The books I read in 2017

In addition to the usual science/technology reads, 2016’s serial-killer obsession carried forward into 2017, though I think at this point I’ve read all of the best studies/biographies, and so it may be time to put that topic to bed for a while.

In 2017 I also got sucked back into the JFK assassination and couldn’t read enough about Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazism.

(For those curious, the “master” list of read books is now fully current.)

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Thoughts on the iPhone X

I tend to not do these sorts of things anymore, because, well, it all feels a bit me-too these days, with every Tom, Dick, and Harry dropping their opinions. (There were a lot fewer of us writing about smartphones in 2003.) But, it’s been 10 years since the first iPhone came out, and I just felt like I had to say something.

So anyway, here’s a few rapid-fire thoughts after a few days with the X:

  • Don’t notice the notch at all in normal use, but everyone else does — it’s a bit too conspicuous.
  • It’s just beautiful, and feels incredible in the hand. There are no edges — it’s seamless top-to-bottom, left-to-right. As Sebastian De With says, “Apple has taken 10 years of those innovations in industrial design and essentially summarized it.” I completely agree — it feels like a culmination, almost a literal compression of a decade of refinement.
  • After using a Plus for the past two cycles I can tell you that the X feels tiny. It’s great for protracted use, even without some sort of third-party grip, something I nearly always used on my Plus-sized phones. (For those wondering, the goStrap is the best one I’ve come across). It’s slightly heavier and thicker than you’d expect, but nothing you won’t get used to, and frankly, I think it adds to the luxury feel. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Further, I’ve long said I’d trade a little weight/thickness for better battery life, and that’s exactly what we’ve got here.
  • Face ID works like a charm. Truly magical. It disappears. One issue I had though is that I set it up while wearing my glasses and it wouldn’t work at all when I wasn’t wearing them. I fixed this by re-training it with my glasses off; after doing that it works perfectly with or without glasses. (It’d be cool if we could add another “version” of our face (e.g., with glasses), kind of like how we could add multiple versions of the same (or different) fingers for Touch ID.)
  • Tap-to-wake works just as you’d expect. It’s nice.
  • It’s about time iPhones got an OLED display, and boy is it beautiful (and no doubt helps the battery situation). In fact, according to DisplayMate, it’s the “most innovative and high performance Smartphone display” they’ve ever tested. Not sure what I can add to that other than to say it’s a joy to behold.
  • It took a little time to get used to all of the new no-button gestures, but now they’re mostly second nature. As others have mentioned, the new gesture that’s the hardest to remember is the pull-from-top-right-corner to get to the Control Center. It’s awkward because it’s only on one side of the notch and in the opposite direction of the old gesture we’ve all been trained on.

In summary, it’s nearly perfect and I love it.

Darwin and AI

Ability without understanding

Darwin was one of the greatest minds of our species (no pun intended). His hard work and intuition gave us a framework for how every single living thing on this planet came about. The why and the how. It’s all just random variation — a collection of mutations. Richard Dawkins’ “blind watchmaker.”

Darwin’s theory basically says that an exemplary machine can be built without knowing how to make it. The eye for example. The eye evolved (multiple times) over many generations of deleterious and beneficial mutations, until finally a process was converged upon because it not only worked well enough, but proved more beneficial than not.

Somewhat relatedly, Alan Turing said, “It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence.” At some level this means that a suitable machine can compute anything, even if it has no idea what it’s computing.

In the beginning “computers” were people (mostly women) who had to have at least some rudimentary understanding of math, logic, number theory, etc., all of which Turing realized could be reduced to nothing more than a list of discrete operations carried out by a machine.

AI, like natural selection, works only on state + input. If the output “works,” or is “better” (or at the very least not harmful), it’s kept (i.e., reproduced).

If we connect Darwin’s theory with where AI is headed, it seems a fait accompli that humans are doomed. Machines, blindly, will iterate, iterate, iterate as they redesign themselves — and at a rate nearly infinitely faster than humans can reproduce — until, given enough training data, there’s nothing they won’t be able to do better than us.

We’re losing our grip on understanding why the machines are doing what they’re doing, but what makes you think they know any better than us? They don’t (yet). They’re flying blind (yes, we imbue them with some purpose or direction, but then they’re off to the races without us) — much like evolution — ingesting data and almost accidentally getting “better.”

I guess the connection I’m trying to make here is that both evolution and AI seem to converge on the notion of competence without comprehension.

Are most alien intelligences “artificial?”

In just 150 years humans have gone from being able to harness electricity to radio to computers to internet to narrow AI. The universe is 13.8 billion years old, and life on earth 3.8 billion. In the last couple of centuries (just 0.00000005 of the time life has existed here) we’ve come to run the planet, and are talking seriously about colonizing others.

This rapid progression — together with Drake’s equation — makes it seem likely that many other lifeforms have similarly evolved on other planets, and that many (most?) of them are thousands or millions of years ahead of us. Can you imagine us in a million years? A thousand years? Given how far we’ve come in just the last 200, you can bet that we’ll either be mostly synthetic or extinct.

Another thing to think about is that an artificial alien intelligence wouldn’t necessarily need a planet at all. At base it would only need raw materials and energy, which it may be able to gather/exploit in ways we haven’t yet figured out (e.g., from a black hole).

It seems to me then that given the timeframes we’re talking about, most intelligences out there not only are way beyond ours, but are artificial to boot.

How Instagram made me a better photographer

Hermosa Beach, California

The gist is that Instagram forced me into a much more frequent posting schedule, but it’s a bit more nuanced than that. One of the phrases I’ve always liked is “kill your darlings,” which means, loosely, don’t selfishly hold on too tight to your successes/loves.

Before Instagram, back when I was running my own photoblog, each photo was my darling, and I never wanted to post the next picture because it effectively “killed” the previous one. Silly? Sure, but that’s how I thought about it.

Once I started using Instagram regularly — and gaining more interest and followers — I was compelled to shoot more, edit more, and post more. It’s a vicious cycle, but a necessary one. Now I regularly post two images a day, whereas on my photoblog I was lucky to post one a month.

Are all of them perfect? No. In fact, and of course, none of them is, which is kind of the beauty of it, and of photography generally. Instagram taught me that they don’t have to be perfect — that all of them are darlings — you put them out there and then it’s on to the next.


For years after Lightroom came out for macOS, I proclaimed it my favorite software ever. I used to spend an incalculable amount of time in that application. But, no more. Now I do all of my editing on iOS.

It works now because iOS itself (and many apps, including my personal favorite, Snapseed) supports RAW image files. This always was something that kept me from using the iPhone for editing; instead I’d edit in Lightroom/Photoshop, export to JPG/PNG, and finally get it on the phone.

Once iOS-only editing became a reality, I found myself posting more. These days I simply take the SD card from the camera, pop it into a Lightning-to-SD adapter, move the photos over, and get to editing.

I’ll probably regret it one day, but I don’t even use Lightroom to store/catalog my images anymore. As soon as I post something to Instagram, I send it to Dropbox and delete it from my phone. So, really the only classification system I have for my shared photos anymore is chronological by upload date. ¯_(ツ)_/¯


You can follow me on Instagram here

AirPods are for podcasts

…and that’s about it

A couple of months ago I wrote about how I was kind of wrong about the AirPods, mostly regarding fit and overall convenience. As long as they fit you well they’re awesome, transformative even.

But, we all know they play music for shit, just like every pair of headphones Apple has ever made. Well, most of us. Anyway, they aren’t so great for music, but it turns out they’re perfect for podcasts. Why? Well, podcasts aren’t music.

I don’t mean to sound snarky or dismissive, really. But, podcasts mostly are middle-aged guys talking, often about themselves, and it turns out that that translates really well to AirPods, especially with the EQ set to “spoken word.”

Not surprisingly, the experience works really well for meditation apps too. I’m only just getting my feet wet with this meditation stuff (surprise! — I’m comically bad at it), but have found that I prefer using my AirPods whenever I try.

I still haven’t found much utility in using Siri via the AirPods, but that’s more to do with the fact that I find little utility in Siri to begin with, and less to do with overall execution.

Finally, the new changes in iOS 11 are super convenient, namely double-tapping one earpiece to skip tracks (or some other command) and double-tapping the other to pause. Both are welcome additions and should have been included from jump.

The AirPods — including the tiny charging case — have quickly become just another part of my everyday carry, just like my wallet and pocket computer, and actually are in my ears more than not these days.

The Nostalgia Switch, by Nintendo

For some quick context, let me first say that I haven’t owned a proper console since the Xbox One (and I bought that for a single game — Skate). But, I’ve owned every iteration of Game Boy and DS that has come out over the last 30 years, and also had a couple of Sony PSP’s during the naughts.

That the Nintendo Switch is both a proper console and super portable, made it irresistible to me. Also, it’s made by…wait for it…Nintendo. Were it any other company I probably would have ignored its siren call (who can forget that amazing introductory commercial?), but as with most ’80s kids, Nintendo holds a special, immutable place in my nerd heart.

The Switch is…awesome. Really. I’ve been so impressed. The software, the games (need MOAR!), the delightful system sounds, the Pro Controller, the ability to easily connect and use third-party controllers (like the sweet SNES30 Controller from 8Bitdo), etc. It’s just a cool system.

The best modern game offering is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (I’ve never been into Zelda; please don’t @me). The best retro offering is Ultra Street Fighter II, which actually includes a 16-bit mode that looks just like the early ’90s versions(!). Together with the SNES controller it’s like childhood all over again.

Overall it’s been a lot of fun and I’m very much looking forward to the addition of new games and seeing how they plan to extend this seemingly-malleable platform.


I hope eventually they will decide to make available for the Switch everything that comes with the NES Classic and SNES Classic. I want all of those games, but I don’t want more plastic, and I’m too old to take the time to hack them onto the device.

WhatsApp is my only notification channel

Well, almost

About a year ago I started urging my friends, family, and colleagues to get onto WhatsApp.

There were three main reasons I wanted to get my entire friend/work graph on it: 1) there are no limits to the number of links I can share (and, uh, I probably send more links than anyone on earth; Messenger throttled me nearly every day 🙄); 2) Signal-based encryption (PDF) is on by default on all threads, including groups; and 3) it couldn’t be more reliable, intuitive, or consistent (I mean, it’s almost boring, and that’s a good thing). (It’s also an awesome platform for phone and video calls.)

Fast-forward to today and quite literally every single digital interaction I have is via WhatsApp (email and Twitter don’t count). And if I meet someone new it’s the first thing I offer up when asked for my contact info.

In addition, over the last year I’ve found myself slowly but surely turning off notifications for most of my apps. Note that I don’t turn them off completely, but rather set them to show only in the Notification Center. This way I don’t miss any, but they don’t interrupt me either.

So, WhatsApp, Twitter (though significantly throttled via in-app settings), and a few breaking news apps are the only ones I allow to throw something up on my screen any time they want.

How I devour the internet’s daily data delta

Or how I swallow all the news without drowning

If you know anything about me you know that I read a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Likely more than anyone you’ve ever met. This isn’t some nerdy brag (🙄) — it’s just my life, and I have no real power over it. I’m almost never not reading something. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

RSS

Believe it or not, RSS still is at the core of my routine, and for very good reason: all these years on and it’s still the best way to curate the internet to your tastes and interests. And if, like me, you’ve been building up your list of feeds for damn near two decades, it’s hard to imagine anything else ever coming close.

For the last few years I’ve used Newsify on iOS, and Feedly on the web (Feedly is canonical; Newsify talks to it).

Nuzzel

Another trick is an app called Nuzzel. If you’re a “light” information hunter/gatherer, you actually might be able to get away with using only Nuzzel each day. I use it for two specific purposes: have breaking stuff sent immediately to me, and surface articles I might not otherwise find via my usual channels.

I have Nuzzel connected to both my Facebook and Twitter graphs, and it’s set to notify me whenever three or more of those folks link to the same article. This way, even if I’m swamped at work or whatever and am not actively devouring news, I still can stay on top of truly breaking stuff; this is especially true for my Facebook graph, because most of those folks tend to be muggles, and surface things I’d never come across.

The other main use is the friends-of-friends feature. At the end of every day I open the app and swipe left to the FoF list. This, as you might imagine, is a list of all the links shared by those who are F0F, but aren’t connected to me directly. Yes there’s a lot of duplication here, but I also find a ton of stuff that I otherwise never would.

Twitter

Twitter killed RSS for a lot of people. I never really understood that, especially after we fought so hard to get at least partial content (i.e., more than just a headline) into our favorite feeds, something that wasn’t even possible with Twitter until fairly recently, and still isn’t consistent or helpful really.

Twitter for me is kind of like a catch-all for the day. I’m always behind by a few hours and so when catching up I’ll see many things I’ve already seen elsewhere, but still it surfaces things I’d never see anywhere else, plus it gives me the quick and easy option of quoting tweets with my own thoughts.

Medium

Like Twitter, Medium can be a bit redundant because I check it at the end of the day and usually by then I’ve come across many of the articles already. That said, it does a decent job of surfacing a mix of new things from both the users/pubs and the interests I follow.

Product Hunt

I love what Product Hunt has become: a cogent distillation machine for the best apps/services that come out each day. (Yes, you can “hunt” older apps and services, but for the most part, the things showcased there are pretty new to the world.)

Often I come across things there that I missed through other channels.

Podcasts

Almost none of the podcasts I frequent help with keeping up with the edges of tech, except maybe a16z, The Future of Everything, and Singularity.FM. (Most of the podcasts I listen to are about either science or true crime.)

Newsletters

Kind of not my thing. I subscribe to quite a few, but I’d much rather just have them come to me via RSS. One thing I don’t enjoy is reading long-ass pieces inside an email client.

Facebook groups

As a function of my job I’m a member of hundreds of internal groups at Facebook. Most of them are tied directly to products we’re either building or thinking about building, but some are related to the goings-on in tech more generally. Luckily for me we have an internal dingus that lets me send all group posts to my email client, where I filter and triage them.


Be right back, I’ve 500 new articles to read.

The inevitable ubiquity of USB-C

There will be some temporary pain, but it will be worth it

USB-C really is the one-wire dream: an industry-standard I/O interface that handles data (10Gbps via USB v3.1; 40Gbps via Thunderbolt 3), audio, video, and power (up to 100 watts), is small (enough), is reversible, is meant to be future-proof, and is fully backwards compatible (all the way back to USB v1.0).

So what’s not to like? I don’t know. Yes, we’ll all have to buy a few adapters and hubs during the transition, and have hair-pulling conversations with the muggles in our lives, but once the planet-wide conversion is complete, I think we can expect USB-C’s reign to last a long while, much like USB-A/B before it.

It’s probably safe to say that this sea change won’t begin in earnest until USB-C replaces the Lightning port on iPhones. Does that happen with the next model later this year? Probably not, but I’d be really surprised if we don’t see it on iPhones in 2018.

It won’t be long before even normals are decrying manufacturers’ use of anything other than USB-C — the “Seriously, it doesn’t use C? *eye roll*” annoyances will add up really quickly. We’re talking about ditching power bricks and/or proprietary adapters for nearly all devices (e.g., laptops, cameras, Bluetooth speakers, headphones, etc.), connecting multiple peripherals to your laptop with a single cable, and killing off USB-A, miniUSB, microUSB, HDMI, VGA, and on and on. Regular folks will get behind this, and fast, and once they do, companies will be hard-pressed to justify their device not using it.

As sure as the jobs aren’t coming back, the wired I/O interface we deserve and need is snowballing itself into our lives, and as far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better.


A few weeks ago I bought Bang & Olufsen’s latest Bluetooth speakers — the Beolit 17 and the P2 — and was pleasantly surprised to see that they both use USB-C (for charging). Expect this to become the norm over the next couple of years.