PRISMatic Misdirection

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. PRISM is scary. Really fucking scary. It is especially scary to realize the level of cooperation that government surveillance agencies received from all our favorite tech companies — Google, Apple, etc.

Still, I think Gabe Weatherhead’s knee-jerk response is misguided:

The danger of ad companies like Google and Facebook isn’t that they are selling aggregated personal data. The danger is that they are aggregating unprecedented amounts of information. I applaud Google for fighting against the Justice Department but the problem, as The Guardian has shown, is that Google will lose much more than they will win.

The problem is with the prominent mention of “ad companies”, which suggests that the scariness has to do with ads versus no ads. It doesn’t. Collection and analysis of user information is nothing new. Yes, Google and Facebook do it to serve targeted ads. But Amazon and Target do it too to sell more things. Indeed, one of the scariest part about PRISM concerns the data from phone carriers. Phone carriers are, of course, user-supported and not ad-supported.

The Case Against Community

In The New Yorker, psychologist Paul Bloom made a somewhat surprising case against empathy:

Empathy has some unfortunate features — it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.

Drawing on decades of psychological research, Bloom articulates the problems with using empathy as a guide to how we ought to interact with others. As a matter of fact, we tend to empathize with the people who are near us, close to us, and similar to us. Consequently, empathy directs our attention to that one single baby who fell down the well but away from millions who are dying in a genocide, and empathy makes us take out our wallet for that one terminal cancer patient we know while ignoring so many others with treatable conditions who will die due to inadequate medical resources. Many of the worst problems in modern society don’t come from an insufficiency of empathy, but from an overload of empathy.

Empathy is the micro foundation for the macro structures of community. At the macro level, then, the problems of empathy becomes the problems of community.

Sure enough, the existence of a community has upsides. It’s what makes us pour our heart out to a baby who fell down the well — because she is one of us. But the existence of a community also has downsides that are arguably more severe. It’s also what makes us turn our heads away from millions who are dying in a genocide — because they are not part of our community.

Of course, we inevitably find ourselves as members of various communities. However, given how parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate a community can make us, we’re often at our best when we are smart enough to rise above it.

Over at 512 Pixels, Matt Alexander recently extolled the virtues of the Appleverse community:

[…] we read, link, joke, and support each other online — regardless of readership or Twitter follower counts — because this is a community built organically upon compassion and shared beliefs.

The problem of community, as you might have guessed, is that same support given to the insiders can quickly turn into vitriol thrown at outsiders. Will Kujawa found this out when he leveled some mild criticisms at the new The Loop iOS magazine. As he puts it,

This automatic tendency to support each other, while mostly good, unfortunately leads to suspicion when it’s suggested I spend money on something a friend or colleague of theirs is selling — whether it’s a book, an app or a magazine subscription — as they’re not always the most balanced source when it comes to the overall quality and value.

It’s probably a sisyphean task to completely rise above our communities. I won’t pretend that I have. Still, I think it’s worth trying.

If we can get part-way there, then maybe we can stop the talk about perceptions, press releases, and commercials, and just talk about interaction design, file architecture, and other far more interesting and actually substantive things. Maybe we can even worry less about who is right and wrong but instead more about what is right and wrong. And maybe, just maybe, we can try to interact with others as not insiders or outsiders of a community, but just people with some things to say.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

How Not to Argue Against Google

The impending death of Google Reader predictably set off a wave of fury amongst infovores. Anger is, after all, an important part of the five stages of internet grief. I get that; I’m angry most of the time. Unfortunately, frequent byproducts of anger are unreasonable charges and illogical arguments.

Among these are: Matt Alexander calling what Google did with Reader in the RSS space “anti-competitive”, Marco Arment saying that Google engaged in “predatory pricing”, and of course all the usual people pointing to the fact that Reader was free to be the root of all evil.

The predatory pricing charge is strange. As the Wikipedia article Arment himself linked to explains, the predatory part of predatory pricing comes from the fact that a company uses low prices to gain a large market share… so that it can then raise the prices to an unreasonable level.

Clearly, that’s not what happened here. Yes, Google Reader did essentially own the RSS space. No, Google Reader never charged anyone a cent. The fact that Google is shutting down Reader makes it clear that predatory pricing is not even part of what Google wanted to do with Reader.

So what, you say. Arment may be a lesser Wikipedia economist than me, but Reader had a monopoly on the RSS market anyway. And everybody knows that monopoly = anti-competitive practices — even if “predatory pricing” turns out to be the wrong word.

Not so fast with that equal sign. Monopoly denotes a kind of outcome. Anti-competitiveness denotes a kind of practice. Not all monopolies result from anti-competitive practices. A natural monopoly is a kind of monopoly that results from an efficient market rather than any anti-competitive practices.

As far as I can see while scanning Wikipedia’s list of anti-competitive practices, Google Reader did nothing of that sort. Its pricing, as I said, was not predatory. Users were free to choose other services. There was no collusion. Users weren’t compelled to use Reader if they used other Google products.

Instead, Reader’s dominance of the RSS space looks to be to be a textbook example of a natural monopoly.

It’s so easy to forget now, but as Khoi Vinh reminded us, Google Reader was (and still is) a damn fine service.

Google Reader didn’t beat every other feed reader purely because it was free. Google Reader won because it was an extremely well-executed example of interaction design.

The technological superiority is even more apparent under the hood. Google Reader was (and still is) fast, powerful, and good at solving not-so-obvious problems like getting feeds from sites that don’t obviously have one. IT SYNCS. As many developers are discovering, Google Reader’s background plumbing is not easy to replicate now. It certainly was even harder to do then, when Google Reader came to its RSS dominance.

Finally — and this is the key — arguably it’s inefficient for the market to have many competing RSS plumbing services doing all the things that Google Reader does; it’s much more efficient for developers to build apps and secondary services on top of one. Indeed, that’s arguably what actually happened.

Be angry if you want. But let’s not distort the economic terms or revise history just to make irrational arguments that fit an agenda.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

Forget the File System

Jean-Louis Gassée recently wrote a Monday Note column on iOS and its lack of an exposed file system. While he provided convincing examples that demonstrate iOS’s current shortcomings, he mistook the lack of an exposed file system on iOS to be the fundamental cause of these shortcomings. I disagree. The lack of an exposed file system is only a symptom. Once we get to the fundamental problem, the focus on file system will turn out to be rather misdirected.

Let’s start at the beginning. Gassee’s best example concerns the limitations of Keynote, Apple’s own presentation maker:

There was a very basic demonstration of Keynote, iPad’s presentation app, plus the testimony of a happy customer who described the usefulness of the iPad in sales situations. All quite pleasant, but the Q&A session that followed was brutal and embarrassing: How do you compose real-world, mixed-document presentation? No real answer. Why can’t the iPad access all the documents — not just iWork files — that I dropped into iCloud from my Mac? No answer there, either.

In this case, the lack of an exposed file system is certainly a problem. But it’s not the problem. The problem is that the user cannot do what she wants to do. She can’t undertake her familiar workflow for putting together a presentation on iOS. The problem is that she cannot accomplish her task of putting together her presentation project.

Unfortunately, Gassee misdiagnosed the underlying conflict that the Keynote example reveals as ordinary users vs. power users:

[…] Apple could transform the iPad so that power users can see and combine data in ways that are impossible today. This could attract business customers who are hesitant about making the plunge into the world of tablets, or who may be considering alternatives such as Microsoft’s PC/tablet combo or Android devices with Google services.

The easiest decision is no decision. Let’s have two user interfaces, two modes: The Easy mode for my Mother-In-Law, and the Pro Mode for engineers, McKinsey consultants, and investment bankers.

That’s not right. Look at the Keynote example again. People who use Keynote don’t exactly fit under the standard definition of power users. If it helps, think of the lovely administrative assistants who put together flyers and posters using Keynote or other presentation tools. Even they want to insert their own illustrations on the flyers and posters. The Keynote example highlights a problem for them too. The frustration that the Keynote example points to is shared by ordinary users too.

The real conflict, as I’ve argued before, is between two workflows — environmentally-oriented vs. project-oriented — both of which are undertaken by nearly all users regularly. The real problem with iOS, as it currently stands, is that it simply prohibits the project-oriented workflow: it forces users to always think in terms of the tool to be used, not the task to be done. In this respect, the real problem is in a sense much less techie: sometimes we need lots of tools to get a task done. The lack of an exposed file system is only a symptom for the fact that we can’t wield multiple tools at once on iOS.

Once we recognize the real problem, it is also clear that Gassee’s proposed solution won’t work. You can’t just layer an interface for power users on top of the interface for ordinary users. You need to accommodate two distinct workflows that are undertaken by both ordinary and power users on a regular basis. iOS needs a revolution, not a mere evolution.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

The Psychology of The Magazine‘s Success

Marco Arment started The Magazine a few months back. By all accounts, it’s a resounding success, despite initial content and authorship disappointments from cranky jerks like myself. The financial success of it wasn’t well-known until very recently, when Arment gave interviews to NPR and Ben Brooks.

There are some eye-popping numbers there: $35000/month revenue, 25000 subscribers, and a handsome rate of $800 to the freelance writers to boot. But I’m not interested in those. Instead, I’m most interested in one of Arment’s insights that was lost on many others, including me.


How much are people willing to pay for a bottle of wine? You might think that the answer depends on how good the wine is, or on how much people like wine. You wouldn’t be completely wrong, but you also wouldn’t be completely right. In a striking experiment, behavioral economist Dan Ariely asked MBA students at MIT how much they’d pay for a bottle of 1998 Cotes du Rhone. However, and here’s the trick, he also asked them to write down the last two digits of their social security number before bidding on the wine. It turns out that those who have higher social security numbers (e.g. 99) bid higher for the bottle of wine.

What the experiment demonstrates is the anchoring bias, where our judgments are influenced by factors that we first encounter, even if these factors turn out to be highly irrelevant. It is a fundamental, and unfortunately rather incurable, human cognitive condition. It has been well studied by behavioral economists since Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky. And of course, the basic idea is well-known to street vendors of the world for centuries before that. Yet, surprisingly, there is little talk about anchoring bias when it comes to app ecosystems. Even more rare is the person who sees an opportunity in it.


Arment is that person, as it turns out. The most ingenious aspect of The Magazine is its exploitation of anchoring bias.

Magazines are a fluke on iOS: they have different price expectations. Big-name iOS magazines can easily charge $5 per month. The New York Times charges about $15 per month. So for The Magazine to be $2 per month sounds extremely inexpensive in the magazine world, yet that’s $24 per year — far more than I could earn per customer with a traditional app.

That quote is from Arment to Brooks. But it could also be a textbook illustration of the anchoring bias. Bravo, Marco, for seeing this manifestation of the human cognitive condition before others, and for seizing the opportunity that it presents.

[Editor’s postscript: Obviously the post title is a bit tongue-in-cheek. No doubt there are other reasons for The Magazine’s success. This is just what I thought was the most psychologically interesting one.]

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

Price Points and the Paradox of Choice

On the day of the 4-inch iPhone announcement, I was deeply tempted to rewrite and rerun some old stuff about silly tech claims (“3.5-inch screen is the perfect size!”) based on armchair sciences. The point is not just that these claims are wrong (though they certainly are) but that they are the results of terrible, yet typical, post hoc reasoning patterns. The purported reasons are just decorations for a predetermined conclusion.

Instead of a rerun, I thought I would show a new example of this kind of bad reasoning. Jim Dalrymple Shawn King writes (on the basis of lists made by Stephen Hackett):

[…] take a guess at how many price points Amazon has for the Kindle and then guess how many Apple has for the iPad. It’s hard not to imagine that Amazon is creating their own “Paralysis of Choice”.

Sounds plausible… until you actually look at the research on the paradox of choice.

A meta-analysis of the last 10 years of research concludes that there is zero overall effect size on the link between the number of choices and adverse effects on decision-making. (But see some criticisms here.) There is an overall effect size of zero because there are quite specific conditions that need to be met for the paradox of choice to arise: lack of clear categories, the presence of difficult trade-offs, and an induced time pressure (p. 419).

None of these conditions are met with the Kindles. There are clear categories: if you just want a reader, you can get the classic Kindle or the Paperwhite, and if you want something more, get one of the Fires. There is no presence of a difficult trade-off: again, your choice is fairly clear depending on your needs. Finally, there is no induced time pressure: the Kindles will be available for a long while and you can order whenever you want. So, if you look at the scientific literature more carefully, the paradox of choice is unlikely to arise for Kindles, despite the oh-so-many price points.

Oh, by the way, guess how many price points there are for all Kindles? 19. Guess how many there are for all iOS devices? 17. Not a very dramatic difference. Even just counting the iPads, there are still 8 price points. The difference between the price points of Kindles and iPads is nowhere near the magnitude of the contrasts used in the various experiments. For example, in the most cited demonstration of the paradox of choice, the difference is between a choice from 6 kinds of jam and a choice from 24 kinds of jam.

The point, again, is not just that Dalrymple King is wrong (though he certainly is). The point is to highlight the kind of irresponsible and lazy reasoning pattern that shows up again and again in the Appleverse. At least we’ll always have the “yep”.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

Bimodal Reading, Memory, and Comprehension

Recently, Amazon announced some new Kindles and some new cool features that integrate audiobooks with old-fashioned texts. Immersion Reading synchronizes the audio and the text. WhisperSync for Voice allows the reader to seamlessly switch from text to audio and from audio to text. During the announcement, Jeff Bezos said:

People are going to love this. Bimodal reading improves retention and understanding.

I haven’t seen any attempt to factcheck Bezos. So I did. In short, Bezos spoke the truth — but the bimodal reading claim only applies to Immersion Reading and not WhisperSync for Voice (contrary to some sloppy reporting).

A helpful summary of the literature is provided in the 1996 Journal of Learning Disabilities article “Bimodal Reading: Benefits of a Talking Computer for Average and Less Skilled Readers” by Julie Montali and Lawrence Lewandowski (free access at the time of this writing):

In addition to the RSE for detection and lexical decision tasks, enhanced recall due to bimodal redundancy has been documented in various research paradigms. Penney (1989) reviewed studies dating back as far as the 1950s that showed evidence of a bimodal memory advantage compared to recall of information in single-mode presentations (e.g., Broadbent, 1956). Since then, others have shown that short term retention is improved when an item (e.g., word or digit string) is presented to visual and auditory channels simultaneously (Frick, 1984; Hede, 1980; Martin, 1980). […] Collectively, these studies suggest that individuals remember more of what is presented when information is delivered bimodally.

In addition to facilitating connections between letters and sounds, bimodal reading may increase higher level processes, such as comprehension. […] Bimodal instruction could facilitate comprehension by providing the reader with exposure to unknown sight words and at the same time modeling the correct pronunciation of words.

There is thus strong evidence that bimodal reading is indeed helpful for memory and comprehension — for both average and less skilled readers. But note that the evidence only applies to Kindle’s Immersion Reading feature, since that is the one that employs both auditory and visual modalities. WhisperSync for Voice might be nice for other reasons, but Bezos did not mean to claim any memory or comprehension advantage for using that feature.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.