Monday, September 15, 2014

T-mobile and the uncarrier mvement

    A little over a year ago T-Mobile announced  their uncarrier program, which among other things dropped contracts, data overage fees and early termination fees. The program went through about half a dozen changes since then offering free international roaming, paying early termination fees, and removing music streaming from counting towards your data (which is unlimited.)
    This plan has brought over 3 million new subscribers to T-mobile in August alone. This is causing unprecedented stress on the mobile networks for T-Mobile. Although they are attempting to alleviate this by offering wifi calling and texting, as well as new routers for free to T-mobile customers. Whilst this move may seem arbitrary and random, it makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
    T-mobile still continues to add new benefits via the uncarrier plan, most recently on September 10th they have made an agreement with GoGo (the inflight wifi provider) to allow T-mobile customers to send texts via wifi whilst on flights. As one of the few remaining companies still offering unlimited data to its customers, T-Mobile is making a lot of revolutionizing changes. It will be interesting to see if they can keep the momentum going.

The Microsoft Takeover of Mojang

With the recent news of Microsoft purchasing the indie game developers Mojang for 2.5 billion dollars, it is hard to ignore the wealth and power that these major corporations have. What once was a small indie game that few people knew about has become an international hit. But when a small company like that has grown in popularity it seems that it will end up in the hands of a major corporation. Is that the future of independent companies and game developers now?
                Mojang was a company that started out as a three man team in September 2010, but has now become a team of over twenty people that has developed one of the biggest games in the industry. With its humble beginning, it is safe to say that the developers have worked hard and diligently to get this game running and to where it stands today. However its popularity has also led to much negativity for the company. With the main developers and the boss of the company leaving, it is sad to say that they have lost interest in the game that they have created. With a game as large as Minecraft, it has led to many controversies and troubles for the game developers. These problems has led the game creator Markus “Notch” Persson to say , “ Thank you for turning Minecraft into what it has become, but there are too many of you, and I can’t be responsible for something this big.” Is this the dream of game developers? Is it their ambition to have the most popular game, or is it to create the game that will be truly loved and cherished by the community. That was the dilemma that Markus Persson faced as many people complained to him about miscellaneous charges and the lack of involvement in the game. These problems drove him away from the product he loved and it is sad to see him leave such a promising franchise.
                With Minecraft being sold to one of the largest corporation in the nation, what is in store for the companies’ future? With Minecraft’s policy of being an open source game with thousands of mods available, it is easily the number one game for user generated content. But with the acquisition it is now in the hands of a closed platform/ company that charges users for everything they provide. When Minecraft first came out on the Xbox360, it charged users for skins that would have otherwise been free on the computer version. Since Minecraft is already on Microsoft gaming platforms already I foresee a future where Minecraft will be slowly drained of the user generated content that users have been willing to provide and they will eventually have to go through Microsoft to provide these contents. That means that players will have to pay more for content they otherwise would have and it will limit the creativity that Minecraft have been praised for. It is sad to say but I think that the future of Minecraft is limited now that it has been acquired by Microsoft.

Apple Pay: Security Benefits and Flaws

        Quite recently, Apple announced arguably the most important feature of the iPhone 6 being released this October: Apple Pay. Seeking to revolutionize payment methods, iPhone 6 users will be able to access and use cards from any participating finance company (thus far being AMEX, Master Card, and Visa) by taking a picture of their cards and storing the information extracted in passbook. This product relies on what is called near-field communication (NFC ) which is a short range connection made using radio waves, able to work at a distance of 10 cm. As of Sunday a very large group of companies have revealed that they will be carriers of apple pay and the idea is highly supported by financial institutions. [1] 
         That being said, Apple can't do anything with 100% approval from its consumer audience. Security became the first concern on everyone's minds when they found out about the new apple pay system, myself included. The process of taking a picture of your card and being able to use it at majority of major retail stores without needing to physically carry it around sounds convenient and is most definitely a big selling point for apple after the flop of the 5c and 5s iPhones. (Its reception also says something about society in general. Finding carrying a very small plastic card inconvenient and "needing an app for that" connotates  some serious laziness, but that is a story for another day. ) 
         Seeing as how identity theft is such a big issue with physical credit cards and the community is still hesitant about anything having to do with shared networks due to the iCloud situation, Apple makes it a point to address security concerns head on with fingerprint reading technology. In order to use the cards stored in Passbook, customers need to hold their phones up to a NFC scanning terminal, lay their finger across the home button which has stored information about what the owners fingerprint is, and authenticate the transaction. 
         Banks have been backing apple left and right considering the transaction process happens strictly between the user and the bank. Apple receives 0.15% of all money spent through apple pay, costing banks a large sum of money and costing corporations even more money due to the installation and maintenance of the NFC machines. Chains Walmart and Bestbuy have used the costs as their reason for not implementing the new system. Other consumers not in support fear for the opening of privacy and security breach opportunities that could be created through common use of apple pay. The system of tokenization makes it so that when a person adds a credit card to their passbook, the actual credit card number is not stored on the phone or anywhere on the network, rather an account is created to identify the user which is unique to their device. The token is stored in an encrypted chip inside the phone that Apple calls a "secure element"  [2] the key point being that none of this information is being stored on Apple servers which have more recently proved to be quite susceptible to privacy issues.
         Apple's creation of Apple pay is a vehement attempt at revolutionizing mobile payment methods with regard to consumer privacy and financial safety, but that does not necessarily mean it will end the struggles of security and theft. The Apple watch is able to handle this new platform, but it does not come equipped with the fingerprint scanner therefore can handle transactions without that authorization. Also, upon the release of Apple's 5s, hackers had already found ways to breach the security of the fingerprint scanner, showing serious threat to the supposed "private and easy" mobile payments. If the security of this platform proves to be riddled with holes as some of the community predicts (We cannot know for sure considering all the public has been given is a demo and brief description of the process), then physical theft will become a widespread issue, one that is not even under Apple's control. 

Lets talk about Analytics, Part 1

Nowadays there are a lot of ways to perform analytics on how your users use your platform or how users will react to new features and UI designs. One way is to track how many times and what a user clicks on. This provides a very brute force-ish way of collecting large amount of data but can be very effective for deducing what features people use and don't you. The problem with this kind of analytics is that it does not provide information on why a user does not use the feature or use it a lot. It can also become polluted with noise when or if the user becomes bored and starts clicking around at random.

Another way that can be effective is a live testing session with a user, observing how they use the platform and occasionally asking them questions about the system. This allows a higher signal to noise ratio as an observer is less likely to record unfocused or unimportant data points. This method though is not scalable so while you may get a lot of valuable information from this kind of testing it will not be able to be conducted on a large scale.

Ideally, you would use a mixture of both. An example of these kinds of analytics at work can be seen with Facebook's News feed. Now while everyone hates how the News feed looks, and somehow hates every new iteration of it more than the last, it does its job very well. The News feed is designed to maximize people's use of Facebook and is the main hub for every user. Being the main hub it is important to get the user experience right, however if it is designed too well then the user never leaves the News feed. Facebook wrote a good article on how they designed a new News feed last year, which you can find here.

There is an old story that floats on the net about how Facebook had designed a great News feed that users loved and was only rolled out to some users to for testing [1]. It put the focus on the News feed and cut out the clutter around it to highlight and increase interaction with the News feed. So what happened to this great News feed? The story goes that while users loved the feed and it increased interaction with the feed it came out the cost of every other part of the site. Users would only interact with the News feed and there was much less interaction with the sites other features which led to it being scrapped.

Fundamentally, analytics are neither good nor bad they simply provide data on how people use and interact with things. How that data is used though is upto the company obtaining and analyzing it. In the aforementioned story we can see both the good and the bad of its use. Analytics helped Facebook build a News feed with a great user experience that users enjoyed but further analyzed show that it didn't provide the experience that Facebook wanted to provide so it was scrapped. It is important to note that while analytics can allow companies to maximize the value a user gets from the user experience it does not mean it maximizes the value of a platform. The more feature rich a platform is, the more it cannot emphasize any particular feature if it wants to be valuable for its whole rather than a part.

This type of analysis basically provides benefit to both the user's of a platform and the creators. In the next part I'll talk about social analytics and how they are used to build profiles of you as a person. (I'll also talk about why I think its is bad thing and does not provide any value to the user)

[1]: I can't find the article right now but I will provide an update on it here when I do

Internet Fame and Projection

There's a new saying that I believe explains internet fame perfectly, derived from the Warhol moment. "Everyone will be famous to 15 people." When dealing with old fame, exposure was the most important thing you could have. You needed to be on every show, in every magazine, and be in everyone's faces at all times to be famous. Now, the quantity of people talking about you doesn't matter as much as the quality. David Weinberger of the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society says, "Internet fame can be more intimate, more of a personal connection between the one and the few." [2] With the advent of YouTube, Twitter, and sites for niche interests, people can seem a lot more famous than they actually are. However, we create another echo chamber and make fame a much bigger deal than it really is. For example, some of the actors that get talked about the most on social media actually are known by less than 50% of people polled in the US. [3] Benedict Cumberbatch seems like a big deal since all people talk about is Benedict Cumberbatch. But, to the general public, nobody really knows who he is. It's because we don't talk to the general public, we talk to our friends who know about him because we know Benedict Cumberbatch. People talking about someone already famous makes them seem more famous..
With this, we get to Phil Fish. Fish is a famous indie game developer whose first main commercial release, "Fez," has been an indie game darling and sold 1 million copies. [4] He is one of the faces of indie gaming. However, most people wouldn't know who Phil Fish is, even people who play games. He's, numerically, not very important, especially not when Minecraft has sold 54 million copies in comparison. However, he regularly insults gamers, the industry, and fellow developers. It is this behavior that makes him so famous.
In the real world, fame is given to you by groups that will pay for your promotion and creation. On the Internet, fame just happens to you. [5, 14:00] One post can turn someone from some guy on the Internet to a performer talking to an audience. The line isn't clear other than enough people talking about them. Fish was just a normal, hot-headed indie developer like many out there that never get noticed. What made Fish different was that "Fez" was the type of game that was easy to show or explain on the Internet, so he became a little famous. [5, 1:58] The problem wasn't that he was more angry or gifted than anyone else, it was that people believed he was more famous than he deserved to be. For a quick analogy, think of Nickelback. [5, 3:48] People hate Nickelback not because it's bad, but because it's bad and popular. However, Nickelback signed contracts and arranged things so they could be this popular. Fish just became popular because his game got an audience, he spoke in a way that would make one hated, and that made him have a bigger audience.
Fish was now famous in the gaming circle, metaphorically his 15 people. His fame became more significant not because he was known outside of gaming circles (such as Minecraft) but because, in the gaming circle, the quality of Fish-related discussion increased. He would spout something hot-headed since that's what he did before he was famous and he would get in trouble because he was now famous. It became a new topic to talk about regarding Fish. It's not like Nickelback where they have PR agents that help Nickelback stay famous. Fish is a guy acting like a normal guy with strong opinions on the Internet, except that he is being scrutinized like he was an old fame celebrity. Eventually, he says too many hurtful things and the discussion turns into hating Fish, which actually makes him more famous since hate is another reason to talk about someone. He gained no new audience like old fame required, but his current audience of the gaming circle discussed him more since they felt they had a personal stake in putting Fish in his place. Gaming only saw Fish as someone to hate even when he did good things, since that didn't fit the idea of Fish. The discussion is no longer about his game or him but rather to create talk that confirms our preconceived notions of him. [5, 9:36] Eventually, he became the figurehead of indie gaming's woes. The rationale is that, if Fish is the a famous indie developer, he must be a symbol of indie developers. However, since we only talk about Fish in a negative light, we think the entire indie developer scene is bad like Phil Fish. The audience creates a narrative that enforces itself.
With Internet fame, it does not matter what you did. It matters how easily people can talk about it. The hate on Fish was just him personally offending some people who spoke loudly and often in an echo chamber on Twitter. My theory behind the hate of Phil is the idea of what the Internet is and what it actually is colliding. People believe the Internet connects people from all different kinds of worlds together. When you talk with people online and see they all hate Phil Fish, it seems like everyone's talking about him and how awful he is. However, the Internet is a lot more of an echo chamber than you think. Sometimes, you hear what you want to hear. After that, you share your idea based on that first one and the echo gets louder. The circle continues and everyone believes their idea a little more strongly until they believe one man is the symbol for an industry when he was just one man.

EARLY MONDAY EDIT: Mojang (company that owns Minecraft) was just confirmed to be sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. However, Minecraft's creator, Markus Persson, is not going. He wrote a blog post on why he left and it actually references a source I used and the idea I was getting across with Phil. I unfortunately don't have the time to analyze this but I thought it was important to add. [6]

"Later on, I watched the This is Phil Fish video on YouTube and started to realize I didn’t have the connection to my fans I thought I had. I’ve become a symbol. I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter."

[5] [NSFW]

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The 3D Shot Heard Around The World

                The phrase “the shot heard around the world” officially has new meaning.  The phrase, which originally referred to the opening of the American Revolutionary War, now holds new meaning and a new threat.  With the emergence of the 3-D printer, there were many skeptical people whom speculated the dangers of a 3-D printer. The printer can print out 3-D objects from plastic and one of the biggest ethical dilemmas was the possibility of printing weapons.  Cody Wilson has achieved the task of printing one of these weapons.  After about a year of manufacturing with a 3-D printer of his own, he has created a handgun that shoots off .380 caliber bullets.  My original thoughts when reading about Cody printing the world’s first printed handgun were that the people who were skeptical were crazy.  I thought that nobody would waste a year nor the ten thousand dollars (at least for one of the cheapest models) for the opportunity to wield just a handgun.  I would have been more worried if it was producing bombs, automatic machine guns, biological viruses, etc.  Still, I understand the worry revolved around a technology that prints objects for anyone who owns it.
 Is a company who begins to sell 3D printers to the general public responsible for the attacks that the costumer may inflict?  This leads us back to the very controversial topic of gun control where one of the opposition’s strongest points is that “guns don’t kill people, the people who use them do”.  I believe the 3D printer companies would therefore make a similar argument that the printer itself does no harm.  The United States government does not allow printers like the ones that print our currency to be sold or even created on the market, so neither should they allow a printer that has an endless amount of printing capabilities to be available for the general public.  The possibility of any person creating guns in his or her own home is more threatening than the same person printing counterfeit money.  The bills Americans use every day are changed so often and those changes are kept so secret that is nearly impossible to intercept one of the algorithms that produces paper money.  On the other hand, it is not nearly as difficult to print a handgun with a 3D printer as it is to steal the algorithms and obtain possession of a paper money printer.

One of the biggest threats of a handgun produced by a 3D printer is that it is incapable of being discovered by a metal detector.  This poses a huge threat to society today mostly because many of the checks the American government has enacted are thwarted by a person with a 3D printer.  To purchase a gun, a person needs to have a license and a background check. With a 3D printer, all a person needs is plastic to produce a handgun.  To board enter security buildings such as an airport, an individual must have all of his or her bags scanned and walk through a metal detector.  Now, it is possible to pass through the metal detector with a gun and not be detected.  The safety of society is one of the most important questions that should be raised in considering the release of the 3D printer to the general public.

The reauthorization of NSA spying and why you should be worried

For the most part, it seems that the American public have reached a consensus that unwarranted government spying needs to stop, and there's good reason behind this belief. Congress and the courts, however, have been very slow to act and very lukewarm in their response. Just this week, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the spy court overseeing the actions of the NSA, reauthorized the collection of metadata.  It begs the question: is the government tone tone deaf?

The NSA has repeatedly defended itself when called out for its spying by saying, "it's only metadata." The problem is, collecting "only" metadata is a really big deal.  Thanks to volunteer Ton Siedsma, of Holland, we know what "only metadata" will reveal.  Ton allowed researchers to study his metadata, and the details that could be gleaned are shocking.  The researchers were able to determine his age, work and housing information, politics, and social networks.  They were even able to discern when he got home every day, and by comparing his metadata to publicly exposed hacked password lists, they easily figured out his password, enabling them to compromise his accounts.

While this is disturbing, it should not be too surprising.  The argument that "it's only metadata" really doesn't even make sense when held up to scrutiny.  If the metadata were inconsequential, why would the NSA be so determined to maintain their ability to collect it?  More to the point, how can they belittle the significance of metadata while the CIA and other organizations consider metadata reason enough to authorize a kill, even if the target is American?

The fact of the matter is, any collection of private data from American citizens (and you can make the case that this applies to foreigners as well) by the government  is unconstitutional, except where a warrant is issued by a court, naming a suspect or suspects and citing probable cause for suspicion. Freedom from unreasonable search and seizure is the crux of the fourth amendment, and it is this protection that helps ensure many other protections found in the Bill of Rights.  In light of this spying and the government's stated willingness to kill American citizens without trial over metadata, people may increasingly hesitate to express their true beliefs, or to buy weapons.  And if rendering the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments impotent isn't terrifying enough, there have already come to light cases of NSA workers using their position to stalk old lovers, watch private webcams, and be generally creepy without fear of consequence (see SEXINT).

The lesson to be learned here, unfortunately, seems to be that privacy is something you have to take care of yourself.  I can make the case for government to end its surveillance until I'm blue in the face, but even if the current batch of surveillance programs end, there's no way of ever being certain the government is not watching you.  The government can even force backdoors into encryption protocols like RSA; Facebook, Google and Apple don't even fight to protect your privacy. It's time to realize that internet privacy is in ones own hands.