Alberto's weekly email: The electricity metaphor, online tracking and more! 🚀

Hi All,

What I am reading 📚

I am still going through my backlog of saved links, articles, videos, podcasts, etc. There are so many interesting things happening that it is hard to keep up with the pace. I try to slow down and really sift through the noise.

A good rule of thumb is to save interesting links and only attempt to go through them after a few days. If you find them still interesting then take the time to go through them. Otherwise, discard them. If they remain relevant they will re-appear in one of your feeds (Twitter, Instagram, email, etc.) at some point.

Here are the most interesting links I uncovered last week:

  • The electricity metaphor. This is a Ted Talk by Jeff Bezos (I wrote about him in a previous email). In it, he compares the Internet with electricity and why he was bullish on the Web. What amazed me was that the talk was recorded in 2003, so just after the dot-com crash. Already back then he had a very long-term vision of his projects.

  • Most major cities are now filled with scooters and bikes that you can rent from your phone. This analysis done by McKinsey goes deep into the subject:

    Cities must make the trade-off between potentially cannibalizing car-based mobility and providing first- or last-mile solutions in combination with public transit, on the one hand, and the safety issues and pollution caused by damaged or otherwise unsafe micromobility vehicles, on the other

  • An angry shareholder wrote a letter to Twitter’s CEO who decided to move to Africa for about 6 months next year. I’m a big fan of remote work but Twitter’s numbers are not precisely good these days and a remote CEO might not be what it needs:

    Twitter has, on every metric, underperformed peers for several years. Since Mr. Dorsey’s return to the firm in July 2015, shareholder return is –15%, vs. Google +153%, Facebook +129%, the S&P 500 +50%, Dow Jones U.S. Media Index +29%, and MSCI tech index +115%.

  • Dr. Peter Attia wrote a new post discussing the potential benefits of doing static apnea while fasted. I found the relation compelling but I am not convinced that the benefits apply to dynamic apnea —holding your breath while moving— as the body uses more energy and oxygen in the process. I hope there were more studies in this area!

Nerd Corner 🤓

The Electronic Frontier Foundation published a very long and technical article about how companies track our lives both on- and off-line and are able to create a very accurate picture of us. They call these tools a “one-way mirror”:

Corporations have built a hall of one-way mirrors: from the inside, you can see only apps, web pages, ads, and yourself reflected by social media. But in the shadows behind the glass, trackers quietly take notes on nearly everything you do. These trackers are not omniscient, but they are widespread and indiscriminate. The data they collect and derive is not perfect, but it is nevertheless extremely sensitive.

One surprising thing is that for a company to build a very accurate profile of a person, it doesn’t need to collect information from a very varied set of sources. There’s some sort of 80/20 principle here since it is enough for them to just capture a big amount of data from a few sources:

The most prevalent threat to our privacy is the slow, steady, relentless accumulation of relatively mundane data points about how we live our lives. This includes things like browsing history, app usage, purchases, and geolocation data. These humble parts can be combined into an exceptionally revealing whole. Trackers assemble data about our clicks, impressions, taps, and movement into sprawling behavioral profiles, which can reveal political affiliation, religious belief, sexual identity and activity, race and ethnicity, education level, income bracket, purchasing habits, and physical and mental health.

This reminded me of Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The article also enlightened me on a few practices that seem dubious and touch on the unethical.

First, the are the so-called “conversion pixels”:

On the web, a significant portion of tracking happens via invisible, 1-pixel-by-1-pixel “images” that exist only to trigger requests to the trackers. These “tracking pixels” are used by many of the most prolific data collectors on the web, including Google Analytics, Facebook, Amazon, and DoubleVerify.

Second, there is a new version of CAPTCHAS. The new system records the user’s interactions on a website and sends that data to Google for analysis to guess if the user is human. From an engineering point of view, this is fascinating but with this tool, Google is also able to build a digital fingerprint of the user 😲.

In addition to making things more convenient for users, this newer system benefits Google in two ways. First, it makes CAPTCHAS invisible to most users, which may make them less aware that Google (or anyone) is collecting data about them. Second, it leverages Google’s huge set of behavioral data to cement its dominance in the CAPTCHA market, and ensures that any future competitors will need their own tranches of interaction data in order to build tools that work in a similar way

One thing that intrigued me was that the article focuses mostly on practices by Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Apple is not mentioned too much. While Apple has less to gain from tracking users —its main business is not selling ads— I am fairly sure they also benefit from behavior tracking, especially in their App Store.

Finally, if you are concerned about your online data, you can do something about it:

  • Change your default Search Engine from Google to DuckDuckGo. I made the switch a few years ago and never looked back.

  • If you use Chrome try changing to other browsers like Brave or Firefox.

  • Install a “Do Not Track” extension in your browser. The Privacy Badger from EFF is a good choice for this.

Also interesting 🤯

  • A reader of these emails suggested me to have a look at this blog and in particular, an article about career advice. I haven’t had the chance to yet go over them but I definitely added them to my list already! 🤩

  • This video traces the history of AI from our time all the way to Aristotle.

  • I recently found out about Orthotropics a dentistry practice that, in contrast to Orthodontics, doesn’t focus on intervention (through teeth extraction, braces, etc.) but attempts to treat many facial, teeth and even respiratory issues (like sleep apnea) with more holistic approaches. I can’t vouch for the science behind it, but I am always curious when scientists challenge the status quo. This lecture by Dr. Mike Dew, one of the pioneers in the field, provides a very compelling introduction.

Before you go 😎

The year is fast approaching to its end. Take the time to look back, appreciate what you have accomplished and recharge for 2020!

Until next week!

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