72: The Ethics of Google’s Core Business, CPUs of Spacecrafts, Amazon Buys Wondery + My Thoughts on Podcasting, EV Battery Degradation, Excel, and Tenet

"I don’t mind that it was confusing per se"

School tends to punish exceptions.

Exceptional people are (by definition) exceptions.

The worst and the best are punished.

Those who cluster in the middle are rewarded for being undifferentiated.

This is a bad lesson that gives them a false sense of security.

No winners.

Stoic Emperor

TikTok is clearly the best thing that ever happened to the artsy kids and the theater kids and the dance kids.

Beautiful people have had Instagram for a while, but the kids who dance in front of their mirrors, write novelty songs on their ukulele and/or MIDI samplers, lip-synch into their hairbrushes, do impressions and funny skits in front of their 3 friends in their parents’ basement… they now have something that fits like a glove and allows them to reach millions and for their talents to be recognized (and increasingly, monetized).

Sure, they could do some of that on Youtube and other platforms before, but these weren’t really built in the right shape for their thing.

This is something new at this scale (I know, I know — Vine and Musical.ly, but these were the larvae form).

🎤 The launch of AirPods was a huge TAM expansion for the podcast industry. I wonder what are some of the next industries that will have their AirPods moment with either a new product category, or with a better-enough-version of an old product category that creates a step-function change…


Investing & Business

The Ethics of Google’s Core Business

Is it ethical for Google to make most of its money from ads that look enough like organic search results that probably more than 50% of its users (possibly closer to 80%, if I had to guess) couldn't tell you when they're clicking on ads — being sent to where the highest bidder for the keyword wants to send them — and when they're clicking on what the search algorithm actually decided is the best answer to the search they did?

If you could do a representative survey of a few thousand Google users around the world and show that most didn't know when they were clicking on ads most of the time, should Google change its ad format so that a majority of users easily differentiate ads from search results?

Objections: I realize that there’s the word “Ad” in there and a little colored icon sometimes (things vary whether on a desktop browser or on the mobile app — though note that on smaller mobile devices, the screen is often 100% filled with ads, removing any contrast that may help users notice something is an ad).

I’m not looking at it from a legalistic, did-they-put-the-words-in-there point of view. I’m thinking about in practice, do users actually know what’s what, or not? Are people being deceived, or not?

We know that humans don’t parse websites like computers. They don’t read all the words, and over time become blind to parts of the UI, after seeing it over and over.

It’s like the “terms and conditions” for many products and services. Sure, maybe everything’s in there, in fine print somewhere, and maybe that’s good enough in court, but if most people are being deceived about how things really work, that doesn’t make it right.

Especially if there’s billions of dollars in incentives that push in the direction of more deception rather than less… I mean, if the goal really isn’t to mislead users, then it wouldn’t be a big deal for Google to make the background color of ads light blue or make them stand out clearly in some other way, right?

Amazon Buys Podcast Publisher Wondery + My Thoughts on Podcasting

Sub-title: The Podcast Wars
(hopefully the listeners aren't collateral damage..)

Amazon has announced that they’ve acquired Wondery for an undisclosed sum and are putting it in Amazon Music:

Wondery is an innovative podcast publisher with a track record of creating and producing top-rated podcasts that entertain and educate listeners, including “Dirty John,” “Dr. Death,” “Business Wars,” and “The Shrink Next Door.” [...]

Bloomberg and WSJ suggest a deal of “at least $300 million”.

At least this part is promising:

When the deal closes, nothing will change for listeners, and they’ll continue to be able to access Wondery podcasts through a variety of providers. With Amazon Music, Wondery will be able to provide even more high-quality, innovative content and continue their mission of bringing a world of entertainment and knowledge to their audiences, wherever they listen.

Nothing would suck more than to see the open ecosystem, accessible from any player, become fragmented, and needing 5 different players to listen to all you want to listen to.

And this openness also is encouraging competition and innovation in players. Spotify’s player sucks and it would suck more if it was the IE6 of podcast players… I wrote about all this in edition #18. It’s a long excerpt, but I have to get it off my chest again:

Spotify podcasters may think it’s “their” audience, but once you’re not in control of the RSS feed and the relationship with the advertisers anymore, Spotify is in between you and your audience. It’s probably a good business for Spotify, but for creators and listeners it may go in directions they don’t like…

I’m afraid that Spotify will look super nice to podcasters for a while, but over time, if they get a major share of the ecosystem, we’ll see the screws begin to tighten and they’ll do what’s best for Spotify, which isn’t necessarily what’s best for podcast listeners and creators.

Once you have one player that controls most discovery and distribution, you are at their mercy. Apple’s benign neglect of the ecosystem is exactly what allowed it to become great — if some company had tried to make it all proprietary and controlled and monetized from the start, it would be much much worse, just like if the open web had never existed and everybody had always only been on AOL.

Walled gardens inevitably change content rules over time so that certain types of content are excluded or significantly disadvantaged in discovery because it’s not what pleases advertisers... When it’s all decentralized and open, it doesn’t matter if certain things don’t please all advertisers, but when it becomes all centralized and any ad can go to any show, there’s leveling by the lowest common denominator.

What if they start looking at all content with machine-learning to look for certain keywords and play big brother so that their advertisers only support “approved” podcasts and every one else is demonetized? Ok… the chilling effect means that everybody starts self-censoring and content starts to be tailor-made to the black-box algorithm, kind of like all those Buzzfeed headlines and lists and clickbait that started a few years ago because it was the only thing that went viral on social media… So after a while, the ecosystem is a lot less vibrant, a lot less genuine and authentic, and it’s all crap made to please the Spotify SEO god that can make or break your podcast. [...]

And currently, Spotify’s player sucks. Their speed setting goes from 1.5x to 2x without anything in between. That’s just stupid. And then from 2x straight to 3x? Do they even use their product?

They also don’t have dynamic silence removal, I’m not seeing any compression/EQ feature, I’m not even seeing show notes, though maybe they’re hidden somewhere… It’s really bad, especially for something that they’re supposed to be focusing on this much and have been working on for years.

So while it’s great that Amazon is saying the podcasts will stay available outside its ecosystem — ad-supported podcasts are, after all, naturally horizontal content — it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think that Amazon would buy it and then not favor its own ecosystem at all.

Maybe they’re planning exclusivity only for new shows developed going forward?

An interesting model would be to only keep exclusive some bonus content for the shows, but keep most of the regular episodes available to all. With shows that have high engagement, I bet a lot of fans would migrate to Amazon Music to get the extras. We’ll see.

Microsoft SolarWinds Hack Update

Apparently they call it Solorigate now. Not sure it’s the best name, but I guess SolarWinds is probably liking that their brand is used a little less.

Microsoft wrote an update on their own internal investigation:

we detected malicious SolarWinds applications in our environment, which we isolated and removed. Having investigated further, we can now report that we have not found evidence of the common TTPs (tools, techniques and procedures) related to the abuse of forged SAML tokens against our corporate domains. [...]

We detected unusual activity with a small number of internal accounts and upon review, we discovered one account had been used to view source code in a number of source code repositories. The account did not have permissions to modify any code or engineering systems and our investigation further confirmed no changes were made. These accounts were investigated and remediated.

They explain their own internal source code and security posture, which is interesting:

At Microsoft, we have an inner source approach – the use of open source software development best practices and an open source-like culture – to making source code viewable within Microsoft. This means we do not rely on the secrecy of source code for the security of products, and our threat models assume that attackers have knowledge of source code. So viewing source code isn’t tied to elevation of risk.

First, I have to point out how jarring the first sentence would’ve sounded to a Microsoft-watcher a few years ago (Ballmer famously called Linux a “cancer” in 2001 and the company was pretty hostile to open-source in general). Nice to see that things can change for the better (now let’s do the rest of the planet in 2021).

As with many companies, we plan our security with an “assume breach” philosophy and layer in defense-in-depth protections and controls to stop attackers sooner when they do gain access. We have found evidence of attempted activities which were thwarted by our protections, so we want to re-iterate the value of industry best practices such as outlined here, and implementing Privileged Access Workstations (PAW) as part of a strategy to protect privileged accounts.

Cool stuff, it’s the modern approach and makes a lot of sense. Source.

Financial Infrastructure Isn’t Always What You Think…

Via Reddit (lost the link, sorry — but who knows if it was a repost from 5 years ago anyway? The more pixelated and full of compression artifacts an image is, the more it makes me think it has been recompressed by social media sites over and over again…)


Science & Technology

Tesla Battery Degradation Over Time/Usage

I’ve been interested in electric cars for a couple decades, and I’ve seen and heard it all. I even briefly met Musk in Detroit in 2009 or 2010, before most of the rest of the world had heard of him and the Model S was still in the R&D design studio (we mostly just joked about SpaceX’s Falcon rocket).

Anyway, one of the things you constantly hear is about how it’s going to cost a lot to replace your battery and how it’s going to degrade a lot over the years, etc.

Now that enough EVs have been driving around the real world, in all kinds of conditions (Scandinavia & Texas), the actual data seems to show that this isn’t something people should worry too much about, in the same way that internal combustion engines also become less efficient with age (reducing driving range) and most people never give it a second thought.

Source.

‘The CPUs of Spacecraft Computers in Space’

Ever wondered what CPUs spacecrafts use? Yeah, me too, all the time!

This page is a bit dated, but it includes a lot of the classics space probes and vehicles like Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, the Space Shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, Pathfinder, the International Space Station (ISS), etc.

I mean, I know that Apollo ran on basically a Timex watch* and that it was amazing that it all worked at all — NASA engineers basically somehow did things that shouldn’t have been possible with the level of technology available at the time — but it’s still mind-blowing to me to read that the ISS uses an Intel 80386SX-20 w/ Intel 80387 coprocessor.

My first real computer as a kid (well, my father’s) was a 386 DX 25mhz, and I played Doom on it. I had a whole 5mhz more than the ISS, and they were stuck on a SX while I had a luxurious DX.

The Spirit and Opportunity robotic rovers that went to Mars did a pretty good job, despite running on a radiation-hardened version of the IBM RS/6000 Processor clocked at just 25mhz too (I love this great XKCD on Spirit’s endurance).

Also neat to see that the Curiosity rover 7 years later used a radiation-hardened version of the IBM PowerPC 750 clocked at 200MHz.

Check out the whole list here, it’s glorious.

* Someone actually did the math and found that some USB-C chargers have more compute power than the Apollo 11 guidance computer.

Amazon’s Maps-as-a-Service (MaaS?)

A kind of follow up to the OpenStreetMap piece in edition #71, it looks like AWS has released a new location service that is partly built on OSM:

Today we are making Amazon Location available in preview form and you can start using it today. Priced at a fraction of common alternatives, Amazon Location Service gives you access to maps and location-based services from multiple providers on an economical, pay-as-you-go basis.

“Alternatives” here meaning mostly “Google Maps API”.

You can use Amazon Location Service to build applications that know where they are and respond accordingly. You can display maps, validate addresses, perform geocoding (turn an address into a location), track the movement of packages and devices, and much more. You can easily set up geofences and receive notifications when tracked items enter or leave a geofenced area. You can even overlay your own data on the map while retaining full control. [...]

You can choose between maps and map styles provided by Esri and by HERE Technologies, with the potential for more maps & more styles from these and other partners in the future

I saw that Esri used OSM data, but couldn’t confirm for HERE Technologies (their site seems to say that their have a map renderer that can use their own maps or OSM, but I’m not sure which AWS uses).

Source. h/t Andrew B.

Vaccination Rollout in the U.S.

The administration promised to vaccinate 20 million Americans by the end of December, but yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that it had administered just 2.1 million doses in two weeks, although that number is likely somewhat low because of lag times in reporting. At the current rate, Dr. Leana S. Wen writes in the Washington Post, we can expect to achieve herd immunity in 10 years. [...]

The administration planned simply to get the vaccines to the states, and then leave to them the problem of actually getting the vaccines into people’s arms. But state Departments of Health are strapped for money after trying to manage the pandemic for nine months, and had been allotted only $6 million apiece to make the distributions happen. [...]

Biden promised to invoke the National Defense Production Act, a law that permits the president to require companies to produce goods at the same time that it guarantees them a market for those goods, to speed up the production of supplies necessary to distribute the vaccine quickly (Source)

Seems like this was the detailed distribution plan:

Step 1. Wait for vaccines.
Step 2. [stuff happens]
Step 3. Pandemic over!

Contrast with Israel:

Israel has now vaccinated more than a million people.

More than 10% of the country’s population. 

Other countries take holidays and keep the vaccines waiting in the freezers while their populations are stuck in lockdowns and their people die by the thousands. (Source)

On the lighter side:

42 people in West Virginia received Regeron’s Covid-19 monoclonal antibody treatment instead of the Moderna vaccine on Wednesday, the West Virginia National Guard said. (Source)

Wait, how do you mistakenly give someone an IV drip infusion instead of a vaccine?

And weren't people like, hey, excuse me, this isn't a vaccine..? I came here for a vaccine and this isn’t it!?


The Arts & History

Just some Octopus Kites

This almost looks like an H. P. Lovecraft festival..

This kite event on the beach in Denmark is pretty cool too, with thousands of all kind. Source.

Tenet (SPOILERS — SRELIOPS)

So I saw this with my wife a few days ago. I’ve got mixed feelings about it.

From a high level, it’s basically an homage to James Bond and Mission Impossible, but seen through the lens of Nolan’s obsessions with mind-bending time and physics concepts.

It’s the adopted child of James Bond and Ethan Hunt, with Inception as the surrogate mother.

In some ways, I’m not the target audience for this, because I find the Bond and Impossible franchises to be mostly just ok and very hit or miss. Kind of entertaining for the action set-pieces, and some instalments stand out more than the others, but generally I tend to get a lot of my film and TV-watching enjoyment out of good writing, dialogue, nuanced characters, relationships, lived in worlds, etc (basically: Deadwood). So this really isn’t the place for any of that, and not exactly Nolan’s strength to begin with.

I admire the ambition of the concept and wish more filmmakers were able to take big risks with original IP like this. And I enjoyed the action set pieces and the IMAX cinematography, and I appreciate how much of the effects are largely practical rather than fully CGI.

But I think that when you zoom out and don’t look at it just scene-by-scene, the execution of the whole thing didn’t quite gel together for me. Maybe they tried to do something too ambitious and couldn’t quite pull it off, or maybe it’ll play fine for Bond fans who are used to the plot being mostly just an excuse for non-sequitur glamorous locations and fight sequences.

In the end, I think the fatal flaw for me was that the dialogue is mostly bad and the characters are 2D, so I kept finding myself being pulled out of the movie and thinking about it from the outside rather than living through it, and that diminished the big set pieces for me.

Here’s a more concrete example: In ‘The Dark Knight’, Heath Ledger is so good that when the Joker is making a raid or flipping a semi truck, you’re right there with him, and the action feels close. In this, it’s a lot easier to remember that you’re watching a screen.

‘Tenet’ is closest to ‘Inception’, and it suffers from some of the same problems, but they’re harder to overlook this time.

In ‘Inception’ when there’s an endless fight scene with masked enemies on skis (or whatever), it kind of makes sense that the enemies are faceless and more like bad-guy-extras getting gunned down in a 1980s Chuck Norris action film because it’s a dream, but in ‘Tenet’ when that same scene happens (with really cool special effects, granted), it just kind of feels like a video game, except you never really see the enemies and everybody’s kinda firing their rifles in the void and dodging random explosions that don’t feel dangerous. It makes the stakes feel lower than they should…

I generally liked the actors, and I think that they mostly did their best with some clunky dialogue (not quite George Lucas level, but sometimes very on-the-nose or just not how real people speak).

Anyway, that’s probably enough on this film. If you’ve read this whole review, go to your kitchen and get yourself a cookie in the cupboard, you have my blessing, you deserve it.

Extra 1: I think I probably would’ve liked it better if I had seen it in theater. I sure hope I get to see Villeneuve’s Dune in theater (ideally IMAX), because I’ve seen pretty much all his other films over the past 10 years on the big screen, and it really makes a difference.

Extra 2: I don’t mind that it was confusing per se. I think it’s unavoidable with this kind of story. You jut can’t explain all the time paradoxes, and the audience isn’t used to thinking about time in that non-linear, backwards-and-forward way, so it can’t be 100% easily to follow.

But with that given, I still think they didn’t do the best job of keeping the important things clear, and went a bit overboard with all the pointless McGuffins (they could at least have made them more interesting or emotionally engaging).

Oh, and happy new year!