How the Berlin Wall reminds me of Facebook Messenger

Screenshot 2014-08-21 09.52.01“Ask her!” the receptionist at the Feiniger Gallery in Quedlinburg told us in German, pointing towards a terrified junior colleague who was shaking her head profusely. They thought I wanted them to babysit my 11 month old daughter while my wife and I had a look around the gallery.

They were showing a photo exhibit of life in Berlin before the Wall came down. When your economic and political system is so bad you have to build a wall and guard it with guns to keep people from leaving, you might possibly have gotten something wrong. It’s far fetched, but this made me think of Facebook.

At the gallery everyone was relieved when I finally managed to make my self understandable. “Oh, I see! Of course you can take your pram into the gallery.”

The motherly lady who was in the gallery itself was easier to understand. “There was a ceremony here just the other day,” she said in German, “and I wondered what the occasion was.” Everyone seems to talk to you more when you have a baby in tow.

“Then I realized,” she continued smiling. “It was the 13th of August! When they raised the Wall! Imagine, it’s been so long since it came down I forget the anniversary!”

Facebook raised its own wall recently*. They’re forcing all of their users to download their Messengar mobile app by ripping the chat feature out of their main app. So if you have a message on Facebook you either have to download a separate app or wait until you’re home at your desktop to reply.

Facebook’s Messenger app was launched almost three years ago, in August 2011. Apparently, not enough people are using it. I removed it from my own phone after I first tried it out as I prefered the main app.

The Berlin Wall was a solution to a symptom, not the disease. The problem wasn’t that people were leaving East Germany, the problem was East Germany itself.

Facebook’s Messenger is a subpar version of WhatsApp. The problem wasn’t that people weren’t aware of the app, the problem was that the app itself wasn’t compelling enough to use. Facebook shouldn’t have given up on fixing the app rather than forcing its users to install it.


 

* Note: I’m not comparing nice people in Silicon Valley who I respect to nasty people in the DDR.

“I believe Google.” A Google Now story.

Flight delayed

I’m standing in a queue for a bakery in Stuttgart airport when there’s a buzzing in my pocket. I pick up my HTC Android phone, wondering whether it’s another Snapchat from a friend who was also on holiday, also sharing snaps incessantly.

It’s not a Snapchat. It’s a notification from Google Now. According to Google, my flight has been delayed. I pay for the sandwiches and check the departure screen. “On schedule”. I ask a nearby member of staff. He hasn’t heard anything.

“Google says our flight is delayed,” I say to my wife when I get back with our sandwiches, “but the screens aren’t saying anything.”

“I believe Google,” she answers.

Google keeps telling me news about Arsenal football club. “6-0, Chelsea – Arsenal” it notified me last year with clinical detachment. Thanks for the update. The match was yesterday. “It should be called Google Then”, I joked on Twitter.

About half an hour after Google told me about our flight, the departure screens were updated and an announcement was made in the speaker system. My wife was right. Google was right. I didn’t post a Google Then joke on Twitter that day.

Today I’m flying to Hanover on my way to Berlin. Google Now is already, without being asked, showing me information about my flight, what the weather is like at our first destination (Quedlinburg), and information about our first hotel. Spooky? A little. Especially because the NSA probably has a direct feed to all this information, which is farmed from my GMail account. Convenient? Very much so.

Next time, I’ll believe Google.

Orkut: When Google’s social network was bigger than Facebook

Screenshot 2014-06-30 19.17.58

Above is a screenshot of my Orkut profile page (that was my hairstyle in 2004). I have one friend on Orkut. Ever heard of it? I can’t blame you.

In 2004 Google decided they should launch a social network. That’s right, someone at Google saw the potential of social networks while Zuckerberg was still in his dorm room. It was the year Orkut was born.

I remember I was quite excited when a Brazilian colleague at British Telecom, where I was a researcher in a former life, added me as a friend on Orkut. It was invite only and everyone in the tech community was talking about it.

Orkut overtook Friendster before Facebook did

Common folklore says that Facebook killed Friendster. It didn’t really. Friendster just never reached the heights Facebook did. In fact, Orkut overtook Friendster long before Facebook did.

Screenshot 2014-06-30 18.38.49
2004-2005 search traffic for Friendster, Orkut and Facebook.

One year after Twitter’s famous SXSW breakthrough, Orkut was still much bigger

Twitter set the Texas conference ablaze in 2007 when the early adopters suddenly started Tweeting. But it wasn’t until late 2010 that Twitter got bigger than Orkut.

Screenshot 2014-06-30 18.01.46
Search traffic for Friendster, Orkut and Twitter from 2004 until now. Facebook is missing from the chart.

Facebook didn’t kill Friendster, it killed Orkut

Facebook overtook Orkut in 2007. Why am I still talking about Friendster?

Screenshot 2014-06-30 18.12.00
2006-2007 search traffic for Friendster, Orkut, Twitter and Facebook.

No one comes close to Facebook

And in case you were wondering, this is why you discovered this blog post on Facebook (well, most of you anyway).

Screenshot 2014-06-30 18.03.58
Search traffic for Friendster, Orkut, Twitter and Facebook from 2004 until today.

We’re big in Brazil

So why haven’t you heard of Orkut? Why is a Brazilian computer scientist my only friend on this social network success story? Because Orkut was huge in Brazil, and only in Brazil.

Screenshot 2014-07-01 08.53.00
Regional interest on Google for Orkut from 2004 to today.

If Orkut would have been an independent company, could they have expanded beyond Brazil? Should Google have used it as a jumping board onto greater things rather than start a new social network, Google+?

Either way it’s too late. As the top chart shows Orkut has now flatlined and Google is shutting it down. And I still only have the one friend on Google’s first social network.

Why Facebook is a Nordic success story – notes from the Nordic Digital Forum

nordicdigital
Brainstorming session at the Nordic Digital Forum. Photo courtesy of @eskeknudsen

Mark Zuckerberg builds Facebook from his dorm room and becomes a billionaire. It’s a typical American success story, right? Yes and no. Bear with me.

I had the pleasure of being invited to Copenhagen last Thursday to participate in the Nordic Digital Forum. Attending the forum was a collection of approximately one hundred entrepreneurs, technologists and policymakers invited to the Danish capital to brainstorm for one day on how the Nordic countries can work together to create fertile ground for tech companies to grow and prosper.

Among the speakers were Claus Meyer, co-founder of the world’s greatest restaurant, Noma (who is incredibly passionate about bread) and Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, founder of Podio (acquired by Citrix).

Madsen-Mygdal had a funny take on Facebook. From a business perspective it might be the typical American success story, but from a technological perspective it’s all about the Nordics.

Let’s look at the Facebook technology stack:

  • Operating system: Linux. Built by a crazy guy from Finland.
  • Database technology: MySql. Built by crazy people from Sweden.
  • Programming language: PHP. Built by a relatively sane person from Denmark.

Zuckerberg was able to build Facebook from his dorm room because he had access to a lot of heavy duty technology that didn’t cost him a dime to use. This technology was built by folks in the Nordics. Except they give it away as open source. The moral of the story is that the Nordics punch above their weight when it comes to contributions to technology. How about that for patting each other on the back?

Some of my takeaways from the conference were that the Nordics are passionate about healthcare and equality, topics I’ve never heard mentioned much in conferences like London’s Digital Shoreditch or elsewhere. The role of government was also discussed. Helga Waage voiced the opinion of many (including mine) nicely in one of the panels:

The relation between digital start ups and government is like curling – the government is the broom.

Finally, the Danes didn’t just contribute to Facebook’s technology stack, they’re also a world class culinary destination. And the food at the conference was no exception. Whether it was the humble sandwiches for lunch, the brownies served with the coffee or the three course meal in the evening, everything on offer solidified my opinion of the Danes as the greatest foodies on the planet.

Thanks for having me, everyone. The Nordic Digital Forum was well worth attending.

Borgarstjórar fortíðarinnar

Reykjavik mayors: Timeline

Nú þegar sveitastjórnarkosningarnar eru handan við hornið er áhugavert að horfa um öxl og skoða hverjir hafa setið í borgarstjórastólnum, hvenær og hversu lengi. Hingað til hafa borgarstjórarnir verið 21 talsins, þar af 11 sjálfstæðismenn, fjórir frá Samfylkingunni (og R-Listanum) tveir frá öðrum hægri flokkum, tveir óflokksbundnir (þeir tveir fyrstu), einn óháður sem var ráðinn af meirihluta Alþýðuflokksins, Alþýðubandalagsins og Framsóknarflokksins og einn grínisti.

Myndin hér að ofan sýnir svokallaða Gantt mynd sem sýnir hvenær borgarstjórarnir 21 voru við völd og hvenær á æviskeiði þeirra þeir sinntu starfinu. Takið eftir borgarstjórunum sex sem sátu á undan Jóni Gnarr, en enginn þeirra sat heilt kjörtímabil.

Myndin hér að neðan sýnir hversu lengi hver borgarstjóri sat við völd. Þrír borgarstjórar hafa setið lengur en tíu ár í embættinu, sjálfstæðismennirnir Gunnar Thoroddsen og Geir Hallgrímsson og Knud Zimsen sem var óflokksbundinn. Aðeins 11 af 21 sátu heilt kjörtímabil eða meira.

mayors-time-in-office

 

Do what I want, not what I say. Google does.

Google can sometimes be eerily powerful. In 2012 the courts here in the UK ruled that Internet Service Providers must block access to The Pirate Bay, the Swedish torrent site.

If you search Google for “pirate bay” (which you shouldn’t) the algorithm manages a rare feat in computing: It does what you want it to do, not what you tell it to do.

Google results for "piratebay"

Instead of showing the actual Pirate Bay site as the top result Google serves up “The Proxy Bay”, which is a list of sites that mirror the Pirate Bay in every detail under a different domain, thereby circumventing the block. So if I want to access the Pirate Bay (I don’t) the Google algorithm shows me the way.

Unsurprisingly, a few months after the ban the BBC reported that torrent downloading was back up to pre-ban levels.

Another unsurprising fact: Bing shows the Pirate Bay as the top result, not the Proxy Bay. It does what you tell it to do, not what you want it to do.

Bing results for "pirate bay"

Google 1 – Bing 0.

How to give bitcoins as a wedding anniversary present

Sif with Bitcoin
Sif showing off the 0.1 bitcoins I generously gave her on our wedding anniversary.

I’ve been impressing people with Bitcoin lately. Being the romantic that I am, I gave my wife 0.1 BTC as a wedding anniversary present back in June (see transaction). She assures me she was very impressed. In late November, I told my brother-in-law and business partner: “You bring the takeaway to my place and I’ll pay half with bitcoins”. He assures me he was also very impressed.

The reason you can still impress wives with Bitcoin (trust me) is that it isn’t mainstream yet. As much hype as there is about the new technology, getting your hands on the electric coins is anything but straight forward (unless you live in the US, where you can use Coinbase). And if you live in currency-controlled Iceland trading bitcoins for the hated Krona is probably down right illegal.

So how do you buy bitcoins?

First: Transfer your currency of choice to an exchange. In my case it was BitStamp, which meant I had to send US dollars via a bank transfer to BitStamp’s bank account in Slovenia.

 

how does bitcoin work 1

Second: Once the exchange has processed your deposit, which can take a few days, you have dollars in their account. Now you have to buy bitcoins. The easiest option is to make an “instant order” which means you buy bitcoins for the current market price. They might come from a single seller or multiple sellers, depending on how much you’re buying. You don’t need to worry about the technicalities though, the exchange does this for you. The Bitcoin exchange is simply a match maker that charges a fee for every transaction they process.

how does bitcoin work 2

Third: Now that you have your precious bitcoins, it’s best to transfer them to a wallet. I use Coinbase but other popular options include the Bitcoin client for Android and the Blockchain Wallet. Once you’ve transferred your coins to a wallet, you can start trying to impress people by sending them coins. Or you could just hold on to them, cross your fingers and hope the price takes another upwards swing.
how does bitcoin work 3

Finally, watch the price fluctuate wildly: The graph below shows the price of bitcoin in US dollars over the past year. My wedding anniversary present is becoming ever more generous while my brother-in-law lost out by accepting bitcoin as a payment for the takeaway, although I’m not sure he would have been better off with the Icelandic Krona. Not in the long run, anyway. But that’s a different story.

chart wedding anniversary

Detractors are in a mental rut because Bitcoin is stranger than fiction

Screenshot 2013-12-30 12.34.01

When the late Iain Banks, one of science fiction’s most imaginative writers, has his character sitting in a futuristic bar in an intergalactic space station in Consider Phlebas, published in 1987, what currency does he dream up for his protagonist to pay for a space cocktail? The Aoish credit.

The Aoish were a banker species, and the credits were their greatest invention. They were just about the only universally acceptable medium … [T]he Aoish guaranteed the conversion and never defaulted, and although the rate of exchange could sometimes vary … [the] value of the currency remained predictable enough for it to be a safe, secure hedge against uncertain times.

Before the arrival Bitcoin, even science fiction writers couldn’t imagine a currency that wasn’t underwritten by someone – even a super reliable, intergalactic “banker species” who probably speak some futuristic version of German.

What makes things worse is that Bitcoin isn’t tangible. As opposed to gold. Or as Paul Krugman puts it:

Gold, after all, has at least some real uses, e.g., to fill cavities; but now we’re burning up resources to create “virtual gold” that consists of nothing but strings of digits.

Ignoring the fact that gold hasn’t been in mainstream use to fill cavities since before Ronald Reagan became president, at least it’s tangible. Come the apocalypse, you can make jewelry out of it to peddle at a the local farmer’s market.

A functional currency must be able to do two things; store value and be a medium of exchange. Bitcoin is already a medium of exchange but in order for it to store value it needs to be more stable than it is today. But it doesn’t need to be backed by a government or be tangible. The post-apocalyptic dentist is just as much of a fantasy as the Aiosh credit.

What Bitcoin needs to become a functional currency are the same elements that underpin both the US Dollar and gold: Trust and liquidity. Both can come with time. With time comes maturity and with maturity will come stability. And by then, Bitcoin will indeed be a viable currency.

PISA maths score and democracy

PISA maths score vs democracy

The latest PISA scores are out and Scandinavia didn’t do well. Here in Iceland it’s all anyone talks about (at least for the current news cycle). Various opinions are being floated as to why we did so poorly, ranging from austerity to culture.

One opinion floated recently was that the countries that improved the most in the most recent PISA tests tend to be non-democratic. So maybe we don’t need to worry at all. Maybe we’re suffering at the PISA tests because the tests somehow favour authoritarian education systems.

The above plot, which shows various countries’ PISA maths scores plotted against the Economist’s Democracy Index disproves this theory. Undemocratic countries that do well in the PISA tests seem to be outliers rather than representing a trend. If anything, the trend seems to be the other way around, with countries scoring high on the Economist’s Democracy Index also doing well at the PISA math test.

Predicting Bitcoin’s failure

Bitcoin is doomed to fail, Edward Hadas writes in the New York Times today (A Prediction: Bitcoin Is Doomed to Fail). He writes (emphasis is mine):

the monetary philosophy behind this web-based phenomenon can be traced back to one of the oldest theories of money.

I get the same shiver down my spine when someone says Bitcoin is web-based as I get when someone says Tim Berners-Lee invented the Internet.

Note to pundits: Bitcoin is Internet based. Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web. The two are not the same thing.

Bitcoin may fail and it may succeed and the author may well have a point. But I am tempted to disregard any predictions about Bitcoin from someone who doesn’t get that basic fact right.