Bullies and Bystanders

If your reader feeds mostly consist of echo chamber walls, you probably don’t know that one of the more prominent Appleverse podcasts, Angry Mac Bastards, has recently went off the air, so to speak. (Admittedly I have been away from this corner of the internet for a while now, so the news may just be news to me.) The absence of this news is especially curious for sites like The Loop, which has been associated with the podcast, at least in the past.

Rewind a little. Here is my initial reaction a while back on my first (and last) listen to Angry Mac Bastards:

Fastforward back to now. Here is the incident that led to Angry Mac Bastards’ demise. Basically, they cyberbullied a developer named Aaron Vegh for… I’m not sure why. Here is an except from the segment:

Darby: Well I think you can sum up this Aaron Vegh’s, just the whole thing, just at the very beginning of his, ah, Hire Me web site. It says “Hi I’m Aaron, I’m the nerd you’re looking for. I’m a programmer ready to take on the next big challenge of my career. I’ve written a book, shipped two iOS apps, started my own web development firm, and worked for The Man. I’ve taken the chance on a startup, and I’ve started a magazine, though that one didn’t work out so well.” You know, this, this, this… there’s a picture of this fucker in a, if the gamma on your monitor is fucked you’ll think it’s a turtle neck it looks to be some kind of zip-up fleece performance job.

John: Thing.

Darby: You know, bagging on people’s personal looks is kinda low, but he’s got hair that’s been Photoshop’d on, your standard three-quarter turn, arms crossed, head slightly nodded, stock photo, “I am wise beyond your knowledge” uh gaze at you. Like John you were saying it’s just everything about this derp sums up that he’s the last person that anyone wants to hire, and (laughing) we spent so long talking about some poor fucking homeless guy that we’re slagging this poor chump’s attempting to get a job, but he’s done it so badly, it’s just disturbing.

And the response to the aftermath? Well, John C. Welch (that’s the “John” above) has apparently closed down not only Angry Mac Bastards, but also his website and Twitter account too. A non-apology apology remains in the internet archive though:

Fighting the Internet Outrage Machine isn’t worth it. It’s not worth the headache it will cause our sponsors, it’s not worth the headache it will cause our families. Our families don’t deserve that kind of crap.

There is just too much irony there to analyze fully. Let’s move on.

Even worse are reactions like Harry Marks‘s (Marks is, of course, a noted fan of the podcast):

They took apart a developer’s website in a mean-spirited and childish way, not unlike how they’ve torn apart bad tech writers over the last four years. Yes, they’ve been doing this for four years, but now suddenly it’s a problem.

That’s where defenders of Angry Mac Bastards are wrong. It is not only a problem now, suddenly. It has always been a problem. Unfortunately, too many of us bystanders simply watched and let the cyberbullying continue. And, worst of all, the people who actually listened to the podcast and its sponsors encouraged and enabled the continuing cyberbullying.

Honestly, we can all use some bystander intervention training. The first step is to name and acknowledge the offense, and not just in some excusable non-apology apology way. Blaming the response on the amorphous Internet Outrage Machine, despite the copious uses of capitals, is pretty much the opposite of that.

Yes, we might not do it consistently. But avoiding a hypocrisy charge at the cost of complacency is a really bad reason to let behaviors like AMB’s go on. Start somewhere.

(Needless to say, I have no problem with people criticizing arguments and positions, even in harsh terms. That’s not what Angry Mac Bastards do.)

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

Juxtaposition: Reviews

Shawn Blanc on Writer Pro:

… there is no document storage option like iA Writer had (in iA Writer on iOS you could chose iCloud or Dropbox for document syncing). Writer Pro syncs with iCloud or nothing. Which means your documents are sandboxed into the app. And there is no export option to get out all the documents at once.

… [Conclusion:] Is Writer Pro an impressive, beautiful, and useful piece of software? Absolutely. Is it going to find a place in my iPad writing workflow? I don’t think so.

Shawn Blanc on Vesper:

Though Vesper is shy on power-user features — no Dropbox sync, no iPad version, no TextExpander support, no import, no export — what it’s not shy on is thoughtfulness and extreme attention to detail.

… [Conclusion:] Whether or not Vesper becomes my new go-to note-taking app or not is irrelevant. An app doesn’t have to become my most-used app before I can appreciate its design considerations and its delightful details.

The Common Sense Trap

Lindsay Lohan’s third best movie of all time.

I recently started reading Duncan Watts’s book Everything Is Obvious. (Watts was an academic sociologist who recently took up research positions at Yahoo! and then Microsoft.) One core theme of the book is the failure of common sense:

The same difficulty of reconciling what, individually, appear to be self-evident beliefs shows up even more clearly in the aphorisms that we invoke to make sense of the world. As sociologists are fond of pointing out, many of these aphorisms appear to be direct contradictions of each other. Birds of a feather flock together, but opposites attract. Absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight is out of mind. Leap before you leap, but he who hesitates is lost. Of course, it is not necessarily the case that these beliefs are contradictory–because we invoke different aphorisms in different circumstances. But because we never specify the conditions under which one aphorism applies versus another, we have no way of describing what it is that we really think or why we think it. Common sense, in other words, is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time.

The same kind of aphorisms are found in tech commentary. For a fun exercise, I came up with two aphorisms. To make this more interactive, try to come up with some examples that go with each.

1. A good product does one thing and do it well.

Dropbox. Instapaper. 1Password. These apps and services succeed because they focus on a core feature and implement that feature better than anyone else.

Indeed, all the recent positive reviews of the note-taking app Vesper repeatedly emphasize the fact that, despite lacking many features present in comparable apps, it does what it does so exceedingly well. (See, for a small sample, reviews from beta-testers Marco Arment, Shawn Blanc, and Federico Viticci.)

It sure seems that the one-thing-well philosophy encapsulates what it takes to be successful in the increasingly competitive app space.

Take a break.


Let’s go to the next aphorism.

2. A good product is adaptive and versatile.

Think about the products that Apple sherlocked. No one needs an HDR or a panorama photo app once Apple built those features in. No one needs a notification manager app any longer either.

Most recently, Harry Marks dismissed the death of all the flashlight apps beautifully: “The implication that Apple is hurting developers by implementing similar features into its OS means the writer has no concept of history, nor understands the difference between a feature and an application. Versatile apps survive. One-trick ponies don’t.”

It sure seems that the versatility philosophy encapsulates what it takes to be successful in the increasingly competitive app space.

Wait a minute.

Didn’t Dropbox get sherlocked by iCloud? Didn’t Instapaper get sherlocked by Reading List? And, with the iOS 7 announcement, didn’t 1Password get sherlocked by iCloud Keychain? Do these products survive because they do one thing well, or because they’re versatile?

Of course there are grains of truth in both aphorisms. Some products succeed because they do one thing well. Some products succeed because they are versatile. Some, such as Dropbox, succeed because they have both. Neither truism, though, encapsulates what it takes to be successful. They are at most partial explanations.

The problem is that, since both aphorisms sound so good, it’s hard to not hear them as complete explanations. It’s obvious that flashlight apps got sherlocked because they’re not versatile. It’s obvious that Vesper succeeded because it does one thing well. Nothing more needs to be said. Nothing more can be said.

In each case, we reach for whichever aphorism that is most convenient to us, pronounce it as the beautiful truth, and forget about its contradictory twin. We fall into the common sense trap.

How can we escape? For one, we can stop repeating and relying on such aphorisms. Even today, people are still constantly reiterating variations of if you’re not the consumer, you’re the product. Stop! For another, we can be more cognizant of our own fallibility. Have we got the whole story? Probably not. What are the other similar cases? Does the same aphorism apply there? If not, why not? Asking follow-up questions is a good way to not settle with aphorisms as be all end alls.

Common sense aphorisms are the bread and butter of lazy parochial tech commentary. If that’s not the kind of tech commentary you want to read or write, try to avoid the common sense trap.

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.

An Audacious Proposal: Parity VC

A modest proposal is one that is so absurd that no one should want to implement it. An audacious proposal is one that is so reasonable that everyone should want to implement it, but still no one is doing so. I have an audacious proposal.

Starting Point 1: Silicon Valley’s diversity problem. This problem has been well documented. In fact, it is so bad that CNN Money had a hard time getting any straight data from some of the biggest tech companies like Apple and Google. Despite some valiant efforts, the problem remains as glaring as ever.

Starting Point 2: Morgan Stanley’s new investment initiative. As the New York Times reports,

Morgan Stanley’s wealth management division is starting a new portfolio which seeks to invest in companies that have demonstrated a commitment to including women on their corporate boards. The strategy, known as the parity portfolio, is scheduled to get going on April 1.

In a report last summer, Credit Suisse’s research institute found that over a six-year period, companies with “at least some” women on their boards did better, in terms of share price, than those with none.

[…] The strategy seeks to encourage companies to think deeply about the gender makeup of their boards. Only companies with at least three women board members will be included in the portfolio.

Why couldn’t there be something similar in tech?

My Audacious Proposal: An analogous parity venture capital fund that only funds startups with a diverse makeup. Of course, there can be reasonable disagreements about how to best operationalize the requirement. Perhaps it means that at least 50% of the founders need to be women. Perhaps it means that at least 40% of the engineers need to be women or other underrepresented minorities. Let us not quibble about detail for now.

A parity venture capital fund is potentially good business too. Morgan Stanley is no charity; there is a clear economic motivation behind its new initiative. There is some, though by no means conclusive, evidence that boards with some women simply perform better. Similarly, given what we know about gender and race’s power to bias people’s evaluations (previously discussed on this blog), it would be unsurprising if it turned out that startups with a diverse makeup are currently systematically overlooked. A parity venture capital fund would then be in a perfect position to exploit this market inefficiency.

So what say you, angels of the world?

(Or maybe the white dudes can all pitch before lunch?)

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.