I just had lunch with a bunch of Mozillians; first time I saw them since I quit. I was kind of nervous, but they gave me a very warm welcome. I was very, very happy to find out that they don't hate me even after this thing went viral.
This afternoon I'm flying to Indiana for Cat's wedding this weekend. I haven't seen her and Kent since GenCon last year (Geez, has it really been a year already?) so I'm pretty excited to see them again!
Google collects enormous amounts of information about us. They build up detailed profiles of their users in order to better target advertising to us. If you do a Google search while logged into a GMail account, for instance, they associate your search terms -- and which results you clicked on! -- with your email identity. They can combine knowledge of your search behavior with knowledge of who you email, and the contents of all your email sent and recieved. If you go to YouTube, they know which videos you watch, and add them to this profile too. Anything you've said on Google Plus goes into the profile. If you use Google Maps, the profile has a good idea of places you've been.
Even if you're not logged into a Google account when doing searches, they still put a cookie on your computer so they know it's you next time you search - and they use this to build up a detailed, if anonymous, picture of your interests. But if you've got a Google Plus account under your real name, they know exactly who you are and everything you search for.
In case that's not creepy enough, Google also sends out the Street View vans to drive around taking pictures of your house when you're not home like a creepy stalker.
Then there's the Filter Bubble: Two people in the same country serching for the exact same search terms get different results, based on what Google thinks they would like, based on the profile Google has built up about them. There's a book about it by Eli Pariser, which he summarizes in his Ted talk.
Some of today's younger generation seems to have an attitude that "if it's not in Google results, it doesn't exist" (Sushu has told me about trying to teach these kids research skills.) It's dangerous to assume that Google is giving you objective, unbiased results even according to its own database, let alone to assume that the database is infalliable. Google has every financial incentive to show you not the most accurate information, not the information most beneficial to you, but the information that will keep you around looking at ads the longest.
It's gotten worse since Google started trying to customize your search results based on things your friends have liked, this "Search Plus Your World" thing. Yeah, you can turn it off, but it defaults on, and it makes search results worse by twiddling the rankings based on what my "friends" have clicked on. (or worse: some random dudes who aren't my friends, but Google thinks they are because they're in my GMail address book because we had a business transaction five years ago).
Google. Seriously. If my friends like something, they'll tell me about it! They've probably already sent me the link. I don't need to Google it! I go to Google to find websites my friends haven't told me about yet. When I want another viewpoint, independent from what they like.
"Search Plus Your World" is one example of how hard Google is trying to push Google Plus. As I've said before, I think companies get to a certain size and they start thinking of their users as pawns in a strategic struggle against some other company. I don't know what's going on inside Google, but to me G+ looks like a project Google started to solve Google's problems (i.e. they're afraid of Facebook), not to solve user problems.
I wouldn't care, except that Google seems to be trying to integrate everything else they do with G+, to the detriment of their other products. They're tying all accounts to a single G+ account and demanding that the G+ account use your real name. My mom got burned by this recently; she's not a G+ user but she changed the password on her YouTube account and discovered to her surprise that it had also changed her GMail password. She didn't want that -- some Google exec did.
The Gmail redesign, which I hated so much, is another example. The change wasn't driven by what was best for GMail users, but by Google's desire to apply the G+ visual style to all of their other products.
I liked Google when they were a scrappy upstart search engine with a clean, simple interface and good results. They're not that company anymore. As one more example, one of the things Google used to say was "evil" was "paid inclusion"; now they're starting to embrace it.
I've finally decided to stop complaining and start doing something about it. I have decided to do without any Google services, either dropping them or replacing them with alternatives. Partly, this is an experiment: How dependent are we on Google, really? How hard is it to give them up?
Here's what I'm using already and what I'm still looking for:
I've still got a bunch to write about China, so you'll see some more China posts even though I'm back in America now.
In Lu Xun park I found a spot where lots of middle-aged folks hang out and play Go, cards, and Xiangqi (a Chinese chess variant). I hung around watching the Go players until one of them asked if I knew how to play and offered me a game.
Needless to say, I received a total curb-stomping. A senseless drubbing. I was PWNED, as they say.
The match went on longer than it should have just because I didn't know how to say "I surrender!" in Chinese.
I'm used to the Japanese scoring system (where you score only the empty points you have surrounded, and lose points for stones of yours that are captured). The Chinese scoring system counts every space you surround or occupy, and disregards captured stones. It makes for a very different game. With Japanese scoring, some engagements are not worth pursuing past a certain point, because the territory you can gain from it will be less than the cost of continuing the battle. The players will fence with each other and then one of them will back off. Chinese scoring encourages more of a brutal, close-quarters, knock-down-drag-out brawl.
A week or so later I had another opportunity to play, with a middle-aged woman who spoke decent English. At one point she said "That was a good move." I said "Thanks." She said "I meant MY move, your moves are bad." Ouch.
Trying to make conversation, I complemented her English and asked where she had learned, but she got offended. "When someone speaks English as well as me, you SHOULD ask: where do you TEACH?" she reprimanded me. Yeah, she was an English teacher. Later she lectured me that since all Shanghainese learn excellent English in school, it is "not proper" to ask someone how they learned.
After she had finished kicking my ass at Go she said that if I knew any good players, I should send them her way. She was one of the most arrogant people I've ever dealt with. It was a weird experience.
I played one more game with Sushu's cousin Kai-kai (aka Kevin). He was not as far above my level as the denizens of Lu Xun park, but he was still better than me. For a few minutes I thought I had him, but then his trap closed around me.
Go is an amazing game, probably the deepest non-random full-information strategy game ever devised by humans, but it demands insane amounts of dedication. It's also no fun to play against someone way above your level. Go is not a game you can just play casually once in a while. It makes me sad to admit this, but I'll probably never be good at it; it's just way more of a commitment than I want out of a leisure-time activity.
A recruiter from Facebook contacted me. I was sorely tempted to tell them what I really think of Facebook, but no good would possibly come of that. So I just declined politely.
I've been thinking a lot lately about what I want out of my next job, and about different ways of balancing work with the other things I want to do in life.
I want to make a positive difference in the world, and I also want to make enough money for food and rent. Previously, my plan was to have a job that let me do both of these things at the same time. But that doesn't need to be the case.
Be a freelance contractor. Take mercenary programming work, and do it as efficiently as possible. Work the minimum number of hours per week I need to get enough money to support my lifestyle. Do what I want the rest of the time.
I read about a guy who does this and only has to work 20 hours per week three months out of four. It does require a lot of discipline and self-management plus the ability to seek out clients and negotiate contracts, pay your own taxes and insurance, etc. But it seems like the most time-efficient way to turn programming skills into money, as long as you don't care what you work on.
The nice thing about this idea is that it would give me a lot of time to work on volunteer or creative projects.
Work for some big dumb company 40 hours/week to support myself, try to make a difference in my spare time. Don't care about what the company does, as long as the work is tolerable and the company isn't actively causing harm in the world. (I wouldn't work for a tobacco company, for instance, or for Facebook.)
This gives me much less time than the freelance thing, but it's more predictable. That's really the only advantage.
I don't think I'm going to do this, I just include it for comparison purposes.
Work for some company part-time to support myself, try to make a difference in my spare time.
At Mozilla I was making $X per year for working 5 days a week, so maybe I could make $3x/5 per year working 3 days a week? And $3x/5 per year would be plenty. Money has sharply diminishing utility after a certain point. I'd much rather have the extra two days a week to live life than the extra $2x/5.
There's a cultural assumption that a part-time job isn't a "real" job, but I know people who have negotiated contracts like this and have a much better work-life balance as a result.
Join a company that's doing something I really care about, work really hard for them.
This was my basic plan for the last 4 years at Mozilla. So I would be continuing the same plan, and just picking a different company to work for. Since I don't really care about making consumer internet software anymore, this would involve a career switch to a company in a different industry.
The tricky part here is finding the overlap between companies doing stuff I care about, and companies that would hire someone with my skill set.
If neccessary, I can go back to school to expand my skill set. Maybe get a useful science or engineering degree.
Make a startup company that gets big. Sell it, cash out, retire early. Never worry about money again. Devote the rest of my life to whatever I really want to do.
Paul Graham likes to talk about (successful) startups as a way of compressing work. Instead of working for several decades, you compress all that work into a few years and make all your money at once.
This is the Silicon Valley gold-rush mentality. I would have to stop thinking about what I would want to build, and instead think about what the market wants to buy.
There are a few problems with this plan. First, most startups fail. Second, without personal interest in the thing I was building, it would be hard to keep up my motivation. Also, making a lot of money fast in Silicon Valley probably requires doing things that I consider ethically dubious, like collecting personal information from your users in order to sell advertising.
Finally, I would probably be really bad at figuring out what the market wants to buy. When I first heard of Zappos I was like "Who the hell would want to buy shoes without trying them on first? That will never catch on." But, like most of the things I think are stupid, Zappos got massively popular. I am forced to conclude that I'm a really bad judge of marketability.
Make a startup company doing something I care about, that makes enough money to support myself, but doesn't get big.
Some entrepreneurs semi-dismissively call this type of company a "lifestyle business" and use "Startup Company" to refer only to the get-big-fast style of company.
But there's a lot to be said for growing slowly, for aiming to serve a few thousand people well instead of serving tens of millions of people poorly. You can self-finance, which means not being in debt to venture capitalists. You can run your business on a personal scale and give customers individual support. You can maybe even get there without making ethical compromises.
The drawback is that it would take full concentration for at least the first few years. I wouldn't have much free time for any other projects while this was happening.
The game company, which I am seriously considering, would go under this category. A game company isn't world-changing, but it could be very creatively satisfying.
Try to start a company that supports me AND makes positive difference.
This is possibly the hardest path. So many things would have to go just right. Many of the requirements would be in conflict with each other.
For instance, tne idea is that instead of just a game company, I could try to start an educational game company. Make something that helped people improve themselves, and not just entertainment. This is extra-hard because it's so easy to do educational games poorly. Either they're too much like homework and not actually fun, or they're too much like games and not actually educational.
It's a tough line to walk, but potentially the most rewarding of all.
Today I'm getting on an overnight train for Xi'an, the ancient capitol of China, best known for the Terracotta Soldiers and for being one end of the Silk Road. In the 500s AD it was the biggest city in the world.
I'm excited! Anyway, I'm letting you know I may not have internet access for a few days. I'll be back Thursday. But then Friday I'm flying back to America!
Today was the last day of my six-week intensive Mandarin course. It was three hours a day for every weekday, with reading, writing, listening, dialogues, presentations, tests, etc. I think I made some good progress and it made me feel like I was accomplishing something with my mornings instead of wasting them on the Internet.
Here's the class, minus a few people who didn't show up today.
It's a very eclectic mix of backgrounds. There's a whole lot of Russians, a few Thai people, a couple of Japanese, one Korean, one Spanish woman, a Greek guy, a Canadian, and me.
Our teacher, Ma laoshi, is the one with the glasses in the middle.
A few of my good friends from class joined me for lunch at a fancy restaurant called Waipojia ("Grandmother's") to celebrate our last day together. Left to right: Claire, Shannie, me, and Yuki.
People have told me that once you get over the (large) initial hump, Chinese starts getting a lot easier. I think I may finally have reached that point! More and more of the new vocabulary I'm learning consists of new combinations of characters I already know, which makes things much easier.
The class was all taught in Chinese (it has to be, as many of the students don't speak English) so it was seriously a sink-or-swim environment from the first day. I think that helped me a lot.
I'll need to find some good ways to continue my study now that the class is done. My reading/writing is OK but I need a lot more listening comprehension practice, so I'm going to try watching some Chinese shows or movies (with remote control in hand to rewind and replay each line of dialogue until I get it.)
Some crazy Dutch guys want to make a Mars reality show by 2023, wherein they spend $6 billion getting a bunch of people to Mars, broadcast their lives on TV here on earth, and make their money back from the profits off the TV show. What do you think: are they just crazy or could that work?
We had a lot of typhoon on Wednesday. Typhoon number 11, it was called on the Chinese news. I guess they don't give them cute names like hurricanes.
There was a lot of rain and wind and random objects blowing down the street but we were OK. The bad part of the typhoon passed just to the south of Shanghai, sparing the city. I hear it hit the Philippines pretty badly though.
Most of my class showed up at school, but the teacher didn't make it, so we gave up and went home.
I've been messing around with various Linux drawing programs, trying to find something more usable than Gimp for comic-drawing.
The nicest one I've found so far is MyPaint. It's missing some surprising features (layers but no selections?) but it correctly responds to stylus pressure with zero configuration needed, and for a Linux desktop program that's pretty impressive.
1. There's a middle-aged man with the fedora and hawaiian shorts who drives around the neighborhood on his motorcycle blasting out techno music at max volume from his crappy speakers. When he rides down our street we can easily hear his soundtrack from our second-story living room.
2. Tree-puncher: In the mornings around 8:15am when I'm on my way to my Chinese class, sometimes I walk past this old guy standing on the sidewalk with no shirt on, punching a tree. He does a squat, comes up, hits the tree with a double palm-heel strike. Does another squat, comes up, double palm-heel strike. Always the same tree, always the same time of the morning. I guess it's a kind of kung-fu training regimen? (Or maybe he's just trying to get wood blocks to build a crafting table?)
3. All the pants I bought to China have gotten worn out and developed holes. So I went shopping for new pants. Problem: Chinese pants do not fit me at all. I bought a pack of "XXXL" underpants and they're still too tight! I guess average Chinese men must have really skinny butts or something.
Luckily, custom tailoring services - which are way out of my price range in America - are pretty reasonable in China. I brought my best-fitting pair of shorts to a tailor on our street and asked her to duplicate them. She had me pick out some fabrics and colors. It took a couple weeks but it barely cost any more than it would have at the department store, and now I have perfectly fitting green, blue, and purple shorts. Huzzah!
4. Laowai eye-contact avoiance: Once in a while I may encounter another laowai (foreigner) on the street or in a store. What to do? I don't want to say "ni hao" because they're not Chinese, but I don't want to say "hello" because they might not be English-speakers either. What usually happens is that the two of us will studiously avoid eye contact and very carefully walk past each other without the slightest acknowldgement. Sushu finds this totally hilarious.
Humble Indie Bundle is one of the bright spots in this area. Usually they sell indie computer games, but their latest offer is a music collection. There's They Might Be Giants, MC Frontalot, Jonathan Coulton, and 3 other albums too. You decide how much you want to pay and how much of it should go to the artists/to Humble Bundle operations/to charity. The charities are Child's Play and the Electronic Fronteir Foundation, both worthy causes.
I bought the bundle yesterday and man, there are a lot of good songs in this list. Since I've been a fan of TMBG and Coulton and Frontalot for a long time, many of their tracks are ones I've heard before (or remixes of ones I've heard before), but in all there's 107 tracks here and enough of them are good, new songs to be worth a lot more than the $15 I paid for them.
The bundle is only available for like 3 more days so get it while the gettin's good!
This is the street we live on, Xiangde road. (祥德路)
Bicycles, motorcycles, and mopeds are all more common than cars. They're a lot more affordable for China's working class.
We have to be very careful crossing this road because nobody stops, like, ever. Pedestrians don't have right of way. You just have to wait for a break in traffic and run across. It's like playing Frogger.
At intersections with traffic lights, vehicles are allowed to turn left as well as right on a red light. This threw me for a loop the first time I encountered it. Even when the crossing sign is green, you have to watch for vehicles coming from every direction.
In America, cars honk when somebody is blocking them, or has cut them off, or otherwise done them wrong. In China, cars honk pre-emptively when approaching intersections or places where people might be crossing. It's a way of saying "LOOKOUT, HERE I COME, NOT STOPPING OR SLOWING DOWN!!"
Before I came to Shanghai, I didn't know it was even possible for a man to take a nap on top of a motorcycle.
I also underestimated, by orders of magnitude, the volume of styrofoam that one could transport on the back of a single tricycle.
I had this song stuck in my head lately, so I looked up the chords and sounded out the rest. It was easy, because like most pop songs, the melody is very straightforward. It's in A minor, so there aren't even any black keys in it.
This is dedicated to Atul. Don't let anybody make you feel bad about what music you like, Atul!
(This is an .ogg file embedded with the HTML5 audio tag. Should work on all up-to-date browsers, but if it doesn't, you can try the raw file here.)
The love was gone; it was time to end it. Still, the relationship lasted over ten years, and the breakup has been hard. Some days I'm angry, some days I'm wistful, some days I just don't care.
I'm in the process of unwinding myself from my "computer guy" identity. It's hard. At the moment I don't know who I am. The only thing I'm sure of is that making software isn't what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Programming computers will probably be part of what I do. I have a lot of skill points invested in it, after all, and besides, everything's got a computer in it these days. But programming is just a means. The goal has to be something else, not just computers for the sake of computers.
Programming as a profession is only moderately interesting. It can be a good job, but you could make about the same money and be happier running a fast food joint. You're much better off using code as your secret weapon in another profession.
People who can code in the world of technology companies are a dime a dozen and get no respect. People who can code in biology, medicine, government, sociology, physics, history, and mathematics are respected and can do amazing things to advance those disciplines.
That sounds good!
Mozilla was a local maximum. Better than any similar job. Every adjacent direction was down. The only way to get a better job than my one at Mozilla is to do something completely different.
The SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, seems like a really cool guy. He made a fortune at PayPal and instead of retiring young, he put his money into space exploration and electric cars (he's also CEO of Tesla Motors). Lots of respect for that dude.
The Cyber Security Act failed to get cloture and Congress is going on summer vacation, so it seems dead in the water for now.
This is a bit frustrating, as some of the stuff in that bill is good and needed; my preferred outcome would be for it to have been amended to remove the spying-on-citizens stuff and then passed. But I'll take any victory I can get.
I wish internet activists could take the credit for this one, but it seems the bill was really just the latest victim of standard Republican operating procedure since 2010 : automatically filibuster anything the Democrats want to do, no matter if it's good or bad, even if it's a policy Republicans suppor themselves! Because getting bills passed might make Obama look good, and stopping that is more important than national security. Barf.
Meanwhile the Democratic Party showed once again that it doesn't give a shit about civil liberties. With only a few exceptions (like my hero Ron Wyden of Oregon), Democrats supported the bill including its domestic spying provisions. Just as they were happy to renew the Patriot act and pass the NDAA with its indefinite-detention-without-trial provisions.
Please do not allow the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 (S 3414) to strip away privacy protections from US citizens. I strongly believe that individualized information (such as contents of emails) should require a search warrant for government agents to access. Surely we can find a way to enhance security of power plants and other critical infrastructure against cyber-attacks without violating the spirit of the 4th amendment!
I urge you to vote against amendments by Sen. John McCain (and others) that would strip privacy protections from the Cybersecurity Act. When companies do share information with the government as part of a cyber-security investigation, it should go to a civilian agency, and not to the NSA or other military departments. I do not believe it should be standard operating procedure for the US military to operate against American citizens on American soil.
I also urge you to vote for Franken-Paul amendment. Citizens should not be deprived of the right to seek legal action against companies that have violated their privacy.
The cybersecurity legislation you are considering this week has huge implications for privacy and civil liberties and I will be closely watching your votes.
(Please feel free to copy and send to your own senators!)
Most of the bill is entirely reasonable stuff about beefing up security standards at power plants and other places a malicious hacker could cause massive damage. The troubling part is that it overturns a lot of existing privacy law, and makes companies immune to prosecution for violating your privacy if they hand the data over to the NSA and/or military.