Information overload and an overly social web — the end of an experiment

That the internet is an integral part of our lives is no surprise: it is simply a step up from the type and ease of access of information that was affordable in the last century — such as bookstores and well-catalogued libraries. Why social media and networks have become an integral part of our lives, though, is a more pressing issue and a question most people are afraid to ask themselves.

A little over one year ago I asked myself this question and wanted to find out the answer. Nobody had one that was satisfying enough to me and — nearly fourteen months later, the answer I have is fair enough on a personal level but still hazy to some extent when generalised. What I found out along the way, and the potential long-term benefit it would have, was certainly worth the time I spent on it. I first wrote about this in August of 2015 (see Marginalia) asking myself — and everyone else by extension — how many social networks we are on and why. However, this was probably not a knee-jerk thought and could, on some subconscious level, have been prompted by the fact that, at the time, I was reading William Powers’s book, Hamlet’s Blackberry. Indeed my previous two quotations scribbled on Marginalia were from that book.

Note that, hereon, we use the terms “social networks”, “social web”, and “social media” interchangeably. They are all in reference to that part of the web which encourages you to create your profile, share personal and general information, your work or life or travel and so on, connect with known and unknown people and which enable you to stay connected all day long if you choose to. Continue reading

Why the AT&T–TimeWarner deal should be blocked

The recent news about AT&T planning to buy TimeWarner in an over–80 billion dollar deal should worry everyone even remotely concerned with net neutrality. Why more people are not talking about this is a mystery to me. There is no doubt that, at this point, anything I say regarding this is conjecture, but a careful study of the past debates on net neutrality and AT&T’s core interests leaves little to the imagination.

TimeWarner is a big company. They own HBO, part of Hulu, TNT, DC comics (and such characters as Batman), Cartoon Network, CNN and more. In other words, they own a lot of the content that people around the world consume heavily on a daily basis. Through them creators can talk to the public. And until now, AT&T, not unlike Deutsche Telekom or Vodafone or T-mobile or whatever else, was a carrier that delivered data across a network to users.

The net neutrality debate was partly about whether carriers could charge content creators a premium to deliver their content on priority — such as faster, in better quality etc. — and they rightly lost their cause because the public agreed that all creators should have an equal chance of reaching their audience and that nobody should be able to reach the crowd faster just because they had more money to throw around.

To content creators, this meant justice prevailed and the work done by an indie studio would reach an audience no differently from that done by a big studio such as Warner Brothers — which, by the way, is also owned by TimeWarner. Continue reading

iPhone 7

When Apple announced their new iPhones 7 this year, a few things were quite apparent to most of us. Leaks prior to launch — whether accidental or the result of subtle, indirect marketing — are often close to the final product, which meant we knew there would not be a headphone jack, we knew the design was similar to the iPhones 6 and 6S, we knew the Plus model would boast a dual camera setup, and we knew the changes would all be internal. Further, we knew that the dramatic iPhone hardware upgrade would come next year for good reason (2017 marks the tenth anniversary of iPhone) and while we still may be wrong or have unrealistic expectations about next year’s release, some were disappointed or took to Twitter to criticise Apple, comparing it to the Android market: we did not have a radical new design or seemingly futuristic technology, but to expect any of those and complain about it would be missing the point of iPhones entirely.

The Plus model this year is great as always, but for everyday use, having spent years with “phablets” including the Note series and the 6 Plus, I have found the size too unweildy and the compactness and one-handed usability of the 4.7in models feels just right. Which is why I bought the iPhone 7 this year to replace my 6S. I bought the black because I like the stealth look as opposed to the jet black — which I also spent time with and I can definitively state that the internet is blowing the scratches out of proportion: a few days of regular use of the jet black (without a case or screen protector) covered it with fingerprints but there were no scratches and if there were, I certainly could not see any, and that says a lot. Continue reading

Moleskine Timepage

For about sixteen months or so, Moleskine’s iPhone app, Timepage has been my faithful calendar and weather book and I have had nothing but praise for it. However, I have never found the time to put my thoughts in writing, although I did talk about this in my interview with the Sweet Setup. Now, the Australian company, Bonobo, which makes Timepage for Moleskine, released an iPad version of the app, and I thought it was about time I penned my thoughts on Moleskine’s new calendar ecosystem.

I have never been a fan of replacing every single stock app on my device. I have been quite vocal about this several times in the past: if I have to use a third-party app, it needs to fall into one of two categories — either do something no stock app does, or do something a stock app does but better. Not just differently, but better. And it speaks volumes when I say Timepage is one of the first apps I download. It is, quite simply, a cut above the rest.

While most calendar apps are built around the month view, with a seven-by-four/five grid of dates, Timepage approaches this from the schedule view. At first, this may seem unorthodox to some, perhaps even a jarring diversion from the norm, but it works beautifully. If I remember right, the app (finally gave into users’ demand and) added a month view a few versions after release. However, the schedule view struck a chord with me immediately and is one of the biggest draws of Timepage for me. Continue reading

What is next for Donald Trump after he loses this election?

Many polls are, of late, predicting Donald Trump’s loss in the upcoming American presidential election. Stories that can tarnish Mr Trump’s image seem to be coming out promptly, day after day, with each hurting his campaign more than the last. And in the midst of all this, nobody seems to be asking what happens to the Trump train after mid-November.

Mr Trump undoubtedly had a lot riding on this election and probably always expected to win it — and probably still does. He has made damning statements, been faced with exposés that would have brought any other candidate to their knees, and yet he has stayed on for one good reason: the support of the GOP, and the choice of a fairly large group of voters. Once the election results are out and if the Democrats win, Mr Trump will most likely lose support from one and the support of the others will likely not matter anymore.

The Republicans back Mr Trump simply because he is the only way they can form the government. This is a poor decision: Mr Trump has had his way with the GOP ever since he announced his candidacy to the point where they have bent to his every demand and he has even gone out of line with the GOP’s core beliefs. It is extremely likely that he will continue to try to do that even after becoming president. At this point the conspiracy theorist in me is willing to believe he could even be a puppet placed in the GOP by scheming Democrats. Continue reading

On man: the animal kingdom

The one peculiarity man often prides himself of is that he is a “superior being”. He is on top of the food chain, he can think rationally, he can grab things with opposable thumbs, and he can light fires that even he sometimes cannot put out. It must be noted here that, one, these are all devoid of meaning when taken out of context — which is often the preferred way of taking them — and, two, that these are domains man created himself.

Previous observations have shown, however, that all species harbour similar sentiments. Elephants, for example, pride themselves of being at the top of what they call the “stomp chain”, all thanks to four cylinders attached to their galley. In much the same way, dogs pride themselves of being able to think most intuitively, parrots of being able to imitate just about everyone, penguins of being the best butlers on earth, rhinoceros of being able to put out any fire — even fires man lights up from time to time for no apparent reason.

This piece of satire is in continuation with a group of essays (see, for example, the one on education or the one on competition) that were once written, years ago, as a part of the reports an alien race would make if they landed, rather stealthily, on our glorious planet and began observing humans today.

It is worthwhile, based on previous experience, to look at things from more than one perspectives. Rhinos often view humans as fire breathers, much like humans view dragons. Continue reading

Supergirl deserves a better show

The CW’s television series, Supergirl, is unequivocally bad. This was a show that I really wanted to like, being a fan of the DC universe (which is already plagued by films that do it no justice), but after watching the first season the show just comes off as a statement for political correctness — for having a female superhero in a male-dominated superhero world — and as for the wonderful, promising comic book universe of Supergirl itself, the whole series just falls flat on its face.

Halfway through the season it dawned on me that if Supergirl receives a reboot it should only be to ensure that female superheroes exist at all. By contrast, Wonder Woman in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman was simply excellent and the upcoming solo film is something I look forward to with high hopes. This is particularly bad because Supergirl is a missed opportunity: the show could have been so much more alongside Arrow, The Flash and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and it should have learnt a thing of two from their successes — at least from The Flash, with which Supergirl even had a crossover.

Nothing to do with feminism

I will say this openly: it seems to me there are a lot of people holding back criticism of Supergirl for fear of their opinion being misinterpreted as an attack against feminism; that pointing at flaws in Supergirl would be as if they were doing it just because it has a female lead superhero. Continue reading

Of music and memories

Music is something that has always been with humans for a considerably long time. Everyone listens to music every now and then, each of us have different tastes, but we all have “our” songs. But I have always noticed something interesting about my own patterns of listening to music, and the effects of this, which I think everyone experiences too even if, at times, they tend not to notice it.

Whenever I start to listen to some song, about one in one hundred manage it to my playlist of all-time favourites — songs I will listen to at any time, any day etc. The eternal greats, even if only by personal opinion. The rest have a sort of shelf life of a few weeks. The pattern is quite clear: one set of songs — the size of the set itself varies — is played over and over again, either in order or shuffled, but they play repeatedly.

Ever so slowly a new song or two makes its way into this set and a few get relegated. This is not chronological; it is perhaps as a result of subconscious likes and dislikes that some songs get selected while others are simply left behind even though some are still part of my playlist. Over time, the entire set has been replaced by a new set that trickled in one song at a time over a couple of months or so and maybe, just maybe, one of them made it to my all-time favourites playlist. Continue reading

“The economy is not an abstraction”, writes Barack Obama for The Economist

I was pleasantly surprised to find a notification this evening saying (and I paraphrase) that in a guest essay for The Economist, Barack Obama writes about four crucial areas of unfinished business in economic policy that the next president of America will have to take up. When the next president could — however slim his chance of winning — be a racist, flippant, populist who condones violence, disses treaties and globalisation, possibly sides with white supremacists, and feeds on the authoritarian side of the masses, it becomes that much more important to hear what Mr Obama has to say — and seriously consider following or bettering it. But if Donald Trump does enter the White House, he will likely make it a point to categorically oppose every point the outgoing president deems important, if only for the sake of opposing it.

The world is more prosperous than ever before and yet our societies are marked by uncertainty and unease. So we have a choice—retreat into old, closed-off economies or press forward, acknowledging the inequality that can come with globalisation while committing ourselves to making the global economy work better for all people, not just those at the top.

I would hate to spoil the entire article for you, so I will keep my own comments to just one, perhaps trivial, point that I nonetheless found interesting. In the above extract from the article, Mr Obama suggests that we “acknowledge the inequality” and try to make “the global economy work better” for everyone. Continue reading

To be more productive, know your devices better

There is a common tendency, when people talk about productivity, to look at it like it is entirely two-dimensional. A lot of discussions boil down to asking ourselves what distractions we need to eliminate and how we can keep things organised. In today’s fast-paced world, where every second task is assigned to one of our many gadgets, these two questions are undoubtedly central to staying productive, but we consistently forget to ask ourselves a third, equally important question: how well do we know our gadgets?

I am by no means an expert on productivity. My entire approach to getting things done is a savage “get started, then see it through to the end” method — if you can call it that. I never understood the whole Getting Things Done (GTD) movement and still have only a weak grasp on it. In fact the only helpful thing I took away from it was the concept of an inbox; the idea is to first note down what is on your mind in a general-purpose area and later sit down, categorise and re-consider them, and not categorise things as you write them down. This has been helpful because the task of noting down itself gets out of the way. But GTD has many hacks, a lot of which work for individual circumstances and environments, and to come up with which you need to understand GTD inside-out.

A lot of people still take notes on little post-it markers. An increasing number of them have been going digital — or semi-digital as I like to say, such as with a post-it and Evernote workflow — and a lot of reminders are taken down in dedicated reminder apps. Continue reading

New gamma-ray binary in the LMC: the brightest stars you cannot see

In a paper published around the end of last month in The Astrophysical Journal, Corbet et al. talk about a new gamma-ray binary found in the Large Magellanic Cloud. (The paper is also available on ArXiv if you like.) The interesting thing about this is that the binary system in question, LMC P3, was a previously known X-ray emitter. Examination of Fermi LAT data from 2008–2016 has helped re-classify it as a gamma-ray emitter since most of the energy it has been emitting is in the gamma-ray region.

A High Mass X-ray Binary (HMXB) is a system of two stars in orbit around each other — but often with the less denser of the two orbiting the other — at least one of which is either a neutron star or black hole. This results in an accretion disc forming around the denser star as it pulls mass and gasses from its younger “partner” in the form of a magnificent stellar wind, slowly and methodically disintegrating the youngster. The accretion disc heats up and like any object that heats up (even here on earth), it starts to emit electromagnetic radiation. The catch here is that the energy being radiated out is so “hot” — of high frequency, really — that most of it is in the gamma-ray end of the spectrum.

My own research has led me to the LMC, where we know that at least thirteen RCB stars exist, but that is discussion for another day. The existence of gamma-ray binaries such as this newly discovered one make the LMC an extremely interesting place. Continue reading

A minimal Mac setup

Having a minimal Mac setup has always been one of my priorities. This simple idea of keeping things minimal, especially visually, can go a long way in making one’s computer usage targeted, simple, productive and considerably more enjoyable. As Pat Dryburgh once spoke for the now defunct website, Minimal Mac, aiming for minimalism is not about simply removing things: “Minimalism is a means to an end. The end is the opportunity to really enjoy using your Mac.” (If you have time, spend some time on Minimal Mac — you will not regret it.)

All this is not to say “removing things” is not a big part of getting the minimal Mac experience. It certainly is, but think of it as the start and understand that it is important to maintain your system that way for an unparalleled experience. While my main machine is a 15in retina MacBook Pro from late 2013 and my second machine is a gorgeous 13in MacBook Air, this approach should work across operating systems and hardware. Some specific steps may not, but there are usually somewhat similar things available on Windows, Linux etc.

Start at your desktop. This is where you step into your computer. And our aim here is to ensure nothing distracts you; there should be no clutter, no files trying to draw your attention, nothing that will detract you from doing the work you came here to do. On a philosophical level, this gives a good idea of how minimalism tries to enable productivity. Continue reading