Privacy with Utility

June 3, 2020 • #

The winds of internet privacy1 shift all over the place. Certain technologies like encryption have given us important moves forward in security, but then big platforms like Facebook or a million small ad tech outfits have taken us the other way with invasive trackers and mishandling of data they shouldn’t have and most of the time don’t need. But the prevailing winds over the past few years have moved, on net, positively toward a focus on protecting personal data.

The nuclear options deployed by the pro-privacy EFF advocate to combat internet creepiness are to delete Facebook, block all trackers, use burner devices, and tape over their webcams. Of course that type of response brings a level of security in exchange for utility and convenience. Events like the revelations around PRISM, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and countless corporate data breaches have made it common knowledge for everyday people what personal data many companies had, what could happen when that data is exposed, and how easily it happens.

Internet privacy

Blockchain technology promises to enable a lot in this area, but most of it is still immature. On the political front the regulatory responses through GDPR and other challenges to corporate data handling have helped, as well.

I’ve never been too paranoid about this stuff. I still use Chrome, Google’s productivity services, and many more of your classic Big Tech platforms. As technology spreads to more people (the internet is for everyone now, not just techies) and becomes more complex (a natural side effect of improvement) the issues creep in depth and scope. Data breaches, browser cookies, IP tracking, and hidden Javascript trackers are different dimensions of the same broader issue: gradually boiling the frog of what users will tolerate, if they even realize it’s happening in the first place.

There are many companies in the market now getting traction by safeguarding privacy as a central tenet. I like seeing these challengers to the BigCos of tech building secure, privacy-first products. They’re finding revenue paths that don’t require invasive, privacy-encroaching models with advertising, bending backwards to support “free” products.

To try and wean myself off of some of these platforms and support organizations committed to privacy, I recently made two big switches: DuckDuckGo for search, and Brave as my default browser.

DuckDuckGo’s gradual growth is a testament to how little Google has done to address the privacy concerns with their technology, especially the Ads stack, Analytics, and Chrome. In the way that I use search today, DDG’s usefulness and speed rival Google’s results, as far as I can tell. On the browser front, Brave was created by Javascript creator Brendan Eich to rethink how web browsing works, to rid us of the creeping, bloated megabytes of JS trackers that have to load on every modern media outlet website. It’s got ad blocker tech built in, and brings an interesting concept to attempt to replace old media-style advertising revenue through its “Basic Attention Token” cryptocurrency model — as you browse the web and view ads through their secure ad network, you earn tokens which you can donate back to content creators. From what I’ve read there’s some controversy around this model which I haven’t researched much, but I’ll have to give them credit for trying something new. On the surface it feels like they’re onto something here. As long as we’re using the traditional ads and PPM model, we’ll be chasing ghosts on the privacy front. Content creators can push on this issue, too. Substack and Ghost have been building healthy businesses supporting content creators building properties to go direct to their audiences, disintermediating the ad networks and big media distributors from the business of publishing and owning customer relationships — consumer directly pays creator, with minimal indirections in between.

But back to the original title of this post. The interesting thing today is that there are compelling tools to replace the high utility (but low privacy) products that seemed irreplaceable a few years ago. Indexing on security has felt like a trade-off against having quality products available to you. But now there’s been a renaissance for personal, secure products by companies being transparent about where their money comes from. DuckDuckGo is still ad supported, as is Brave. I’ve read a lot about Fastmail recently as a Gmail alternative, and they’ve gone with the all-too-unique business model of charging money in exchange for a service (how novel!).

  1. You could use the terms “user data stewardship” or “security” interchangeably here and throughout this article. 


June 2, 2020 • #

Over the years with my RSS subscriptions I’ve gradually unsubscribed from a lot of “institutional” or corporate blogs and feeds in favor of individuals I’ve found with interesting websites and things to say.

In the early days of blogging it was common to have a “blogroll” in the sidebar to link to friends, colleagues, and your favorite sites, with a focus on other blogs rather than just your favorite websites or products. So I created one with my favorite internet destinations, with all flavors of topics I’m interested in.

I want more people to have their own websites and do their own writing about whatever they’re interested in. More people should get away from Medium blogs, Twitter feeds (though those of course serve a purpose, just not for everything), and other short-form, shallow media. The open web should get bigger, but it’s been getting smaller. I support the open web and want more people to publish.

Goal Progress: May 2020

June 1, 2020 • #

Just a quick update this month. With the pandemic still going, lockdown in a state of unknown non-committal from any authority, and the madness going on around the nation the past week, all of this seems kinda trivial. I’m sure we’ll power through past it, but I’m just doing my best to keep the habits going. I’m still fortunate to get to plow forward mostly unimpacted by it all.

Activity Progress Pace Goal Plus-Minus
Running 257.89 miles 272 miles 650 miles -14.58
Meditation 1070 minutes 1308 minutes 3120 minutes
Reading 13 books 12.58 books 30 books +0.42

I’ve been reading some great books lately. No particular update this time on that front, but From Dawn to Decadence is fantastic, I just started Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works, and Ra is one of the most interesting fiction works I’ve read.

Meditation hasn’t gotten folded back into the routine yet. I’m going to leave the goal in my updates and plan to get back to it and catch up by year end.

Weekend Reading: Post-Truth, Knowledge, and Game Graphics

May 30, 2020 • #

⚖️ The Way Out of Post-truth

Another razor sharp analysis from Gurri:

The collapse of trust in our leading institutions has exiled the 21st century to the Siberia of post-truth. I want to be clear about what this means. Reality has not changed. It’s still unyielding. Facts today are partial and contradictory—but that’s always been the case. Post-truth, as I define it, signifies a moment of sharply divergent perspectives on every subject or event, without a trusted authority in the room to settle the matter. A telling symptom is that we no longer care to persuade. We aim to impose our facts and annihilate theirs, a process closer to intellectual holy war than to critical thinking.

🧠 A Simplified “Pretence of Knowledge”

A good summary of Hayek’s famous 1974 address, “A Pretence of Knowledge.” Thinking you can “figure everything out” with expertise is dangerous.

If we truly wish to improve society, we must be humble and realize the bounds of what is possible with social science. Rather than attempting to shape society directly like a sculptor shapes a statue, we must seek instead to understand and to create the right environment for progress, like a gardener in a garden. Overconfidence in the use of science to control society will make a man a tyrant, and will lead to the destruction of a civilization which no brain has designed, but which has instead grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

🕹 GTA V Graphics Study

An interesting dive into the crazy amount of technique that goes into modern video game graphics.

Florida Beaches, 3 Months Post Lockdown

May 29, 2020 • #

We’re almost to the three-month mark since the lockdown started here in Pinellas. Pretty quickly all of the public beaches were closed, right in the midst of Spring Break season. For a county with so many of its economic drivers tied to tourism and beachgoers, that specific element of the lockdown was unprecedented, but given the unknown around the virus’s possible impacts, it was the right decision.

Earlier in May the county reopened the beaches, and naturally, the first weekend was mayhem. We’ve gone a few times throughout the month, and it’s certainly been busy, but not a ton busier than it’d be during any other May.

We’ve been to Pass-a-Grille, St Pete Beach, and Sunset Beach, each of them is moderately busy during normal time, but the biggest issue right now has been the artificial limiting of crowds by law enforcement, mostly by limiting permitted parking. The beaches themselves are crowded in pockets, but still far safer and more distanced than some parks and trails I’ve been to. There are officers keeping an eye on things at the beach walkways and helicopters patrolling up and down looking for anything overwhelmingly crowded. I’m glad they’ve been able to manage it without it getting out of hand. My anectodal feedback on the national news coverage of “OMG they’re reopening beaches” is that they’re overblowing it. It’s not near as bad as most of the b-roll beach footage would have you believe.

Overall it seems like the county’s done a good job in a tenuous situation. And for the most part residents have been respectful in mask-wearing and distance-keeping — a lot more than I would’ve predicted. Floridians aren’t well known for compliance and good behavior.

It’s looking like we’re completely lifting restrictions on beaches, playgrounds, and pools next week, as well. Hopefully with appropriate distancing behavior we can gradually get comfortable again with at least outdoor activities, while keeping an eye on the case count figures to be cautious.

A System for Publishing Evergreen Notes

May 28, 2020 • #

In Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes he describes the “zettelkasten” system (the “slip box”) developed by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann created the system to help himself organize notes and thoughts in a networked model rather than a structured hierarchy of folders. The zettelkasten system has a few elements to it to help model different types of notes, how and when you should write them, and how you associate ideas together.

Evergreen notes

The fundamental piece is the “permanent note,” one in which you develop your own model of an idea, linking it through associations to other information like quotes, citations, and clippings from other works — but with the base attribute that you formulate it yourself in your own words (not a bunch of quotes pasted together).

Andy Matuschak calls these “evergreen notes,” which I think is a better term to describe how they work. The intent with evergreen notes is that they aren’t ever declared finished, that you continue to flesh out and expand on the ideas therein as you learn more. Maybe you even learn revelatory things that change your deep thinking on the foundation of the idea. Evergreen is a better term, to me, than permanent because it implies a living document. Permanence implies completion.

I’ve been kicking around an idea on how I can convert and publish my evergreen notes from Roam as a public site somehow. Once ideas are substantive enough, I could publish them to the web. Any internal links to other evergreen ideas could link to those pages, and links to ideas not yet published could indicate future ideas I’m working on, but not yet ready for public consumption.

At the moment I’m thinking about how I could build this with minimal friction and augment this site with it. Some way that I can publish alongside the blog, but perhaps interlink content between the temporal stream of the blog format and the non-time-bound evergreen notes. As new ideas or additions are worked out to existing ideas, I want a small breadcrumb to appear in the blog feed showing what was updated and the nature of the change, making visible the evolution of ideas over time.


May 26, 2020 • #

The new medium in COVID times for musicians is the live session on Zoom. This is a fun one from Seatbelts, playing their theme song from the 90s anime Cowboy Bebop.

Stalin, Putin, and the Nature of Power

May 25, 2020 • #

Stephen Kotkin is a historian that has studied and written mostly about Soviet history and Josef Stalin. This was an excellent interview with him by Lex Fridman — Lex asks simple, broad questions and let’s Kotkin go deep.

Kotkin is incredibly articulate here. I would love to get to a depth of knowledge on a subject to be able to speak uninterrupted about it for an hour and a half.