Sunday links 10-Mar-2019: Facebook privacy, DNA shell casings, workism, our baby shark future

Here’s links/commentary on interesting things I’ve read recently on the internet.

1. Zuckerberg’s social networking privacy statement. Last week Mark Zuckerberg wrote A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking. Much commentary ensued. Below is my summary, where anything in quotes “” is Zuckerberg:

  • Growth in public social media (think Facebook proper) is dead. Private messaging is the new growth. “private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication”
  • Facebook proper won’t change. It will still make money from ads, and people using it will have as much (or as little) privacy as before. Facebook will continue to print money. “Public social networks will continue to be very important in people’s lives”
  • Facebook’s two messaging apps, WhatsApp and Messenger, are the new growth. They will have end-to-end encryption, which means no ads, at least in the messages themselves. “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services.” “In a few years, I expect future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network.”
  • End-to-end encryption means hate crime, pedophilia, drugs, criminality, etc are no longer Facebook’s problem. Facebook so happy. Whew! But why are they off the hook? Because the messages themselves will only be unencrypted on the end users phones. Nowhere in between. Facebook can’t read them, even with a police warrant. That said, Facebook will still cooperate with police, meaning for example they could still pass along the metadata (eg timestamps of when a message was sent). “We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our apps by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when we can’t see the content of the messages, and we will continue to invest in this work.”
  • Encrypted messaging is ephemeral, and will get automatically deleted after some time period. “set a new standard for private communication platforms — where content automatically expires or is archived over time…. For example, messages could be deleted after a month or a year by default.”

So what was not said? Answer: money! How will messaging make money without ads? Facebook itself prints money from ads. Instead, the default money making model for messaging is Line in Japan, and WeChat in China. These started as messaging apps but are now complete platforms with payments and mini-apps running inside them. So unless we hear otherwise, that’s the best guess on where Facebook wants to go. While that will be harder to pull off in the US, in many parts of the world Facebook is the internet, so their chances outside the US are higher than within.

Furthermore, as Antonio García Martínez showed in his excellent book Chaos Monkeys, Zuckerberg has always disdained grubbing money from ads. Yuck. Dirty. So dirty. Now Zuckerberg can finally funnel his Facebook ad money into the platform he’s always longed to become. The Microsoft of the social networking age. Skimming money off every platform payment transaction, as every good software monopoly’s heart truly desires.

I’d say the best write up on the topic is from Ben Thompson. Thompson points out that with Facebook proper still printing money, they can afford to subsidize their WhatsApp and Messenger play. This flips the privacy narrative. Making privacy a winner for Facebook. Short term it’s for PR. Long term it’s for (they hope) total social networking platform domination. Quote:

Why can Facebook deliver most of the value? Because they are still Facebook! They still have the core Facebook app, Instagram, ‘Like’-buttons scattered across the web — none of that is going away with this announcement. They can very much afford a privacy-centric messaging offering in a way that any would-be challenger could not. Privacy, it turns out, is a competitive advantage for Facebook, not the cudgel the company’s critics hoped it might be….

Relatedly, and most importantly, there needs to be much more appreciation for the anti-competitive trade-offs inherent in an absolutist approach to privacy. Facebook is doing what its fiercest critics supposedly want, and enhancing its competitive position as a result.

2. DNA tests on envelopes and shell casings. If you told me it was possible to track down criminals by picking up DNA from licked envelopes, I’d have paused, but nodded. And perhaps yes, even 100 year old envelopes, sure. Story here. But even though I know it’s a fast moving field, how about this: a lab is able to get “usable DNA off of about 30 percent of the casings it analyzes.” Those are shell casings. From bullets. So the criminal touches the bullets to load the gun, leaving trace DNA. Then shoots the gun, which expels spent shell casings at the crime scene. And 30% of those casings retain enough DNA to identify someone. Wow! Story is here.

3. Workism as substitute religion. Good piece from Derek Thompson on how work has now become a source of life meaning, as other social institutions like religion have fallen by the wayside. In particular this paragraph jumped out:

In 1980, the highest-earning men actually worked fewer hours per week than middle-class and low-income men, according to a survey by the Minneapolis Fed. But that’s changed. By 2005, the richest 10 percent of married men had the longest average workweek. In that same time, college-educated men reduced their leisure time more than any other group. Today, it is fair to say that elite American men have transformed themselves into the world’s premier workaholics, toiling longer hours than both poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in similarly rich countries.

As I mentioned on twitter, I was in high school in 1980. And yet the past is a foreign country. Even my own. I find it incredibly jarring and hard to believe the world used to be like that. A world where the rich goofed off, instead of flaunting their status and moral virtue through their elite workaholic hours. link to the piece

4. Small science teams are better, or…maybe not. Bloomberg: Small Groups and Individuals Are More Innovative Than Large Teams. And from Ed Yong at the Atlantic: Small Teams of Scientists Have Fresher Ideas. Both are good write ups of the paper. But then Sean Carroll pointed out “The causal factor doesn’t seem to be size of the collaboration, it’s receiving funding from top agencies!” And “Disruptive science is likely to seem speculative or wrongheaded at first, and agencies don’t like to go for that.” And hence “funding some long-shot ideas is more important than worrying about team size. We need a diversity of funders and approaches, and a willingness to let people chase occasional longshots.” Sean Carroll is right. A good catch, and good correction to the narrative. Diversity of science funding matters more, or at least as much, as team size.

5. Lithium Ion battery prices. The chart below makes me happy.

source: BloombergNEF

6. Our baby shark music future. People use voice interface to select music more than ever before. Hey Siri, play xxxx. Alexa, play yyyyy. But what are the second order effects on music songwriters and producers? Let’s see:

But Grainge, who has attracted many of the world’s most popular artists into his fold, has a little tip for songwriters and musicians who want people to stream their music through smart speakers. He uses the example of the timeless hit, perennially popular among the global toddler population, “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?” to explain that the title of a song must be front and center in a song’s lyrics.

“If you’ve got something that is a brand, is a soundtrack, is a song where the title is in the chorus and the melodies, we’re seeing really explosive data and activity,” he said. “That helps us in the creative process because it enables us, with the data and with consumption, to use the technology to say to the talent, you need to have something as basic as the song title […] in the chorus.”

In other words, baby shark. We’re talking baby shark.

I can’t recall where I saw it, but someone predicted a dance club in 2040 will play Baby Shark late at night, and all the cool kids will go wild as they recall their misspent kindergarten youth. Asking Alexa to play baby shark over and over and over. Truth.

And that’s all this time round. Thanks for reading.

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