Why I would work for the NSA

Edward Snowden is my hero. And yet, I would work for the NSA (or any agency with similar capabilities, if they exist).

Why? Because No Such Agencies have too much untapped capabilities to be left to their own devices. They need somebody like me if they want to regain society’s trust. It will take a while, but people like me are the best thing that can happen to them. People that believe in doing what’s right, not what they are told. People that can – and will – say “no” when it’s too much. People that have a sense of justice that’s bound to making society work well, rather than a political agenda.

It’s too easy to say “I hate them”. It doesn’t change anything, and – worse – leaves the current untethered power of NSA et al. unchallenged. I know it’s not a simple problem of a binary choice such as good vs. evil. It’s a complex problem, that requires a multi-layered approach. It’s a question of balance, of finding equilibrium on the threshold of opposing forces. 

You’ve gone too far – now you need minds like mine to get back. 

Dear NSA, if you’re listening (ha! As if you were not..), let’s talk. I can help, and we have to start somewhere. That was my first contact.

Your move.

 

Sincerely, 

a citizen of the world

 

A new dot-com bubble

There is a new dot-com bubble approaching.

There are a lot of “startups” – people with great ideas, some with seed funding, most without a viable product. The problem is, most of them work on the assumption that a lot of people will use their product; they compete with each other not based on what service they offer, but for our attention.

It’s a tragedy of the commons all over again: even if 20% of these startups were to become successful, we would witness a steep increase of products we could use in our daily life.  Now tell me – do you have the time to use more than 2-3 apps on your mobile every day? How about websites, or web services? What if instead of a handful, every day you had a dozen very useful products you *need* to use?

I would never use so many. I would not even remember they exist. Let’s say, I can only use/remember about five apps. Every new one you add to the list makes a less-interesting one disappear (that’s also why google+ will never succeed – because it adds nothing new).

Here’s a prediction: the business of the future will be in aggregating our data. The winners will be those who develop apps that can gather content and make useful stuff with it, using the best service available to get what we need. The phone of the future will not have apps – they will be hidden from the customer. Instead, the phone of the future will be one unified interface that talks with “services”. Sortof what facebook is trying to do, but without the locking in of customers.

In the mean time, most of these startups will crumble, and there will be another burst. Not for their ideas (this time they are great! – unlike in the early years of the third millennium), but because they are competing for a limited resource: our attention as human beings.

Dear Google

Dear Google,

Please stop annoying your own nerdbase. Otherwise it will be fatal to you on the long run. Sure, you’ll survive on your legacy products, but you’ll lose your edge that made you special and will go the way of Microsoft and IBM. Always chasing the latest and coolest, and unable to innovate from within.

Some, purely anectodal examples:

You introduced the new ‘hangouts’, breaking compatibility with XMPP. The new emoticons/emoji in them … suck. Terribly. And there is no way to remove them. The chat window now holds only two/three messages. It’s awful to look at. And you think I am not smart enough to give me an option to fix it.

You removed reader (and before that, the ‘sharing’ feature in reader, my most relevant source of interesting news through my contacts). Many complained.

I got lost trying to find the ‘settings’ for my gmail account. Or the security preferences to make a new application-specific password. Nothing is any longer intuitive – there’s an icon and you have to interpret its meaning to understand what it could mean. And no, after a few weeks, you’ll likely to forget it.

I only open google+ when I am utterly bored, because there’s some cool imagery posted from large corporations that have somebody paid to do it. But certainly not to stay up to date with my contacts, as hardly anybody uses it. Those who do, stop in a while, because, well, too few of their friends use it.

Many small straws, one camel. These are just small things, but to me they are important signs. Dear Google, you lost your edge. That’s it. Period. The public-facing products are moving towards “experiences”, none of which are really useful nor entirely pleasant to use.

Also – all that effort to push social networking was wrong: it must be a bottom-up process, emerging from simple services, not forced down users’ throats. Soon you won’t be a “cool” place to hang out any more, management will start running things, and then stagnation and perpetration of the status quo will dominate.

Another, purely anectodal example: none of my close friends have been able to pass their interviews. I am certain that many of them have stunning abilities, and talents that go beyond the regular developer/sysadmin. Yet, most of them have talents in several pools – devops with a math background, roboticists, excellent programmers with a keen eye for research. And none passed. Why? Because none of them fits Google’s strict HR categories. It’s time you start breaking your own rules and bring in the unexpected, the person that doesn’t fit into a category, otherwise you’ll just fueling a self-reinforcing pattern.

How things are right now, it’s inevitable you will go the way of Microsoft and IBM, but it’s a pain to watch it happen. There is so much talent inside, such great potential, and exceptional products (glass, self-driving cars) that could truly revolutionize the world.

There are two Googles: the nerd-driven research-oriented that churns out great stuff, and the management-driven profit machine that dictates the rules.

Google, please, start listening to your nerds, and stop listening to your management. Do something. Split into a nerd company and a ‘brand’. Whatever. We loved you, seriously. You can still save your soul. Hire me! ;)

On government surveillance, and its costs

The latest news on widespread government surveillance revolve around this so-called “PRISM” program, that gave NSA & friends unlimited tapping power on every piece of data that’s stored in the cloud. Because even if you store your stuff on, say, Amazon’s EU servers – they replicate the data across their network. And you have no control over it.

My first, quick thoughts were: “that’s not news”. Seriously. It’s not “news”. A quick back-envelope calculation tells us that it costs less to store everything than train analysts to comb through the data to find the possible terrorist connection. One day machine learning will make it cheaper to sort data real-time and discard the rest, but until then and in current circumstances there is no way the government or any corporation will not conduct mass surveillance.

Solutions: as Bruce Schneier explains in wonderful detail in his latest book, it’s a cost problem and as such must be treated. For example,

  • Political costs: demand impeachment or resignation of whoever is in charge. Take away votes.
  • Economical costs: either by moving away from these companies that cooperated through boycott, or set up cheaper alternatives elsewhere.
  • Loss of profit: actively work with non-US based companies to show how their data “in the cloud” could have given their US competitors an unfair advantage, especially for large corporations (think US contractors). This might be actually the most effective strategy, as it hits where it hurts the most (profit).
  • Human costs: this would jeopardize the safety of activists and protesters in countries where the political regime is less liberal. Make a case that would stick to the public imagination.

The solution is not just to raise public outrage. It works, but then it loses momentum. We need a strategy to cope with this, and can’t be so naive as to expect the public to revolt. It’s time for privacy activists to grow up and stop being angry teenagers.

Also, start leaking documents that show your government’s or corporation’s wrongful actions, for god’s sake.

UPDATED, Jun 10: Schneier’s essay is available here, with further updates.

[rant] How I fixed windows XP mbr from a linux live USB distro

…after days of searching around the net, the solution turned out to be embarassingly simple: run lilo -M /dev/sda mbr

(taken from this).

What makes me extremely upset is that

  • all ‘graphical’ tools screwed up either my USB drive, did not install the required ISO, erased all data on another external USB hard drive (by updating the ‘selected disk’ on the fly, moving the original target down the list)
  • no ‘dd’ method works on osx: I suspect it’s due to some odd partitioning scheme that osx does when creating fat32 partitions
  • GRUB is a pain in the ass. It just does not work; nobody knows what its commands are; the manpages do not reflect what the actual tool does (eg. in ‘rescue’ I could use ‘ls’, but not in ‘normal’ mode)

All of the above reinforces my opinion on why Linux lost it. If we have to resort to programs that were scoffed upon as ‘old’ (but still work better than the ‘new’ ones), then we’re not making progress. We’re just pumping ego.

Genders, large smartphones and small tablets.

The other day a friend of mine pulled out of her purse a small tablet and checked her mail and Facebook, while a common (male) friend was reading the news on his large Android phone. So I thought, perhaps that’s how mobile-ness will evolve: following gender attitudes.

Here’s my prediction: there will be no winner in the race “bigger phones” vs. “small tablets”. Instead, men will use smartphones with large displays (and yes, there will be a ‘big phone = big penis’ race, like for cars). On the other hand, since in many countries women carry purses, that’s where they will put their small tablet, while their phone will probably be a small, minimalistic device to place calls with a tiny display and voice recognition, paired with their tablet.

So the winner will be, a large smartphone for the dude, and a small phone + small tablet for the girl. With obvious caveats: I’m talking about the majority of the market. Of course there will be men with tablets and women with smartphones, just like people with simple phones and no tablets. But that’s not my point. Still, imagine the sales of small mobile phones that match your outfit, or whatever fashion will come up with.

Note: I’m not implying that girls are fascinated by shiny objects and men are stupid creatures that look only at the size of their toy. If that’s what you thought, perhaps you’re the one implying it. Mine is a prediction of how the future might look like, if current trends stay as they are. I wish we lived in a world where fashion would not be so important, where technology would not be designed-for-the-dump, and where money is not the driving force of tech development. But we’re not. Accept it.

On why GNU/Linux lost the Desktop battle

A while ago I pleasantly noticed I wasn’t the only one with strong opinions about the Linux Desktop Failure. And by failure I mean not being able to satisfy the average user.

So I ran an informal, anecdotal poll: I posted those articles to my local Linux User Group mailing list (sorry, it’s in Italian). Surprisingly it did not erupt into a flame war; nevertheless it was a pretty entertaining read. Basically,

  • Three senior Linux and UNIX users and member of the LUG since its foundation completely agreed with the fact that linux failed the desktop promise.
  • A couple of people insulted Apple users for being rich (?) and giving up their freedom.
  • One user told his personal story, where he had to give Linux up because could not work on it (having to edit PDFs and CAD files); others replied offering assistance.
  • A couple of people complained that “we should do more” to “win the war” or something like that.
  • One user told his story where linux works perfectly for him.

What I find interesting it what I am calling “Lorenzo’s Law of the Zealots”. It runs something like that:

When a community spontaneously self-organizes around a product, at some point religious zealots will appear; when they start making more noise than signal, that’s when it’s time to move on and abandon your comfort zone.

In the case of Linux: when it first appeared it gave many of us the sense of freedom from locked-in vendors. I’m talking about 1998: Linux vs. Windows 98 wasn’t really a game worth playing. Or Windows ME (*shiver*). Since neither worked and computing was for the geeks, at least with Linux you had the chance to learn a lot about the internals of your machine. And we did.

Fast forward more than ten years later, those who grew up with linux also grew tired of having to spend hours reconfiguring their desktop every six months just to read e-mail and watch silly videos at the end of the day. I mean, I had fun tweaking X for dual-monitor support in 2003. It’s 2013, and I can either run

  • Ubuntu or Fedora or
  • get a mac t

o have a desktop where I can actually do some work. Well, then I’d get a mac. At least it works better. My time now is much more valuable than it was 15 years ago. Two days spent configuring X and the bloody sound system pay for the difference in buying a mac.

To sum up: when religious zealots start to appear, it’s time to move out of the comfort zone because where you are is no longer at the forefront of technology. If you want to stay sharp, you have to keep evolving. If you have time to waste in religious wars, you have time to learn something new.

Being part of a community is agreat thing: it fires good chemistry into our primate brain, we feel fuzzy and strong and invulnerable. It’s awesome, and everybody should try it at least once in their life. When the community stops innovating and starts talking to itself, it’s time to get out. Unfortunately, my LUG never found the courage to innovate. We’re still doing Linux Day events showing how cool a desktop with linux is, ignoring the fact that Linux is somewhere else: in your phone, on your server, in your flying robot. But no, we still show the users how shiny my desktop is. Too bad that you can’t do much work on it. Too bad that it requires so much meta-work to set it up, well, that you don’t get any work done.

There is only one valid tool to fight religious zealots with too much time on their hands and too much love for the sound of their own voices: a dictator that does not listen to them. Somebody that not only ignores them, but pushes for things to move despite what they say. Either a community evolves that way, or – in the case of a group that spontaneously aggregated – it becomes obsolete quite fast.

Paraphrasing a great episode of Battlestar Galactica, “those who care, win”. In a community that talks to itself most people don’t care about innovating, so everybody loses.