird relationship with digital “brand” advertising (and the Netflix dating app is totally something I’d expect to see pitched by someone who had the job of doing Netflix brand advertising).

A Netflix Dating app certainly solves the (red herring, I think) problem in a brand advertising space of “getting attention” or “being a part of culture” or “being talked about” because yes, it would be interesting and yes, I can imagine the Crispin/Porter/Bogusky press-release that the client and agency would write about it. But! It’s fluff! I mean, in my humble opinion, *for Netflix’s business*, it’s fluff! It doesn’t solve a real problem in a useful way!

All of this, of course, is just a long way of saying: understand user needs! And understanding user needs also means being able to focus and decide on the needs that you *want* to meet.

[0] Elena Yunusov on Twitter: “Netflix should release a dating app, matching people based on their taste #freeideas”

OK! That was a quick one. 2:46pm now. Going to go back and pay attention to this summit I’m at :)

As always, please send me notes…



s3e33: DNS Fan Fiction; 100-watt-hour-Trucks 

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2:44pm on Tuesday, 1 November 2016 in Oakland, California at the Code for America Summit listening to the dulcet tones of Tom Loosemore talk candidly about what worked and what didn’t work at the UK’s Government Digital Service.

If you’re at the Code for America Summit in Oakland Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 November and you’d like to say hi and talk about, well, anything, but probably more likely to do with digital transformation in government, then drop me a line. I always like meeting interesting people and chatting.

1.0 DNS Fan Fiction

There was a ridiculous story[0] in Slate the other day about a mail server talking to another mail server which normally wouldn’t be news, but is news (in America, at least) because it has something to do with a) Russia, and b) Donald Trump and c) oh yes, that election. The story is worth reading for entertainment value only, I’d say.

In the spirit of that Slate piece, here’s some DNS fan fiction, a version of which I idly wrote on Twitter this morning[1]:

Strands of binary ones and zeroes course through the digital nervous system, also known as the D.N.S., subverted by criminal syndicates. This story starts with Akira – one of the most notorious cyber scientists, known on the darknet “Reddit” as a white-hat hacker, thanks to his digital avatar that sported a white hat.

When he reached out to me, what Akira told me was simply too stunning to be true. He and his cyber colleagues, he said, had uncovered evidence that high-powered computers in server farms belonging to and associated with Donald Trump’s business interests, were using military grade encryption to communicate with each other, and also unknown third parties – potentially in Russia.

How did Akira and his collaborators know? The answer lies in an esoteric branch of mathematics called Prime Number Theory. Prime number theory isn’t even taught in schools anymore: in off-the-record conversations for fear of criminal investigation, computer scientists have told me that some prime numbers are so dangerous that they are illegal to even write down or say out loud. Nowadays, prime numbers are used by organizations like the National Security Agency to send unbreakable messages that help protect our nation’s security.

Could it be possible, I wondered, that someone at the National Security Agency was leaking secret prime numbers to the Trump campaign to rig the election? To answer this, and to learn the scary truth about the dark forces hijacking the arcane digital nervous D.N.S. system, I had to delve deeper.

By now, the hacker darknet site “Reddit” has penetrated the public consciousness. Even amongst Reddit users, though, hardly any know of a more secret network. Originally founded as the Universal Security Enforcement NETwork in the 1980s, USENET, to use its sinister name, is a dangerous, illicit cyber location. A haven for cyber vigilantes, USENET is a place where outcast computer scientists are free from rules and regulations to experiment.

How dangerous is USENET? The recent outage that affected the Internet in fact came from an attempt by individuals linked to USENET to create something never before seen or attempted: a robotic network intelligence, also known as BOTnet. The BOTnet was a combination of cutting edge, ethically dubious “deep learning” techniques as well as millions of sophisticated net cameras. And now, I’d just learned from Akira and his contacts that the Trump Campaign – by using the same secret prime numbers that power the internet’s digital nervous system – was linked to this same attack on the Internet.

The revelation that the Trump Campaign is using prime numbers to attack the Internet and to rig the election is not only terrifying but also raises questions. Where are these prime numbers coming from? Are they really coming from the N.S.A. and if not, how is the Trump Campaign getting them?

This whole investigation was becoming fractal, like a jigsaw puzzle with a million pieces. I needed a guide, a native to the cyber underworld, someone who would be willing to teach me the secrets like the “routing protocol” I’d need to understand to navigate the dark nets. Fortunately, my earlier contact Akira was able to recommend someone who I would only ever know by the pseudonym of “Hiro”, a reference they assured me to an underground cyber text from the 90s.

With a chuckle, Hiro sends me on a ‘quest’, their way of playing with me like a cat does with a mouse, to make me jump through hoops to show that I’m serious about following them on this journey.

It’s late. I’ve been chasing this rabbit of how deep the Trump Campaign is subverting the Internet for days now, with little sleep. I’ve learned more than I want to, but it’s not enough. What I have learned though, is this: our world isn’t ruled by power or information anymore. It’s ruled by incomprehensible ones and zeroes. Could it be, I worried and wondered, that the Trump Campaign – through actors and assistance unknown – had effectively stolen and subverted the meaning of the very digits that control our world? And what then of the rumors I had started to hear – the most sinister ones, advanced by computer scientists strictly off-the-record – that the DNC and GOP had in fact struck an underhand deal: half the Internet – the ones – to the DNC and Hillary, and the other half – the zeroes – to the GOP and Trump? Was this what Trump was trying to say when he was saying the system was rigged?

I had to follow up this last rumor, at the very least. Sources in the Trump Campaign would later deny any knowledge at all of such a deal to carve up the Internet. It would be inconceivable, staffers said, that Trump would get the zeros and Hillary would get the ones. “Trump,” they would say, “is not a zero.”

2.0 Inside Baseball

I’m sorry, but I’ve been thinking a bunch about Apple’s recent product announcement of the new MacBook Pro. For what it’s worth, the things-that-have-caught-my-attention about this are less about the specifics of what Apple did or did not put in their new pro laptops, but more about what “computing” looks like these days. So, some thoughts that are coalescing:

* I think we can agree that desktop computers are a) not a growing market, b) a shrinking market as user needs are better met by mobile computing (whether phones, tablets or laptops), c) probably one that won’t disappear to zero, but one that will consolidate and re-baseline.

* Why? I think ultimately what we’ve seen Apple do is try to optimize against a) battery life (which impacts mobility), b) thinness and lightness (which impacts mobility) and c) performance. As they say, if you have three, you can only pick two.

* Just like the way that mobile phones have displaced single-purpose cameras as the devices that people use to take photographs (ie: it doesn’t matter what *kind* of camera you have, the best camera is the one you have with you), the best computing device *most of the time* is the one that you have with you. Computing, it turns out, is something that’s useful wherever and whenever you are, and turns out to not just be useful when you’re tethered to a mains outlet.

* Thanks to Moore’s law *and* the network, *most of the time* we have roughly enough computing power to do roughly most of the computing tasks that people need to do in an energy envelope that also sits inside current battery life capability (10 hours per full charge).

* There’s a real constraint – one that’s not physical – which is that in the U.S., the FAA says that the biggest lithium-ion battery you can take on to a plane and still use is one with 100 watt-hours. So! If you’re talking about a “mobile” device, you’re kind of limited to that energy envelope. Everything you do – if you agree that the most useful computing device is the one you have with you – needs to fit inside that energy envelope.

* So! The big question is – what computing tasks *cannot be done* reasonably (in terms of performance requirements, etc) inside 100 watt-hours worth of energy envelope? Your 100 watt-hours (Apple’s newest MacBook Pro has a 76 watt-hour battery that reportedly hits 10 hours of usage). Again, for *most* computing tasks (e.g. web browsing, web-based transactions and “light” content creation), we’re more preoccupied now with *efficiency* – ie performance-per-watt, the reason why Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel in the first place! – rather than sheer performance.

* This comes back to the crux of it: performance is an issue of comfort in terms of getting the job done. I *can* edit 4k video on a brand new MacBook Pro, but the fundamental point is that my capability in terms of editing video (or any other kind of task that benefits directly from high-performance, high energy-requirement compute, whether CPU or GPU) *must* fit inside 100 watt-hours. My CPU is limited and my GPU is limited. There are, of course, CPUs and GPUs that fit outside that envelope and are way more performant. How many people *need*, and are willing to pay for that performance?

* I think the point is this: there are *some* people who need that performance, but in the context of the entire market the relative percentage of users who *need* 100 watt-hour+ performance is tiny compared to *everyone else* who is satisfied by sub 100 watt-hour performance.

* This, of course, goes back to Steve Jobs’ remark about computers and trucks. I’d say now that “trucks” are 100 watt-hour+ perfomance envelope computers. *Everything else* is your regular MacBook or iPad Pro or iPad or iPhone or whatever. To go Apple kremlinology right now, the issue is that Apple’s 100 watt-hour+ performance envelope computers are *no longer competitive* and don’t make the most of, nor are true to having that energy envelope.

* Actually, I kind of like that way of thinking about things. Apple, *even* in the 100-watt-hour+ performance envelope *still* prioritize thin-ness and form in terms of industrial design. In this case, I’d say that Jony Ive’s design direction is crippling Apple’s ability to lead in that area. The iMac series – which is the only reasonable option for most people in the 100-watt-hour+ performance envelope *still* use mobile-style components due to the industrial design requirement that the computers *look* good. But if Apple is to say that design is *how it works* as well as *how it looks*, then how it works *also*. From this point of view, the Mac Pro’s industrial design was a major mis-step in terms of its lack of expandability that leans in to the 100-watt-hour+ envelope (ie: you’ve got a desktop computer, it’s perfectly fine for you to want to put an energy hungry newer, better, faster GPU in it… but you’re *not allowed* because it’s built in.

* I think the point here is that in the way that the computing truck (100-watt-hour+) is a) a real market, b) not a growing market, c) but a market opportunity nonetheless, Apple has shifted from having made viable trucks (the Cheesegrater Mac Pro) to being (understandably) excited both from a financial and change-the-world-perspective of solving “transport” for everyone. I think part of the issue and blowback from the peanut gallery is more around the fact that macOS is tied to the hardware. There are people who *want* to use macOS but don’t have a choice about a viable, realistic truck to use anymore. At least, they don’t because they have no idea what Apple’s plans are in the truck space.

* Long story short: market segmentation and the size of the market for truck-type computing devices. I’m less interested in litigating the point as to whether it’s *worth* Apple to make a truck (they should), but more that as the digital landscape matures (forgive me for that expression), we’re able to identify new specific market segments that are viable.

3.0 Your Partner’s An A.I.

Robin Sloan wrote me a note in response to my thought the other day about deep-learning systems that work with us instead of replacing us and the whole centaur model; I’d written about how excited I was about AI as prompts, using his auto-complete science fiction text editor. Robin’s point was that he thinks the opportunity is less AI collaborating with us on *existing* formats (ie: an AI assist for novel writing), but that AI can create *new* formats and fill them in itself. The way Robin put it was “new forms for new channels”, which I’m super interested in but I’m not entirely sure about. I think the collision here was the announced shutdown of Vine. It was a human decision that created the Vine 6-second video constraint and then once the format had been chosen – or curated – once that design space was dictated, *then* filling in that 6-second format is something that, I think, an AI could be super interesting at.

So my point is that, *yes* I think AIs can be super interesting in terms of coming up with potential formats but perhaps the issue is that AIs do possibility generation *better* than we do. Something still has to pick and choose! Which we would do, because hey, we still have to do something. But then! We can hand it over to the AI and say, hey, we chose 3-second looping gifs as a format from the selection you presented, now make shit up.

OK, all done. 4:34pm and I’m being super rude by not paying attention to Mr. Loosemore.

Remember, if by any chance you’re at the Code for America summit and would like to chat, drop me a line. And always, I love replies and always try to reply to them.



s3e32: Random Walk; Black Design 

0.0 Station Ident

1:11pm on Wednesday, October 26, 2016. Listening to Johnny Cash’s Hurt thanks to a) that episode of Person of Interest and b) that trailer for LOGAN and I’m perfectly fine with admitting that it’s taken me this long to get around to getting into Cash.

A random walk today of things that have caught my attention…

1.0 Random Walk

The Apple thing (sorry, we’ll have to reset the Days Since I’ve Written About Apple Counter to zero again) that caught my eye today in terms of provoking an opinion was this piece in Six Colors; a rumour that there’s a “discovery feature” coming soon for the Apple TV[0]. My facetious reaction of course is that, wow! Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to “bookmark” television shows that you were interested in! And then you could see when there were new episodes! Almost like a sort of “guide”! And what if you could “collect” television shows together and create, I don’t know “playlists” or… well, what would be a good word for this… maybe a “channel”?

So, some out-loud reckons. Why hasn’t this happened yet? In the same way that the unit-of-media for music was broken down to the song by iTunes and out of the album, what happened with tv shows? My suspicion [citation needed etc] is along these lines: a) television shows are (mostly) pretty expensive to make compared to music (duh), b) when things are expensive, the people who paid for making them protect them more, c) jesus christ have you seen the IP licensing terms around things like television shows?

When you break tv shows down to the episode (and then aggregate by the series) then you’re breaking up the relationship between the producer and the broadcaster. That relationship has been pretty opaque [citatino needed] – when we watch TV I bet most people don’t pay attention to who *made* it (grrr, arg / bad robot!) and the organization that’s doing the work is more like NBC or the BBC to try to get you pay attention to their attention platform so that you’ll look at the thing they’re bringing you.

So! How much would a tv program disintermediation watchlist break the current landscape for tv media? If I’m organizing around *program* and not *network* then if I’m looking for, say, Great British Bakeoff then the current rights situation is: *new* episodes of GBBO are via *this network over here*, *some* old episodes are over here and some other episodes are over there. Suddenly the network relationship has changed! I no longer go to one place for GBBO! This is, of course, what they broadcasters are terrified of.

These UI/discovery problems *aren’t new* and I wonder what a sort of legislative/regulatory unbundling requirement around content might look like. Like: what does the media landscape look like if your options are a) first-run, b) re-run rights for everything. That is, of course, horrible for the market and doesn’t let us come up with innovative mechanisms for funding expensive content that turn out to be horrible for users in a networked age (e.g. release windowing by time, geography and, I dunno, prime-influencer rating)

The linked article about “discovery” seems to be more about *advertising* shows and *potentially* about making it easier to access those shows that you get advertised. There’s not (I don’t think?) user-interactive “ads” on Apple TV yet, and you could see how one use-case might be if I *do* have to see an ad on Hulu about a tv show then, I could click-to-add to my favorites/bookmarks/search. But hey, Apple are too busy revolutionising the tv experience for that.

The second thing is this absolutely godawful blog post from Alphabet Access titled Advancing Our Amazing Bet[1] which *from a user’s point of view* is a) not advancing a bet at all because what it’s really about is *stopping* the roll-out of Google Fiber in a whole bunch of cities (selfishly, one of those being Portland). This blog post is a fantastic example of making the author look stupid by trying to spin something as more or less the exact opposite. Google gets two black marks for shitty writing (uh, content design) by also having published this piece about Jamboard, their new collaboration product, because it includes words like “reimagined” which I would like to declare a moratorium on in terms of use, “redefining meetings” (ditto), and phrases like “collaborate in real-time and create without boundaries”. Just don’t.

If you’re a newer subscriber, here are two older episodes that you might like reading:

– s3e27: It’s Difficult which is in part about Facebook and how it’s hard to do content moderation but really about how Silicon Valley needs to just try harder if it’s to (regain?) our trust
– Episode One Hundred and Eighty Three: The Thing About Brand Advertising – if you work in advertising and digital, apparently this is a good read
– Episode One Hundred and Eighty Two: The Starship Enterprise; How Do You Solve A Problem Like Digital? because a) Star Trek and b) horrible digital campaigns
– Episode One Hundred and Eighty One: It’s Too Hot; Monitor This – mainly because of a horrible digital campaign

and, one of my favorites, because it’s a Thing I Made Up, Kind Of, and because a bunch of people I really, really, really respect (ie: ratings of 4.9!) took the time to write and tell me how much they appreciated it, which, you know, is a super nice thing to do:

– s2e33: Black Design

2.0 Black Design

With that, a segue in to the thing that enough people are talking about: season 3 of Black Mirrror (to the extent that when I got takeout the other night for dinner, the woman who was putting everything together was telling me about how excited she was about binging on it over the weekend). I’ve watched the first two episodes: Nosedive and Playtest, and I *think* I have a vague idea for, I don’t know, Extended Editions, of the ideas in the Black Mirror universe.

The premise behind Nosedive is basically Rating People (ie remember when that Peeple rating app made noise around this time last year? Yeah? At the time, I said “The Peeple “app” is merely the transmedia campaign for Netflix’s new Black Mirror series season opener, What If Rating Things, But Too Much”, so I give myself a hearty pat on the back for my predictive power). I’m not really spoiling anything, I think, because the main Black Mirror premise is:

– what if this thing portended by Technology happens
– what if we extend that to its logical conclusion
– oh my god people are monsters

But! Black Mirror only has one hour! Nosedive tells the story of someone who feels like she *needs* to have a high rating to be successful in life, the story of someone who lives for external validation. (Side note: of course, I do not relate in any way whatsoever). Everything she does, because of the context and system she’s in, she does to get a higher rating.

We don’t see what, for example, other communities do in the Nosedive universe. Our protagonist lives in a Martha Stewart-esque bubble where the kind of people she gets ratings from are the kind of people who value a camera-ready life and making olive tapenade and doing yoga all the time. We *don’t* see what the alt-right looks like in that universe. We don’t see what social justice warriors look like in that universe. We don’t see what volunteers or Catholics or startup brogrammers do in that universe.

I guess what I’m saying is: hey, here’s a pitch for Black Mirror licensed short stories/novels, please get in touch…

[0] Report: Apple TV discovery feature in the offing – Six Colors
[1] Google Fiber Blog: Advancing our amazing bet
[2] Jamboard — the whiteboard, reimagined for collaboration in the cloud
[3] Dan Hon on Twitter: “The Peeple “app” is merely the transmedia campaign for Netflix’s new Black Mirror series season opener “What If Rating Things, But Too Much””

1:43pm. 1350ish words. I love notes and feedback, as ever. Hopefully I’ll be back again tomorrow.