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Monday, January 30, 2012

Managing your virtual social world trail

By staying signed in on Google and performing search and accessing websites, a user leaves a digital trail behind. This trail is used by many companies to create a user profile. Richer user behavior profiles are very useful to advertisers as they can put personalized ads on websites you view.

There are some simple ways to stop this. The methods explained below will only work for advertisers who are part of Network Advertising Initiative and follows the industry privacy standards for online advertising.

Note: Before following the steps described below, ensure that you are signed in.


1. Visit ads on the web. If you do not like Google 'Make the ads you see on the web more interesting', click on 'Opt Out'.

2. Visit ads preference. This is the profile Google created for you based on your search and browse history. Google even guessed your age and gender. You can delete all the information from here and 'Opt Out'.

You can also download the Advertising cookie opt-out plugin to permanently block personalized ads.

Other advertisers

1. Visit NAI. Using their online tool, you can examine your computer to identify those member companies that have placed an advertising cookie file on your computer. Don't be surprised to see 50 or more cookies from different advertisers. Now, did you know that? You can 'Select All' and 'Submit' the form to clear all the cookies.

2. Visit Aboutads. Again, you can 'opt-out' of ad network.


1. Visit Account Settings. Click on 'Apps' tab. Delete all infrequently used apps.  For the remaining apps, set the appropriate privacy level by clicking on 'Edit'. e.g., if you use 'Washington social post reader', by default, all posts and activity from this app are visible on Facebook. Do disable this, select 'Only Me' in privacy settings.


Orkut was once very popular in India. If you do not use it anymore and switched camps, then you are not alone. But your profile, scraps, photos etc are still public. To delete your orkut account, visit this link.

If you would like to share more privacy tips, please leave a comment.

Also read: The Internet, social media and privacy.

The Internet, Social Media and Privacy

Very recently, Google signaled its intent to begin correlating data about its users' activities across all of its most popular services and across multiple devices. The goal: to deliver those richer behavior profiles to advertisers.

Likewise, Facebook announced it will soon make Timeline - the new, glitzier user interface for its service - mandatory. Timeline is designed to chronologically assemble, automatically display and make globally accessible the preferences, acquaintances and activities for most of Facebook's 800 million members.

Combined with the addition last week of some 60 apps specifically written for Timeline, consumers can provide a detailed account, often in real time, of the music they listen to, what they eat, where they shop - even where they jog.

The driver: advertising revenue. What this tells us is that there is a lot of money at stake here. The global on-line advertising market is expected to swell to $132 billion by 2015, up from $80 billion this year, according to eMarketer. As such, it is too dangerous for 2 companies to have so much personal data. What this also tells us that there is a significant shift in the way we interact with the Internet and social networks or 'publics' in general terms, today.We are in the middle of three trends.

1. From Anonymity to Real identity

Social media has become a part of our daily lives. The things we do on social networking websites and mobile devices is increasingly about who we are.

2. From wisdom of crowd to wisdom of friends

Earlier, the Internet gave you the information in an anonymity way or the information was not personalized for you. But these days, we are more influenced by the wisdom of our friends that the wisdom of the crowd.

3. From being receivers to broadcasters

Going back in time, one had to be rich or powerful or famous in order to have a voice. But now, the power of being a broadcaster is with everyone.

How do these trends affects us? As with most changes, this freely available freedom of expression has its goods and bads.

The Internet and the social media has given us a powerful tool to speak out and be heard. Information is personalized and quickly available. Reaching out to unknown people is simple and quick. Collaborating and sharing ideas has never been so easy.

But more disquieting are the negatives. What is shocking is that some are not even aware of it. Those who are aware of it choose to silently ignore it. Some create barriers, requiring effort to understand the published information but still go on to publish. Importantly, once the information is published, regardless of our expectations, it is available and mostly remains that way. Thus, publishing personal information has become our second nature. Teenagers are most vulnerable to negative efforts of social networking.

These social networks (and malicious softwares, ISPs etc) keep track of all interactions used on their sites and save them for later use.  It is now possible to reconstruct a persons life without paying a dime or hiring a detective agency. Apps like Timeline is all you need.

A complete user profile can be created and sold to advertisers. Richer personal details are very beneficial to identity thieves and cyberspies, as well as to parties motivated to use such data unfairly against consumers, such as insurance companies, prospective employers, political campaigners and, lately, hacktivists.

With the advent of social networking website or 'publics' in general, we have become more uninhibited and often let others know more than what is really required. Mature users practice self-governance but a fair percentage of users do not. "I just checked into a restaurant!" - Well good for you, but did you ever think about a possible security threat?

“The Breakup Notifier” is another example of a Facebook “cyberstalking” app that has recently been taken down. Essentially, the application notifies users when a person breaks up with their partner through Facebook, allowing users to instantly become aware of their friend's romantic activities. Thousands had used the app within 36 hours of it's launch.

Facebook recently made sharing even easier by automatically sharing what you're doing on Facebook-connected apps. Instead of having to “Like” something to share it, you'll just need to click “Add to Timeline” on any website or app, and that app will have permission to share your activity with your Facebook friends. What activity, you may ask? It could be the news articles you read online, the videos you watch, the photos you view, the music you listen to, or any other action within the site or app. Facebook calls this auto-sharing “Gestures.” Be careful for it may cause you embarrassment.

In the web usage mining parlance, these companies are already using Clickstream for marketing (by cloaking it under the term 'relevant content') but now they are openly publishing this data for everyone to see. And thats called killing two birds with one stone.

The commonly used phrase 'Your reputation precedes you'. Knowing someone and forming opinions has become quicker.

Well, one thing is for sure and that is we will be served with relevant advertisements soon!
[For those who don't know, in September of 2003, adjacent to a New York Post article about a gruesome murder in which the victim’s body parts were stashed in a suitcase, Google listed an ad for suitcases.Since that incident, Google has improved its filters and automatically pulls ads from pages with disturbing content.]

Also read: Managing your virtual social world trail.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Suffering-Oriented Programming

While exploring the Flume architecture, I came across a presentation called 'Become Efficient or Die: The Story of BackType' that coined a new term - 'suffering-oriented programming'. It is a simple concept which means:
  • Don’t add process until you feel the pain of not having it.
  • Don’t build new technology until you feel the pain of not having it.
  • First make it possible. Then, make it beautiful. Then, make it fast.
Growing from 2 people to 3 people.

Other interesting points from the presentation:

Over-engineering = Attempting to create beautiful software without a thorough understanding of the problem domain.
Premature optimization = Optimizing before creating “beautiful” design, creating unnecessary complexity.
Refactoring and reducing technical debt = Garbage collection for the code base.

Technical debt:
  • W needs to be refactored
  • X deploy should be faster
  • Y needs more unit tests
  • Z needs more documentation
Such issues are never high priority to work on, but they build up and slow you down.

The presentation is available here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The changing nature of Capitalism

We love our iPhones and iPads.

And that's why it's disconcerting to remember that the low prices of our iPhones and iPads - and the super-high profit margins of Apple - are only possible because our iPhones and iPads are made with labor practices that are that would be illegal in the United States.

The manufacturing processes of Apple and other electronics companies have come into sharp focus of late, with the revelation of details about how difficult life is for the Chinese workers who make the world's gadgets.

Here are some details:
  • Foxconn, one of the companies that builds iPhones and iPads (and products for many other electronics companies), has a factory in Shenzhen that employs 430,000 people.
  • According to estimates, about 5% of the workers are underage.
  • The official work day in China is 8 hours long, but the standard shift is 12 hours. Generally, these shifts extend to 14-16 hours, especially when there's a hot new gadget to build. 
  • The workers stay in dormitories. There are 15 beds, stacked like drawers up to the ceiling in a 12-by-12 cement cubic room.
The workers are paid ~$1 per hour or less. Manufacturing an iPhone in the United States would cost about $65 more than manufacturing it in China, where it costs an estimated $8. This additional $65 would dent the profit Apple makes on each iPhone, but it wouldn't eliminate it. (The iPhone average selling price is about $600, and Apple's average gross margin is about 40%. So Apple's gross profit on each iPhone is probably in the neighborhood of $250.)

But the reason Apple makes iPhones and iPads in China, is not just about money. The real reasons Apple makes iPhones in China are as follows:
  • Most of the components of iPhones and iPads - the supply chain - are now manufactured in China, so assembling the phones half-a-world away would create huge logistical challenges. It would also reduce flexibility - the ability to switch easily from one component supplier or manufacturer to another.
  • China's factories are now far bigger and more nimble than those in the United States. They can hire (and fire) tens of thousands of workers practically overnight. Because so many of the workers live on-site, they can also press them into service at a moment's notice. And they can change production practices and speeds extremely rapidly.
  • China now has a far bigger supply of appropriately-qualified engineers than the U.S. does - folks with the technical skills necessary to build complex gadgets but not so credentialed that they cost too much.
  • And, lastly, China's workforce is much hungrier and more frugal than many of their counterparts in the United States.

Marx made it clear that capitalism could not exist unless the worker produced a value greater than his or her own subsistence requirements. If a day's labor was required in order to keep a worker alive for a day, capital could not exist, for the day's labor would be exchanged for its own product, and capital would not be able to function as capital and consequently could not survive - If, however, a mere half-day's labor is enough to keep a worker alive during a whole day's labor, then surplus value results automatically

This surplus value does not arise in exchange, but in production. Thus the aim of production, from the capitalist's standpoint, is to get surplus value out of each worker. This is what Marx meant by the "exploitation of labor." Exploitation exists because the extra value contributed by labor is expropriated by the capitalist. Surplus value arises not because the worker is paid less than he is worth but because he produces more than he is worth.

Karl Marx was right in claiming that globalization, unfettered financial capitalism, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital, could lead capitalism to self-destruct. As he argued, unregulated capitalism can lead to regular bouts of over-capacity, under-consumption and the recurrence of destructive financial crises, fueled by credit bubbles and asset-price booms and busts.

Marx argued capitalism had an internal contradiction that would cyclically lead to crises, and that contradiction - at minimum - would place intense pressure on the economic system.

The  "exploitation of labor" has effectively moved from US to China, the extent of which differs though. And it would move to another country after China. The class struggle has also begun. High unemployment and stagnant wager, according to economist Nouriel "Dr. Doom" Roubini, was triggered by the failure of laissez-faire, unregulated capitalism and free markets.

Companies are motivated to minimize costs, save money, and stockpile cash, but this leads to less money in the hands of employees, which means they have less money to spend and flow back to companies, thereby weakening the capitalist system.

The bottom line is that iPhones and iPads cost what they do because they are built using labor practices that would be illegal in this country - because people in this country consider those practices grossly unfair.

That's not a value judgment. It's a fact.

So, next time you pick up your iPhone or iPad, ask yourself how you feel about that.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Better world in 2012 and beyond...

There are reasons to believe in a better world.

A beautifully made video with moving lyrics.

It is very easy to look at the TV news and the newspapers and be quite depressed about where humanity is heading. Taking the whole advert into consideration, I think the general message is that "yes, there are many reasons to be fearful about the future, but there are even more reasons to be hopeful for the future". Hope is powerful idea – without hope, there is no reason for us to try and make amendments.

I think the overall message is best captured in one particular juxtaposition in the advert – people are still forming relationships and having children even though the media are reporting that things will get worse.

Let us start this new year with hope and goodness. Wish you all a very Happy New Year 2012!