Category Archives: Technology

Identifying Netflix content tourists with science

I’d describe my level of understanding of this technology as marginally more than zero but surely this idea works on paper but could never work in the real world. Network latency is a highly unreliable metric when it comes to measuring physical distance. I suspect that the technological developments necessary to make this feasible will take longer to appear than a more sensible approach to global content distribution licensing. The current system mainly favors the studio lawyers who broker rights deals and I suspect its days are numbered.

Netflix itself, of course, couldn’t care less about content tourists. If it did, it would probably use address verification in its credit card payment interface: it’s very easy to activate and all credit cards include personalization data which include address, postcode and country. No, Netflix pays lip service to worrying about VPN/DNS services (the latter are, from experience, far superior) only to placate the lawyers whose cash cow’s days are numbered.

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

I shan’t write a review outlining the plotlines or anything like that. Rather, here are a few thoughts that came to me while reading and digesting Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel.

– This feels like it was written with television in mind. Maybe writing the doomed HBO adaptation of The Corrections put him off but I felt like Franzen’s multi-threaded style has evolved to feel like a really good TV show. Varied locations, time taken to develop a character who then disappears, only to resurface, and a combination of the highly visual and highly visceral. Franzen said that The Corrections had a ‘universe’ behind it with more characters and stories which he effectively edited out of the novel. I wonder if he didn’t consciously include more of these in Purity.

– The Corrections and Freedom felt like attempts to describe America and the world at specific historical moments. Purity feels no different in this respect. While it continues in Franzen’s now traditional way to analyse family life (most specifically a Larkinesque approach to what parents do to their kids), Purity also deals with the information revolution: the Internet. Franzen has been named a Luddite by many fierce defenders of the Internet for comments he has made over the years about things like how a serious writer would never write a novel on a computer connected to the Internet. These defenders get really upset by anyone criticising their revolution. In Purity, Franzen takes some time to explain his position and his argument that the ‘revolution’ of the internet – insofar as it applies to liberty – is as false as the ‘revolution’ of the German Democratic Republic, but just as totalitarian. His observation that Google, Facebook and Twitter are often hailed for defending ‘freedom’ principles while the NSA – which really is tasked with protecting the American system – is universally loathed, is provocative. And taking some time off from such things over New Year, it is difficult to point to any true value that social media brings to an individual’s life, outside of ego boosts.

– The idea of the Great American Novel is, in itself, a sort of Moby Dick (hurr hurr) for writers like Franzen. I don’t think he’s trying to deliver that with Purity, but I do appreciate that if he has come close, it’s with a Spanish culebron packed with German characters.

– Purity’s closing message fits with a popular analysis of inter-generational strife in the post-war half century west. Our parents’ generation have fucked everything up. And they had everything. Franzen adds to this a vital component of hope – he seems to trust the ‘millennials’ far more than many authors in his position do.

– I liked Pip as a lead character.

– I found Purity to be the funniest Franzen to date. Really laugh out loud funny at times.

– For some reason, I split my reading of the book between a visit to Berlin (which felt amazingly well-timed, seeing as I could now imagine the Frankfurter Allee and Friedrichshain while reading about them, and a trip to the Philippines (which is only mentioned once, and briefly, in the novel).

– In all, an enjoyable read.

Softonic announces huge layoffs

As a former employee, I’ve got a lot to say about this story and the causes but my main thought is this: if it’s true* that Softonic announced that it had bought a San Francisco-based startup the same day it announced massive layoffs, that, for me, sums up what has changed in the company’s values… who on earth thought that was the right way to do things? How the hell did no one realize how that would look? What a shame.

[* This has since been confirmed to me by several current employees. Unbelievable.]

Apple’s about to end the age of the credit card

The standard if slightly lazy shorthand you see online when Apple starts to hype an event is: “OK tell me this: what’s so interesting about this product? Samsung/Sony/Rio/whoever already sells this. Apple customers = sheep.”

And I understand it. Computers existed before the Macintosh; MP3 players before the iPod, phones before the iPhone, and so on. We’ve all been over this a thousand times. It should be clear to anyone with a balanced viewpoint that Apple rarely creates entirely new product lines (in the global sense, I mean). Rather, it observes trends and identifies ways to create exciting new products which people will want to buy, generally with one or two exclusive features – a novel UI, for example, which place the Apple product ahead of the rest.

For the last couple of years, the rumor has been that Apple would release some sort of wearable device. Most likely a watch. I reckon that Apple allowed this puff of smoke to escape, fully aware that its prime rivals, Samsung (a company which really is less innovative than Apple), et al, would rush products to market in an attempt to preempt Apple’s big reveal. And if I’m right about that, it means that the competition has played into Apple’s hands.

Because none of the smartwatch products currently on the market has mass appeal. But they do have market presence, which means that Samsung, Motorola, LG and others have helped Apple with a bit of real-world market research. They’ve made the mistakes. And none of them have realized that they’re missing one key ‘killer’ application.

Yesterday’s confirmation by the WSJ (when the story is in the WSJ 5 days before an Apple press event, it’s 99% a confirmation) that Apple’s iWatch (or whatever) will include a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip for payments, is by far the most important fact we think we know about the product.

It just so happens that I work in a lab that tests payment systems. So although I’m no expert, I know a little bit about some of the technology involved. And it’s public knowledge that while the payment schemes (Visa, MasterCard, Amex and Discovery) would like us all to use our phones to pay in stores, only 1% of all transactions in the USA are made this way. Which is kind of strange when you think about it: all these people with their Samsung Android NFC-enabled phones ready to use Google Wallet as a mobile payment system, and yet nobody’s using it.

Part of the problem is probably that people don’t see other people using it. These things need a mass of users in stores and coffee shops to get moving. The other part of the problem is that if you need to get your phone out of your pocket or bag just to pay, well you may as well use your contactless credit or debit card as that’s no less convenient and it probably feels safer (more ‘official’).

Which is why Apple’s adoption of NFC in both its phone and its smartwatch is so important. Apple spotted one critical, ubiquitous technology that – in form factor if not in technology – has remained the same since the 1960s. The credit card is a dinosaur. Visa/MasterCard/EMVCo. know this. They’ve been trying to get people into mobile payment systems for years. But people don’t much listen to Visa, MasterCard or EMVCo. They take the card and payment scheme their bank gives them.

People do listen to Apple. Apple has hundreds of millions of generally satisfied customers, many of whom have already given Apple their payment details. And when Apple makes it clear that they have a product which allows for quick, secure payments,  plenty of people will take the plunge. And then, sometime next spring, other consumers will start to see them paying for their groceries and their morning coffee using just their wristwatch. And the beginning of the end of the credit card will have begun – with the explicit support of the very banks and payment schemes which introduced it.

It’s highly likely that in a couple of years, I’ll at the very least be leaving my credit and debit cards at home when I go out. Probably my wallet too (although I suppose I’ll need some identification, so wallets may live on for a while). And a couple – maybe four – years after that, I’ll be wondering whether I should keep my expired cards for posterity. Because they won’t be replaced.

That’s what Apple will announce on Tuesday. If you can’t see how significant this product will be, well go and comment about it on some website, I guess.

A game of GeoGuessr narrated

 A trip to Canada in GeoGuessr


OK I’m on a bridge. It’s made of metal and looks to be a couple of hundred metres long.

Mountains to the south and east

Sign: Tourist Attraction – Hagwilget Canyon
So it’s an English-speaking country. The snow on the mountains rules out South Africa, I think, and this is definitely not the UK or Ireland.

Head west along the highway.

Speed limit sign indicates 30 KM/H. So it’s not the USA.

Sign: Hazelton 2. Gas, Food, Lodging, Camping, Tourist attraction.

I’ve got a suspicion that this might be Tasmania. The vegetation would fit, I think. Maybe New Zealand but I don’t know for sure that they use metric distance measures there. They probably do. Hmm.

Continuing northwest along the highway, there’s a commercial building, white with a blue roof, and another road sign in the distance. Also, a pcik-up truck. They’re popular in Australia but I’m now realizing how little I know about New Zealand.

The building is a garage. The sign says Two Mile Services. So we’re two miles from something. And that despite the kilometres on the road sign. Hey, are they metric in Canada? I see more pick-up trucks in the parking lot and on the hill behind, a large and quite brashly designed house. Or a small modern church, not sure which.

The entrance to Two Mile Services says Auto Parts. I can’t make out any markings or bank logos on the door, so it’s no help.

I’ve just noticed a U-Haul trailer in the parking lot. Not sure how relevant that is. But maybe this is North America after all.

Another sign that says 2-Mile and then something illegible beneath. The sign’s illustrated with a picture of a man trying to drag a mule into action. There are some boats covered with tarpaulin in a yard nearby, so we’re close to a lake or the sea. Probably.

Sign: Silver Standard Rd (or Rt?) Ahead. Coupled with the mule, this sounds like mining country.

Ah, now here’s Silver Standard Rd and some sort of Adventist church, and the Triple Creek Ranch B&B. Ando now a sign that reads Suu Dee’s Local something or other. Not helpful, Suu Dee. Not cool.

A truck in a lot on the side of the road gives me a big clue. E.W.J. Kendall – Highway 63 – Hazelton B.C.

So we’re in Canada. British Columbia. Near Hazelton possibly on Highway 63, north of some pretty big and spiky mountains. Possibly near water.

Sign: Welcome to Historic Hazelton – Founded in 1866. Elevation 720ft 220M. I guess Canda must have gone metric some time in living memory.

Sign: Gitanmaax/Hazelton Reservoir. Please protect your water.

But where is Hazelton? And where’s Highway 63? I can find 93 but that’s no use.

Hazelton village is on a river. And it has a pleasant little riverboat on the bank which is used as a pizzeria. So not a lake. And not the sea.

Back to my starting point and heading East to get a better picture. I was being followed by a police car!

Sign: Hitchhiking – Is it worth the risk?

Aha! Found another highway route sign: Route 16 East- West. Back to the guessing map. For about 15 minutes. I follow Route 16 for hundreds of miles and suddenly: Hazelton! Look for the right road… look for the bridge… GUESS.

6.12 KM away. Damn. Still, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Hazelton, British Columbia and Canada during this short trip. Thanks, GeoGuessr!

Why haven’t ringtones died a quiet death?

This isn’t just another post-work rant about colleagues and their noisy phones. It may have started out like that but the more I think about it, the more I think that I’m onto something. Anyway, it didn’t really start with colleagues. It started with my microwave.

My microwave, like most, has an audio alert function that lets me know when whatever I asked it to heat is done. Or rather, when the time I set it to work for is up. The particular alert pattern employed by Bosch in my microwave is that of a short, high-pitched beep that sounds once every two seconds for about a minute. In a small apartment, it can get quite annoying. The other day I thought to myself how nice it would be if I could disable this function. Then I reconsidered: why have that function at all? Can I not come back to the machine after a minute or two? What does it say about modern humanity that if I heat a cup of tea for 80 seconds, I need to be urgently notified when the heating process is complete?

Because the truth is that it’s not just microwaves. Washing machines play alien melodies to alert us that their noisy spin cycles have just ended. TVs have beeping sounds built-in to say machine “Hello!” when you switch them on. More and more home appliances are getting bells and whistles as built-in features.

Of course, it all started with the phone. Phones had a bell built-in that rang to let you know when someone was calling. This was because phones were generally fixed to a wall or a desk and their owner might well be in another room when they received a call. So it’s understandable that when the first portable phones were manufactured, their designers didn’t think twice about including a ringing function: it was seen as an integral part of the device. And so it has remained: the ringtone is still one of the most basic features phones have, showing up even on app-free ‘feature phones’ by default.

Then, in 1996, Motorola introduced the StarTAC, the first hugely successful cellphone to include a vibrating call alert. And it made perfect sense. Because whether on your desk or in your pocket, a vibrating alert is just as effective as a ringtone but far less irritating to other people. And that’s really the point: ringtones are so tacky and annoying.

So why didn’t the ringtone die out then? I think the answer is that they had wormed their way into a set of default features on phones, and no one gave them a second thought. As with most terrible decisions, no one actually decided to let ringtones live on: everyone just assumed they would. And so they did.

Nowadays all mobile devices, even iPads, have audio alerts for calls and messages and appointments – despite the fact that we’re constantly checking in on them anyway. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll miss an email on my tablet because my phone already vibrated to tell me about it. And if it’s a super important call I’m waiting for, I should just dedicate some time to waiting for that call.

In an age when we’re already giving our devices more than enough attention, we no longer need to equip them with the means to make an irritating noise whenever we receive a message or call. Most of the time, we can survive without immediate notification that an email has come in and besides, vibrating alerts are enough to warn us about important calls.

It’s time to reconsider the ringtone’s place in what we consider essential in a cellphone. Ringtones are a hangover from a time when technology wasn’t personal or portable but was bolted to the wall. Let them die a quiet death now and forever hold their peace.