Category: Ramblings

More of the internet should cost money

Here’s an unpopular opinion: we should pay for more of the Internet. By ‘we,’ I mean the people who use it.

Let me put down a bit of foundational work:

Advertising leads to tracking

My argument is this: I would rather pay Facebook, or Google, the money myself, rather than have them collect data on me and target ads. Further, think of the resources that these “engines of innovation” are dedicating to tracking us and serving ads, when they could be dedicating them towards solving problems.

For a savings of $20/year, I have abdicated the ability to be the final customer of Google, Twitter and Facebook, and instead became the product.

That alone would be a reason to consider paying for websites and leads me to what I think is a bigger point.

Advertising prioritizes eyeballs over experience

These tech companies are keeping their customers happy, but we’re not the customers (see above, but none of that is really a new idea). But I don’t think people emphasize enough the social costs of this.

Ask yourself, if the cost was $5/year for a Twitter account, would there be 48 million bots on Twitter? Further, what if Twitter spent the energy they now invest in finding advertising customers and serving ads in actually cleaning up the user experience? The could have actual people and not A.I. checking abusive tweets. That alone would be a step up.

Further, imagine the user who has already paid for a Twitter account. Most trolls have a separate account only for trolling. Maybe they still would, but how often would they pay the $5 registration fee after being banned for abusive behavior? In most cases (I’m willing to wager), a warning that “if this behavior continues, this account will be suspended” would be enough. After all, Twitter wouldn’t have to try and figure out if there were duplicate accounts, allowing users to create a second (or 48 millionth) account after suspension would be equivalent to a $5 fine for abusive behavior.

Would people still get trolled? Sure. Would trolls become more subtle? Yes. But, would the total level of trolling go down? I think so. And the customers — the users — would be much happier about it.

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Google Fit Goals – A meditation on motivation

A while ago, Google Fit introduced the possibility of adding weekly goals in Google Fit. Of course, I didn’t use them.

After all, I liked Google Fit as a pedometer and activity tracker. I was too busy to count my steps or time my activity throughout the day, but I wasn’t too busy to know how often I’d been jogging that week. The idea seemed stupid to me.

Then, recently, while playing absent-mindedly in the Google Fit menus, I set up my “run three times a week” goal.

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And, I’ve grown to like it. I feel a pressure to get that purple line all the way around the circle, and really want to avoid having to see an incomplete-goal icon for the next weeks. It’s genuinely a motivation.

I like to think I embrace motivation

I teach a lot of middle-aged Germans who grew up in communist East Germany and who feel baffled by anything that smacks of ‘gamification.’ After all, they didn’t need points and badges to get things done back then, why should they need them now?

These are the same people who think that Carnival (or Halloween) is stupid because they don’t need to be forced to have fun. (But go ahead and ask them when they last put on a costume…) Or that Valentine’s Day is a joke imported from the west and they can be romantic anytime. (But then, ask them when they last bought roses…)

My point is, there are people who think they are strong enough to not need tricks. But, in most cases, they’re the ones who are also mostly satisfied with their current level of… whatever. They might say “I should run more” or “I need to take more time for my wife,” but the inevitably say it in a tone of voice that makes clear they have accepted it will not happen.

On the other hand, I like to think that I embrace motivation. I have a sense of who I am and who I could be, and a clear understanding of how big the difference between those two people is. And, though the person I want to be (a third person altogether) might have the willpower to not need motivational tricks, the person who I could be certainly embraces them.

TL;DR: The Google Fit weekly runs tracking is more motivational than I thought, and I’m frustrated that I didn’t realize that I was dismissing something I would like to embrace.

On the need for new business vocab and some bad suggestions

Listening to a recent episode of StartUp on the race for autonomous cars, I heard a (former?) Uber executive say that Uber was a “tech company.” This was said as a way of explaining Uber focusing on the tech of self-driving cars.

The idea seemed to be “don’t think of us as a taxi company, we produce tech.” And, I guess that’s an acceptable worldview.

The thing is, I don’t think the world needs tech. The world needs something more… But I don’t know what.

Let me try to explain what I mean

I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, is looking for more tech. We use tech but really what we want is to recombine the things around us. Recently, the tech sector has broken things apart and put them back together in new ways. It’s what Uber did, and Airbnb, but what people needed was a way to better utilize cars and apartments, and make some money.

What I’m trying to say is that I wish we had companies that looked at the world in general and said “what could be? And how can we contribute to making it happen?” Most of what makes our future utopia happen will involve tech, but, much more, it will involve using tech to change the way other parts of the world function. Ideally for the better.

Hearing the unnamed exec say “we’re a tech company, so we’re focused on the tech” (paraphrase!) I thought Hmm. His vocabulary is limiting his worldview. He needs to see the world differently.

Some alternatives

So, what vocab can be used to see the world better? To be honest, I don’t know. But, here are a few possibilities.

  • Solutions. As in “we’re a solutions company.” pros: we need solutions. cons: It sounds like empty corporate talk.
  • Holistic. As in “we take a holistic approach.” pros: Existing vocab, already means something close to what I want it to mean. cons: Sounds fatuous, will frequently be ignored or made equivalent to “using crystals for health.”
  • Big picture. As in “we’re a big picture company.” pros: Should encourage big-picture thinking. cons: Corporate newspeak, so universal that it already has been parodied in “re your brains.”
  • Intrastructure. As in “we’re in intrastructure company.” pros: I made it up, so it can mean whatever we want. (Infrastructure is the structure between stuff. Intrastructure are the structures that connect things.) cons: Doesn’t have a meaning yet and can easily become another empty word. Will be mocked before being adopted.

All of those are bad ideas. But, I don’t think I have to wait to have a solution before I point out the problem. I am, of course, eager to hear what your ideas for an alternative are.

Thinking like a programmer

So, a while ago, I asked some programmers who were learning English from me what people least understood about programming. (Because, who cares what they could learn from me, I’m about what I can learn from them!)

The answer I got surprised me. They said that people just didn’t get how well you had to understand a subject to write a good program to support it. In their cases, they wrote software to automate some parts of a civil engineer’s job and felt burdened by what they’d learned about civil engineering. “I was never interested in it,” on of them said, “and now, whenever I pull onto the autobahn, I check if the on ramp is banked the way it should be. Because that’s the part of the code I wrote.”

Coding, for them, wound up being like teaching English for me: learning about all kind of interesting things that you wouldn’t have otherwise learned, but not always completely content with the list of things they were learning.

“And it changes the way you think.” Quickly followed that example. “You start seeing everything in algorithms, in steps. And making things efficient.”

“I can’t watch my wife work at home.” The other chimed in, “she does things wrong.” When I gave him a quizzical look, he said “she adds steps to things that she doesn’t need to add steps to, like cooking.”

The conversation that followed was wide-ranging, from three guys in a room talking about their wives (we didn’t say anything bad, honey, I swear!) to the actual topic at hand. My takeaway, though, was that they were so obsessed with brevity and efficiency in their work, that it started leaking out into their day-to-day life.

The idea is simple: they were writing code that had to be executed in ‘real time’ (the user shouldn’t feel like she ever had to wait) and so it had to be as few steps as possible. After all, a lot of what they did was write stuff that would be applied to a lot of different data points. So, if you can skip two or three steps — in a process that’s going to be repeated a thousand or more times each time the user alters her plans — you’re reducing the risk of the software seeming laggy.

So, naturally, opening the coffee and putting the open container next to the coffee maker seemed like an extra step to them: why wouldn’t you first get the filter ready and then skip the steps of putting down and picking up the coffee? If you were making a thousand pots of coffee per morning, you probably would.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in my Python playground of late, and I’ve enjoyed most of it. In case you’re wondering, I haven’t reached the point in my programming life where my obsession with speed leaves me criticizing my wife. It’s just lead me to the point where I can barely stand to see myself work.


I don’t pretend to be able to point to any recording of the words in quotes above. And nothing said in the conversation I’m writing about would have been said in especially good English. I’m just going for the gist. I doubt that either of the programmers, were they to read this, would feel misrepresented.

Becoming Politically Correct

So, working on the worksheet generator when I have time, I recently added a list of stock names to it, so that it could generate exercises with certain names. No biggie, it just meant I wouldn’t always be using my own and my family’s names.

But, then something got to me. The thing about my ESL teaching is that I often feel like an unpaid diplomat. For a lot of my students, I’m all the exposure they’re going to get to the United States and, well, that’s unfortunate for a lot of reasons.

Adding the names, though, I realized that I was sort of defining what were ‘American’ names. At least for my students. And my initial plan to just find a list of ‘most common American first names’ (in lists like this one) seemed obviously inadequate, as the names seemed to be very white, even to me.

I’m white, and tell stories about white people to my student. But, obviously, there are other names in the United States.

So, I wound up looking for ‘common african american baby names’ to fill in my list of names. And, to be fair, I even got lists of German names.

It’s genuinely strange to me how much effort I put into getting the names right. But, it’s such a minor detail that it has me wondering two things: whether I’m overthinking the whole thing, but also, second, what other ways I should also be thinking about how I ‘whitewash’ what America is.

Willpower and Habit

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about willpower and habit lately. Partly, I suppose, this has been prompted by my reflecting on habit with my students, but it’s more than that.

I wonder if I have less willpower than other people, and maybe have simply been ‘programmed’ with decent habits by my parents. I know I have less willpower than I’d like to have.

One thing that bothers me is that I don’t know that I’ve ever really exercised to the point of muscle failure. At least, I can’t recall it. I feel like I exercise to the point of will failure.

And that’s something to work on.

But, recently, I’ve tried to make simple changes to my life: stop snacking in the evening, try fasting, stick to an exercise routine.

You know where this is going: I do great for a while, but then I cave. What bothers me, is that I know I’m going to regret giving in to whatever urge-of-the-moment I have when I do it, and I still do it.

I don’t regret changing my mind, like I did yesterday when I was planning on fasting until dinner and someone I genuinely like asked me to have a piece of his birthday cake. That’s a simple question of priorities: he was more important to me than the fast. But, I do regret the times that I know I’ll be upset if I grab a snack, and I do it anyway.

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I’d like to develop to a point where I decide for myself who I am, rather than feeling  like a bag of chemicals that basically does whatever the urge-of-the-moment is.

Living with the Seasons

It starts, I think, with the idea of eating seasonally. You know, tomatoes and strawberries only in the summer, kale in the late autumn. The reasoning seems sound: we evolved eating the foods that were available at the moment.

That idea really appeals to me. And, as I experiment with it — eating lots of root vegetables and grains this time of year — I’d like to extend the idea.

Here’s the problem: I live in a city. It’s hard to feel the seasons here. I’ve thought about things like growing my beard out in the winter, or changing the color of the table cloth (which would require me to start using a table cloth).

I like the idea of living in tune with the seasons, but I don’t know how to do it in the city.

That’s just what I’m thinking about at the moment.