Essays on Technology and Culture

Falling Off The Notebook Wagon

I have a confession to make. About a month ago, I fell off the wagon. Sure, I’ve had good days where I’ve kept it together and tried to do what’s right, but I just lapse again.

For the last month, I’ve failed to keep a notebook—at least a systemized one.

Whether Bullet Journal, Dash/Plus, or any of the other various analog systems for making and organizing the various bits of data we collect during the day, I’ve failed to keep it up. Though, I will say that my system of Bullet Journal combined with a dash of Dash/Plus has helped this last batch of notebook use last a lot longer than previous attempts.

So, it’s time to diagnose exactly how, and why I let this happen. The first problem, I suspect, was when I decided to switch to a Multi-Notebook system. Instead of cramming a thick, pocket Moleskine journal into my pants every day, I would switch to a thin pocket notebook (in a leather cover) for daily carry and capture. At the end of the day, I’d unload anything into my large Moleskine, which I would also use at my desk for work and long-form notes and writing.

The first point of failure was when I found myself just not using my pocket notebook for much. Out and about, it’s much easier to capture stuff on my phone and shunt it where it needs to go through Drafts. At my desk at work, I could just drop stuff into the day’s page without having to worry about recopying it later. Even when something did end up in my pocket notebook, it never got recopied into the “main” notebook. I don’t know why I thought I would recopy stuff out of one notebook into the other. I hate repeating work, and copying stuff out of one notebook into another falls under that criteria.

The next point of failure was that I never found much of a use for the notebook beyond mere capture. I tried using my notebook for day-to-day task tracking, but so much of my day-to-day work is stuff I can just do. In GTD, there’s the “two-minute rule,” which states that if you have a task you can do in two minutes or less, instead of capturing it, you should just do it. For me, it’s more a “five-minute rule,” but the principle stands. Instead of writing down that a certain task is going to have to be done today, better to just do it when it comes in.

Without tracking tasks and events, what do I use it for? There’s book notes, but I’ve never been much of a note taker, try as I might. There’s sitting and writing stuff for Sanspoint and elsewhere, which I’ve done in both my main notebook at work, and my pocket notebook when out to lunch/dinner/drinks. It’s great to just whip out a pen and start scratching down parts of an essay, instead of trying to write it all on a phone keyboard. This piece started in my pocket notebook, after all. I still have to retype it to get it into WordPress, but that’s an opportunity to revise, so it’s not repeated work per se.

What I need to do is find those places where a notebook is the best tool for the job, and for me. So far, that’s writing stuff on the go, and capturing stuff when my phone would be harder, or at least socially imprudent. (One thing I learned about carrying a notebook, is that when you write down a person’s information, they’re impressed.) Then, of course, I have to make time to open the notebook up again and process all the stuff I’ve written down. Something I should incorporate into my Weekly Review process. If my notebook usage steps up, I can even make it a daily task. I’ll worry about a system later.

The “Sharing Economy” Reaches Endgame

Alfred, explains TechCrunch writer Sarah Perez, who must have drawn the short straw in the office pool, is “the first service layer on the shared economy that manages your routine across multiple on-demand and local services (like Handybook, Instacart, and the local dry cleaner).”

I was unable to find a precise English translation for that sentence, but I have to agree with ValleyWag’s Nitasha Tiku: It sounds an awful lot like a butler service.

“Silicon Valley Has Officially Run Out of Ideas”

Fuckers stole my idea. Wonder if I could sue for prior art.

It’s No Fun Growing Up

When I was twelve or thirteen, I was convinced I would go to school, learn to code, and make it big in the Valley. This was in the mid–90s, at the start of the dot-com boom, though like any good teenager, my interest was in making video games. I had a small group of friends in middle school who were also interested in programming, video games, and technology. Though in the intervening years, we all drifted away from it in one way or another. One studied Chinese, and now makes a living as a translator. One is a mechanical engineer. One dabbles in iOS programming, but only as a hobby. I’m the only one who makes a living, in some form or another, in technology, although in an area I didn’t plan on.

In my circles online, I see a lot of exasperation about the technology world. Some of it rubs off on me, and some of the exasperation is my own, thank you very much. Even just sitting on the edge of the swimming pool as a technology observer is getting a bit much. If you’re not getting paid to write one of the thousands of 300-word fluff pieces about the recent Apple announcement, it’s hard to muster up a whole lot of enthusiasm from our vantage point. Jamie Ryan, in his final post on his site, puts it this way:

…I’ve just gotten tired of the whole thing… Too many imaginary rules, too many opinions and too many people constantly judging you by some arbitrary measure of success. None of it matters.

Somewhere along the line, technology has become less fun. On a personal level, part of that lack of fun comes from the rough experience of working for a real, live, technology startup. That’s my own hang up. But, there’s no sense of fun in the larger tech space. The best minds of our generation, if they’re not dreaming up new ways for finance guys in suits to bilk more money out of the system, they’re out in the Valley, dreaming up new ways to repackage old ways to bilk more money out of finance guys in suits. The rare, exciting new thing in the technology space is either vaporware, or going to be snapped up by Google, Apple, or Facebook in a year. New, powerful, democratized mass communication tools are turned against women and minorities who upset the status quo. Why get excited, when we’re just going to get burned again?

We’re growing up. I’m 30 years old, part of the generation that remembers life not only before the Internet, but life before Omnipresent Internet in our Pockets. Technology, as an industry, is growing up too. I’m part of the generation that remembers the big promises about technology—how the Internet was going to create a new Enlightenment, reform social discourse, and usher in a new leisure age. These aren’t new promises that my generation was the first to get, either. They said the same thing about electric lights. Twitter didn’t start the Arab Spring, but it’s a darn good line to work into “investor storytime”. Twitter’s too old for high-minded idealism. They need to make money now.

I’ve said before about how we’re still figuring out what all these new technologies, all these changes, actually mean for our lives. What if they don’t mean much of anything, in the end? They probably don’t. So, what is it that keeps me interested in technology, even from the periphery of the tech world? I still see the potential and promise for technology to actually make our lives better, somehow. Not just ours, as the savvy, first-world, enlightened types, but everyone. It’s a bigger picture view of technology. Google wants to float Internet-connected balloons over Africa to get more ad impressions. Bill Gates wants to wipe out Malaria. Both use technology, but only one can be said to really improve people’s lives.

Improving lives and making money are not mutually exclusive, but I don’t think the system we live and work in is set up to make it work. This is a result of what Ethan Zuckerman calls “The Internet’s Original Sin” of the advertising-supported model, at least in part. There’s also the conspicuous consumerism of shoving yet another gadget down our throats, from tablets, to wearables, to the annual upgrade cycle. Yes, I want an iPhone 6, but I don’t need one. It’s not going to measurably improve my life in any way by having a bigger, faster phone—or a smart watch. (Your mileage may vary. Some settling of product may occur. Offer void in Utah.)

If I have a goal for myself, and my writing, it’s to communicate ways in which we can use technology better. Not to use it more. Not to use more of it. Just… better. To know to apply technology, where it works best, in our lives and the lives of others, but also know when to pull back. Too much of the rhetoric around technology is about solving problems with technology, with little thought given to consequences. Not every problem can be solved with an app, or a new piece of consumer electronics. Not every problem technology tries to solve is actually a problem. You don’t need to sling code to work towards these answers, either. We can all push towards finding, if not the answer, at least a sense of where it all fits for ourselves.

The Great PayPal Email Hack That Wasn’t

This past Saturday, as I headed into town for a concert, I stopped to check my email and found two messages from PayPal UK, saying someone had set up an account, and added a mailing address, with my gMail address. Well, almost my gMail address. Instead of the domain, they’d used as the domain. I assumed it to be some kind of phishing scam, logged into my PayPal, changed the password and removed my gMail address from the account for safety. Then, to be sure, I forwarded the emails to PayPal’s spoof checking address. Content I’d done the right thing, I hopped the subway and was soon having my eardrums split open by the Buzzcocks.

Still a bit concerned, the next day I initiated a password reset of the account with the email. I got the password reset email with a verification code. Upon providing the code, I was asked to send a message to a strange phone number. Weird. When I logged into my PayPal, everything looked kosher. No new addresses, no new emails, no new phone numbers. My account was untouched, as far as I could tell. Later in the day, I got an email saying the new account was “ready to shop” and that’s when I called PayPal.

It took some explaining. This wasn’t just “my account has been compromised.” This was someone creating a brand new account with an alias of my email address. Known to me, but unbeknownst to PayPal, is that and are aliases of each other. If you have gMail, and send a message to, it will show up in your inbox. Since my address was on my account as a secondary email, if PayPal knew the two domains were equivalent, the stranger should have gotten an error. What really confused me was that they were able to log in, add an address, phone number, and credit card to their account. Which lead me, and the first manager I spoke with at PayPal, to conclude my gMail had been hacked.

This seemed impossible. I have a huge, complicated 1Password-generated Google account password. I use two-factor authentication. Google showed no unusual login activity, or anything of that nature. Even if someone had access to my Google account, I can think of a million more interesting, useful, and subtle ways to use it than to set up a new PayPal account. In any case, I changed my Google password, re-set up two-factor authentication, and revoked all third-party access to my account. That was Sunday night, and I went to bed paranoid and angry.

Monday, while at work, I figured I’d try again. Knowing they had a phone number on the account, I hoped I could reach someone who could try to contact the ersatz account holder. I called PayPal and began trying to get help via angry messages on Twitter. Multi-tasking, as best I could, I spoke with a manager on PayPal’s fraud team and someone on the AskPayPal Twitter account, trying to explain the situation and see what could be done. Both agreed to contact the person in the UK, and it looked like the AskPayPal person got to them first. I got one final email, saying the account was deleted, and that was it.

Turns out, it was a fat-fingered email address after all, and the account wasn’t actually activated and verified. I gave myself a full security audit for nothing, it seems.

Part of my anger and paranoia was that this came hot on the heels of the iCloud security nightmare. The other was the incredulity of the people I spoke to at PayPal, and the lunacy that they were unaware that and were aliases, and had been for the better part of a decade. At least, now that it’s sorted out, I’ve added my gMail account back to my PayPal account with both domains, just to make sure this can’t happen again. I covered my bases, and did everything right. Someone else dropped the ball on account and data verification, leaving me to wonder if I’d left a hole somewhere in my defenses.

When a user’s sense of security can be violated by someone else mistyping their email address, it’s the fault of the company whose security the user has put their trust into. Sure, it’s also a limitation of email, as a technology, but a known limitation that should be worked around. Why was this person able to even interact with PayPal, adding their personal data, without verifying their email first? Because of that lapse, I had access to the personal data of a stranger: their name, their mailing address, the last four digits and brand of their credit card. Information I neither need or want. In this paranoid age, companies—ones that handle our finances, especially—must be on top of the dangers. What happened to me, and to my mysterious UK stranger, is unacceptable.

An Even More Personal Computer

The piece that so many other smart watches have failed thus far is the personal aspect of such a device. It’s not just that they have failed to understand fashion or even interface design. It’s not just that they thought it being a computer on your wrist was enough. They failed to understand that such a device has to be an even more of a personal computer than what he’s existed before. It has to have a more personal purpose and meaning to the wearer.

Patrick Rhone – “An Even More Personal Computer”

Patrick’s thoughts on the Apple Watch are interesting, too. The human element of the Apple Watch is something that sets it above the competition. I don’t know if the 1.0 is quite to where it would need to be to get mass adoption, but it’s further along than any other.