Understanding new non-money uses for blockchain

When it comes to thinking about blockchains, most of us automatically go to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and Ethereum and think about money. How much are these currencies worth in US dollars? How much value have they gained or lost recently? It took two financially-related but non-monetary examples that I heard about recently to convince me that I was looking at the wrong part of the elephant.

Before I tell you about how I came to this insight I want to talk about the money part of blockchain first. I recently read Dan Conway’s new memoir, Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire. The book is now out, and I would urge you to get a copy and read it. Unlike many business books that quickly run out of ideas and out of steam after the first chapter, Conway’s tale about how he became an early investor in Ether is both a cautionary and celebratory one. You can read my review of his book here, along with some insights from the email conversation we have had over its launch. From these emails, Conway told me about an experiment by the UN with an Indian local land registry in Panchkula. The issue is trying to identify the rightful owner of a plot of land, particularly in the developing world where paper records are scarce or misfiled. The UN has built a registry based on Ethereum smart contracts to create a single source of truth of ownership status and property history. The buyer will be assured that the land being bought is the correct plot, and that the seller is unequivocally its owner. Everyone can see in near real time who owns what, improving accuracy and transparency. The system doesn’t require computer access or Ether wallets and works in the background to support land transactions. Similar projects are underway in title registries the States and in other countries too.

Blockchain technology is being used in another interesting project as part of a new protocol from Kiva.org. I have been loaning money to various developing world entrepreneurs for a decade through this organization which funds millions of dollar-equivalents of such loans. I wrote about Kiva here in 2009 and since then have been active using their platform. Over the years I have funded 54 different people in more than 30 countries and loaned $1400. This was done with a very modest amount of “new money” because I very determinedly loan my funds when the original loans have been paid back. And what is interesting is almost all my loans have been paid back, with less than $30 lost from defaults, although some loans are paid in full but late. The way Kiva works, once you collect at least $25 back from your loan recipients, you can relend it to someone else.

Last year Kiva announced the creation of its own blockchain-based protocol, and last week announced its implementation in Sierra Leone. It will be available to the about 5M adults living there to use as an identity management device, based on their fingerprints to authenticate each person in financial transactions. One of the problems with many unbanked people is that there is no easy mechanism to verify someone who has no credit score, no previous financial history, no anything that you and I would consider part of our financial footprint. That is where the Kiva protocol comes into play. Whether it will work in Sierra Leone – or anywhere else – is still to be seen, but it is an interesting proof of concept. (I have yet to make a loan to anyone there, but you can be sure that I will look for someone to sponsor at the next opportunity.)

Being based on blockchain means there is no central repository of fingerprints that can be downloaded – they are stored in a distributed database that is created individually by each person. That was a hard concept for me to wrap my head around for some reason, but it makes sense when you think about it. It could be possible to decode each transaction to obtain a single fingerprint scan, but whether this could be done on a large enough scale would be difficult. Certainly, it would be a lot harder than just accessing an unprotected AWS S3 database, for example.

We are still in the brave new world of blockchain, to be sure. Expect to see other innovative ways to use identity and distributed databases in the future that have nothing to do with the bitcoin exchange rate. We certainly live in exciting times.

Review of “Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire”

You probably have read your fill of business books. Author tries to make it big, leverages tons of his money and time, hires the wrong people, fires them, then goes it alone before striking it rich and motoring off into the sunset in some expensive car. Dan Conway’s Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire is not one of these books. Most business books offer just enough advice to fill a chapter, maybe two. Conway has a lot more to say about his obsession and investments in cryptocurrency, in particular Ethereum. Over a period of several years, he used his home mortgage equity loan and borrowed additional funds because he believed blockchain held the future model for decentralized corporations and the way that we will all work together. He ended up cashing out $14M ahead. It is his obsession that drives the book’s narrative, along with the crazy up-and-down valuation of Ether, where you can gain and lose millions in a matter of minutes.

What isn’t in this book is also notable: sordid tales of wretched excess of “tech-bros partying on yachts” or trashing expensive Vegas hotel suites.  Conway is a father of three, and still married to their mother.

Conway’s confessions is a refreshing tale about his fighting his demons, his addictions (alcohol and pills), his insecurities, and his almost always-on self-destructive alter-ego he calls his “Flip Side.” This side rears its ugly head during client presentations where he fumbles and fails and during periods of self-doubt when he tries to reassure himself his huge bet on Ether isn’t about to land him in the poor house.

“The book forced me to make sense of how my addictive personality played a part in my undoubtedly reckless crypto investments,” he told me via an email interview. He is part visionary, buying Ether at a time and at a level few people had the courage, vision, or just dumb luck to do. “It took everything admirable and loathsome about me to make the plunge into Ether. The loathsome part includes my addictive personality. While betting everything was an extreme risk, all risk requires insight, courage and maybe a little recklessness.” He hopes his story will get others to think about how they formulate their own risk taking.

Conway starts out his story “working for the man,” doing marketing and public relations for large corporations, one of whom he calls Acme. He wasn’t a good fit as the organization man to be sure. And since his windfall with Ether, he is unlikely to return to corporate America “unless we suffer a financial catastrophe.” He still believes that the decentralized blockchain can disrupt the traditional corporate power structure and has a lot of merit as an organizing principle. One example he cites is the MakeDAO, where ordinary folks can originate loans and handle other financial transactions without any financial institutional limits. It could pay off; it could fall flat: that is the challenge of cryptocurrency.

One aspect of his book is dealing very honestly with two situations: first, with his addictions. “This undoubtedly played a part in my reckless crypto investments, and writing the book helped force me to make sense of it all.”

Second, the book also describes how his financial windfall changed his family dynamics and the relationships with his circle of friends. Even though Conway lived in Silicon Valley, he was very firmly rooted in the middle class before he made it big with Ether. He writes: “Crypto was suddenly like an overexposed celebrity, and everyone was rooting for it to fail,“ but then realizes, “one of the bittersweet feelings about making a bunch of money is that you can’t bring your (less fortunate) friends with you.” That takes some adjustment, both for him and his family. Still, don’t be too sad: Now he takes long exotic vacations, buys his kids “name-brand clothes” instead of Sears knock-offs, and does car pool duty with a vengeance. “It’s absolutely nice to have the car-ride conversations rather than pinning all parent child bonding on the “how was your day?” question when everyone is exhausted.” True dat.

Conway is committed to Ethereum because of its disruptive ability to change the way companies operate, the way companies get VC funding (the parts about the ICO shysters is worth reading alone), and the way the early pioneers — which Conway counts as himself — had to try to separate the criminals from the legit businesses. This book is well worth reading, even your own exposure to bitcoin and other cryptocoins is minimal.

Desperately seeking contactless credit cards

Lately I have become obsessed with contactless credit cards. This started about a year ago, when I was in London and tried to pay for a sandwich with my American credit card. I thought I was in the clear since it was a card with an embedded chip. This is a technology that is still so new in the States that many card terminals still can’t read these cards, despite regulations that have required merchants use them for several years. At what I would call the deli in London, my card didn’t work: the only way to pay was either pounds – the money version — or using a contactless card.

Contactless is big in the UK, as I found out – and probably in many places all over the world too. We are often the last to adopt new banking tech in America, despite our prowess in other areas. You can pay for your train ticket with contactless, and in many other vending machines, as an example. It made me feel like I was coming from a third-world country with my shiny new chip-enabled credit card.

But all wasn’t lost: I quickly figured out that I could use my phone and Apple Pay, and I could eat my sandwich. All you need to do is load your normal credit card into your Apple Wallet and you are good to go. Are the two the same? Not completely, but generally at a credit card terminal in the States you’ll see these two icons side by side, indicating that both Apple Pay and contactless cards are accepted:

Why the need for contactless? It is all about security: since your card never leaves your grubby hands, no one can surreptitiously steal its information. Yes, a hacker could monitor the radio frequencies around the card reading equipment, but that is a lot harder and more expensive problem to solve than a waiter carrying a portable card reader in their pocket to collect data from a bunch of cards.

Back in London, just in case, I made a trip to the local ATM, and got some pounds. But it bugged me that I didn’t have an actual contactless card. That got me started into looking for a bank that offered them. I quickly found myself down the rabbit hole of poorly designed banking websites and quickly got frustrated, so I dropped the project.

Then three things happened last week that renewed my interest in contactless cards. First, I began reading more about the latest card skimming exploits and particularly from criminals targeting gas stations. These skimmers are small devices that are placed literally over the card reader at the pump and collect your account information from the magnetic strip on the back of your card. The criminal then collects this data and sells it to others. Brian Krebs writes frequently about skimmers, if you want to read more.

I thought it might be useful to find local gas stations that use Apple Pay to better protect myself. Unfortunately, this became Another Project at searching poorly designed banking websites. For example, here are two that can help you locate contactless merchants: Square has this page for Apple Pay-enabled merchants and Mastercard has this page for merchants who accept contactless cards.

If you start looking around when you get gas, you will see few pumps that support contactless, with one estimate that there are less than one percent of them in the US that are currently accepting contactless payments.

I was once again motivated to go contactless especially when I heard that Apple Card was now available. This is a contactless credit card offered through Apple and Goldman Sachs. It doesn’t even have its card number printed on it. Instead, it is designed to operate with your iPhone’s Apple Wallet. Apple has done its usual great job when it comes to the experience of applying for and getting a credit line. This took me about three minutes. Maybe less, I wasn’t really timing it. What makes it so fast is that Apple already has most of the information it needs for your application, which is for another story. And while the Apple Card has its issues (you can’t do joint cards with your spouse, for example) it is an interesting concept.

While I was getting my Apple Card I saw that a new type of bank branch opened in my neighborhood from Commerce Bank. The branch is the first one that has a fancy new type of ATM that also includes a video conferencing link with a banker. I made an appointment to go visit the branch and talk to a banker about what they offered. One of the reasons I also wanted to talk to them is because Commerce offers contactless cards on all of its credit and debit cards. Needless to say, it took longer than three minutes to apply for one in person.

So now I have lots of contactless options. I am certainly ahead of the curve here at home: it is easy to find stores that don’t accept them more than those that do. But at least the next time I am in London, I will be able to pay for my sandwich.

Picking the right tech isn’t always about the specs

I have been working in tech for close to 40 years, yet it took me until this week to realize an important truth: we have too many choices and too much tech in our lives, both personal and work. So much of the challenges about tech is picking the right product, and then realizing afterwards the key limitations about our choice and its consequences. I guess I shouldn’t complain, after all, I have had a great career out of figuring this stuff out.

But it really is a duh! moment. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to come to this brilliant deduction. I am not complaining, it is nice to help others figure out how to make these choices. Almost every day I am either writing, researching or discussing tech choices for others. But like the barefoot shoemaker’s children, my own tech choices are often fraught with plenty of indecisions, or worse yet, no decision. It is almost laughable.

I was involved in a phone call yesterday with a friend of mine who is as technical as they come: he helped create some of the Net’s early protocols. We both were commiserating about how quirky Webex is when trying to support a multiple-hundred conference call. Yes, Webex is fine for doing the actual video conference itself. The video and audio quality are both generally solid. But it is all the “soft” support that rests on the foibles of how we humans are applying the tech: doing the run-up practice session for the conference, notifying everyone about the call, distributing the slide deck under discussion and so forth. These things require real work to explain what to do to the call’s organizers and how to create standards to make the call go smoothly. It isn’t the tech per se – it is how we apply it.

Let me draw a line from that discussion to an early moment when I worked in the bowels of the end-user IT support department of the Gigantic Insurance company in the early 1980s. We were buying PCs by the truckload, quite literally, to place on the desks of the several thousand IT staffers that until then had a telephone and if they were lucky a mainframe terminal. Of course, we were buying IBM PCs – there was no actual discussion because back then that was the only choice for corporate America. Then Compaq came along and built something that IBM didn’t yet have: a “portable” PC. The reason for the quotes was that this thing was enormous. It weighed about 30 pounds and was an inch too big to put in the overhead bins of most planes.

As soon as Compaq announced this unit (which sold for more than $5000 back then), our executives were conflicted. Our IBM sales reps, who had invested many man-years in golf games with them, were trying to convince them to wait for a year before their own portable PC could come to market. But once we got our hands on an IBM prototype, we could see that Compaq was a superior machine: First, it was already available. It also was lighter and smaller and ran the same apps and had a compatible version of DOS. We gave Compaq our recommendation and started buying them in droves. That was the beginning of what was called the clone wars, unleashing a new era of technology choices to the corporate world. After IBM finally came out with their portable, Compaq already had put hard drives in their model so they stayed ahead of IBM on features.

My point in recounting this quaint history lesson is to point out something that hasn’t changed in nearly 40 years: how tech reviews tend to focus on the wrong things, which is why we get frustrated when we finally decide on a piece of tech and then live with the consequences.

Some of our choices seem easy: who wants to pay a thousand bucks for a stand to sit your monitor on? Of course, some things haven’t changed: the new Macs also sell for more than $5000. That is progress, I guess.

My moral for today: looking beyond the specs and understand how you are eventually going to use the intended tech. You may choose differently.

Thoughts on being a digital nomad

When the first personal computers were purchased by businesses back in the early 1980s, I was a freshly-minted engineer that was working in Washington, DC. I was trying to change the world, like so many other 20-somethings that were living there, working in and around the federal government. Little did I know that my love affair with PCs would become my career, and that they would change the world on their own, without much effort on my part.

I was thinking about this arc of my own humble life when thinking about the concept of digital nomads, those folks who have used the ubiquitous technology that has infused our lives over the past 40 years that we all now take for granted. Most of you inherently know what this means: the ability to travel and work anywhere in the world, as if you were sitting at your desk. Essentially, your desk becomes wherever you are: thanks to Wifi, the cloud and a truckload of communications technologies, you can be present globally.

While I am not one of them, I can certainly understand the appeal. In this edition of Web Informant, I want to highlight some of the folks who have interesting lives as digital nomads.

The concept of nomadic technology certainly has changed since I first started reporting for PC Week. Back then, the payphone was my go-to tool. Actually, let me revise that: Having a phone charge card was the killer app that enabled me to make calls without having any coins. Now we use a bunch of smartphone apps and the appropriate SIM card for our nomad connections. Of course, things aren’t always that easy, but still it is pretty amazing how far we have come since those early days.

My earliest memory of the prototype nomadic lifestyle is Steve Roberts. He is definitely into hardware, and his first experiment was to equip a recumbent bike with all sorts of tech that enabled him to ride 17,000 miles around the country and report on his travels. He started in the 1980s, just as the PC was taking hold, and the bike is now in the Silicon Valley Computer History Museum.  Back then, you had to have a strong back and a lot of knowledge to cobble together the tools to report on the road. I also consider him one of the early “makers” as he has what has to be the most well-equipped travel workshop that now used to build his hi-tech boats. He is still active in his nomadness, just from dockside.

Another deep resource on nomadic tips and tricks is from Jodi Ettenberg on LegalNomads. As you might assume, she was a former corporate lawyer who took to the road back in 2008 and started writing about food. But then her lawyerly training took over and she dug deeper. She has a very extensively curated page of meta-things such as international visa requirements, the philosophical differences and motivations among nomads, and links to numerous discussion forums and other nomads that you can follow. Sadly, she is no longer traveling due to health issues.

A few years ago, I came across Nikki and Jason Wynn, a 30-something couple that has been on the road since 2011. They initially sold their Dallas home and contents and bought an RV. They drove around the country for six years and then traded their RV for a sailboat. They are now somewhere in Polynesia, taking on the world.  Their YouTube channel gets 200K views with a wide range of upbeat videos that show lots of hands-on insight into the gear they use to stay connected when in the middle of an ocean, along with how they keep fresh water and live off the grid with all their electronics. The videos also have the usual travelogues about what they are up to and where they are.

Boating is also a big motivation behind Cruising the Cut. This is a solo effort from a 50-year-old former British TV journalist David Johns. For the past three years, he has been living aboard his narrowboat and navigating the extensive British canal network. I found him appealing, a combination of understated British irony (think of some of the characters played by John Cleese) with some boating-flavored HGTV “tiny house” design shows thrown in. Johns averages about 60K views of 170 different episodes. He also has an extensive curated list linking to other narrowboaters documenting their nomadic existence if you want to take a deeper dive into this subculture.

Let’s move on from boating to flying. Kara and Nate Buchanan are another young couple that three years ago took to the skies and have a goal of visiting 100 countries. They are currently making their way through the Middle East and have produced more than 500 videos with 600K followers of their exploits. They are all about the people and the food and are very upbeat (sometimes bordering on the twee) about their adventures. If you want to know exactly how much money they make from their efforts, they are also the most transparent and provide monthly reports of their expenses and income. If you want help accumulating your own travel miles, they will freely share which are the best travel credit cards and other tips that they use to get around.

Chris Dodd has put together some very practical tips on how to become a nomadic freelancer, complete with flowcharts on where to find online training for the skills that you lack. This training orientation is something of his specialty, and he provides details on selecting the right coworking space among other things. He has been on the road for the past two years.

Mike Elgan has been writing about tech as long as I have, and now he has turned his nomadic leanings into a viable business. He and his wife Amira run Gastronomad, where they offer foodie tours to satisfy those who can’t afford to go 100% nomadic but still want to travel to interesting places and get off the beaten path. Given his background as a product reviewer, their site has a lot of info on camera choices, among other things.

One perspective you don’t always see online is from Matt Karsten, who started out with the ExpertVagabond blog back in 2010 and eventually gained millions in followers. Earlier this month, he wrote about quitting traveling due to burnout and after meeting the woman he would eventually marry. “Trying to juggle a normal work routine when you’re also trying to figure out where to sleep next week just isn’t ideal. Often, I never wrote much about the places I was living because I was too busy catching up with work after months of traveling.”  They have moved to LA.

I have just tapped the surface of these nomads, and have tried to give you a sampling, including a few who are still wandering the planet in search of new adventures. As you can see, some have given this life up and “settled down,” whatever that means. Some travel as couples, others as singles. Some are into the hardware, some are more about learning their craft. You may follow or know of others or count yourself as nomads; feel free to share your own stories and recommendations on my blog comments. And good luck if you decide to pursue your own nomadic dream.

How business voice-enabled apps will become the next thing

If you have an Alexa or Google Home nearby, you probably already know how handy it can be to help your life. But what you may not be as aware is how businesses are adopting voice-enabled information access, and how this technology could become as revolutionary as HTML and websites were back in the 1990s.

I got to see some of this future at the Prepare.AI conference yesterday here in St. Louis. In particular, a presentation by Bob Stolzberg, the founder of VoiceXP, a two-year old startup that is beginning to make some noise with a voice toolkit that is aimed at business. At the show, Bob demonstrated a couple of examples, using an Alexa as his speaking partner.

One was an app developed for Mercy Health, so you can locate the nearest doctor with just a few commands (Say “Alexa, Start Mercy”). Another was for a law firm, so you can use voice commands to find a lawyer after you have been in an auto accident. One app showed how an executive could easily get various business metrics reported via voice, rather than plowing through a bunch of spreadsheets. One for a scientific research company allows their researchers to add experimental notes via voice commands, so they don’t have to remove their gloves and type them in. “Businesses are adopting voice apps to start their conference calls, to integrate with Slack as replacements for front-desk check-in kiosks, and numerous other apps. We are living in a voice-enabled world,” he said at the conference. They have a few demos on their site with apps that they have built for other companies as well.

The Mercy app was a significant effort, taking a good-sized team working over several months and a pretty substantial budget to put it together. That experience got them working on a much easier path for developing business voice apps so that ordinary folks could build them without a lot of programming or systems integration knowledge. They call it their Voice Experience Platform. They are still in beta but nearing its launch with several different plans that include managed services hosting, custom lead gen features and help with on-boarding the apps. They also provide a voice marketing plan that teaches business how to successfully market their new voice experience.

Voice-enabled apps do have their downside, namely a threat to our privacy and potential misuse by bad actors. Given that the Alexa/Home device is always listening, this data could be captured or subject to a man-in-the-middle attack without the proper security posture. VoiceXP has security built into its platform, which is encouraging. “What if a rogue device shared confidential medical data,” asks Adam Levine, a privacy expert. “These new technical advances may make our lives easier, but we need see a greater focus on privacy.”

Another issue is that to voice-enable your corporate apps, you need someway to access them programmatically. That could be trouble: with one of their customers, VoiceXP ended up using a complex spreadsheet and pulling data directly from that into their platform.

Finally, voice apps touch many different parts of your organization, similar to how web apps did when they were first created back in the day. You will need to keep an open mind, build your team accordingly, and empower them to collaborate to formulate best practices to make them work successfully.

If you have examples of your favorite business-related skill or action (as these apps are called), do share them in the comments.

My experiences with online banking

This week saw the announcement of Apple Card, a credit card that doesn’t even a number on its face. While it remains to be seen if Apple will be successful here, certainly we are witnessing a new era of online financial services. More to the point are the development of open banking in the UK. The idea behind open banking was standardizing on APIs to make it easier to move from one bank to another. We are far from that here in the States but there are many innovators in the banking field. As a big proponent of online banking, here is my report on what I have been using and how they work, for Simple, Aspiration, USAA and Marcus.

Simple was one of the first online banks and I have had an account for several years. They offer  no-fee checking/savings and VISA debit cards, although there are some fees for foreign transactions and some ATMs. Opening an account takes minutes and their web interface is clean and easy to understand with superior online help and telephone support.

Marcus is the online entity of Goldman Sachs (who is one of the partners for the Apple Card) and they have two main products: high-interest CDs (right now they offer a five year 3.1% rate) and no-fee loans (6% APR). Opening an account takes minutes and their web interface is clean and simple to understand. I had some issues setting up joint accounts and their telephone support was efficient and helpful and resolved it quickly.

Aspiration offers no-fee checking and debit cards. Actually, that isn’t quite accurate: you decide on the fees that you wish to pay them. It is an interesting gimmick. You can select nothing, and you can change the amount as often as you wish. There are some third-party fees, such as for wire transfers, that they pass along at their cost. They also make it easier for you to donate money to particular causes that you can setup online.

Activating my debit card from them required a call to their telephone support center. This could have been a network problem that they were experiencing at the time. They have a mobile app where they have spent more development time, and their web interface is pretty spare.

USAA has been in the online financial services world for a very long time, and it shows. If you have a family member that has served in the military you can open an account. They offer life, car and home insurance, CDs, credit cards, mutual funds and many more products. They try to keep their costs low and usually send me a small check at the end of the year as a “dividend” to thank me for being a member. I have had my car insurance with them for a long time and they have superior claims service and amazing response time from their telephone call center.  

If you are looking for online banking services, here are some things to look out for:

What services do you need? If you just want a no- or low-fee credit card, there are many solutions, including products from regular card issuers. If you need more online services, you will have fewer choices. USAA offers the widest spectrum and as I said has been doing it for the longest time. 

Opening and funding your account. You want a provider that has taken the time to build a simple and easy-to-use interface. Each provider does this slightly differently. All offer the ability to enter your bank routing and account numbers and make two test small deposits that you have to verify or you can provide your funding bank’s username and password. Aspiration had two issues: they made finding the external funding menus hard to find, and also they took a week to fund my account. The others were speedier with their funds transfer. Marcus wins this category. 

Making deposits, money transfers and obtaining reports. This is the meat of any provider and most have obvious ways of doing this. My local online bank had two separate procedures for funding and then linking an external account, which was annoying and took two calls to their phone support center to resolve. None of the four were any better or worse than others.

What are the hidden fees? Simple is my favorite here, they were one of the first to be very explicit about the fees they charge. Plus, you can find out everything without having to become a customer. The others are less transparent, although they all offer lower fees than your traditional retail bank (as they should).

What are the MFA implementation(s)? Both Simple and Aspiration offer SMS PINs to authenticate, and once you set this up, you can’t change anything without calling them. But the real standout is USAA, which in addition has other options as explained here, including support for Symantec’s VIP smartphone app. All of these are easily changed online, as long as you can find the linked URL above.

If you check this list of MFA options for the banking sector, you will see support for the MFA authentication smartphone apps is pretty sparse. Sigh.

International travel. Simple and Aspiration both offer quick notification of when and where you travel online, which is appealing to me and one of the reasons I went down this rabbit hole. For many years, I only had one credit card that I would pay off the balance each month. When I began doing more international travel, I realized that I wanted to minimize my exposure if my high-credit-limit card was lost or stolen. I opened an account with Simple, one of the first online banks.  

Do they offer a mobile app? Simple and Aspiration both offer them and focus on mobile as their primary method for customer transactions.

As you can see, no single provider is strong in all areas, which is a shame because you would hope their development teams could learn from the best examples and enhance their sites.  

Some final words of wisdom: prepare to spend some time with your own research and step into these waters gingerly before committing a lot of your money with any provider. Find out what your local bank offers with their online services, as many of them realize they have to be competitive in this area. And feel free to make recommendations of your own experience in the comments.  

The technology behind “Patriot Act”

If you have seen the Netflix show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, you might have noticed the spectacular eye-popping set that is used for the show. And if you are a curious geek like me, you might want to know about the people responsible for building and operating it.

The show is a comedy vehicle for the Daily Show correspondent, and mixes a great deal of pop culture and news references in the goal of tackling a single topic each week. Minhaj is on stage for almost all of each episode. You first notice the stunning visual design of the set because it is the set. Minhaj stands on an LED floor that changes in synch with the screens that form the background of the show. This isn’t your grandfather’s PowerPoint, baby: images zoom in and out and video animations roll across the screens. There are catchy infographics that rotate and fade in, and all the other tricks that we have come to expect in the average Marvel or Pixar movie. Only it is a TV talk show. I think it is pure genius. After you watch this show, every other talk show looks dull as dishwater by comparison.

My interest here is also personal: as a professional speaker, what the team that produces this show is doing is showing how we can use technology to truly immerse an audience into a performance. It is as big a sea change as when I swapped out my black-only “foils” for color PowerPoint for my speeches. Only better.

I interviewed two of the folks that are responsible for the show. Granted, any show is a collaboration of many, many people, including a dozen different animators, designers, and pre-visualization specialists, not to mention all the writers and other usual TV production folks. If you aren’t familiar with pre-viz, as it is called, this is an interesting part of the entertainment universe. As more filming has gone digital, pre-viz folks become very important, because they give directors the ability to see exactly how a scene will look like in its final form before anyone has touched a camera. Think of it like a virtual scene — you can manipulate all sorts of stuff without having to actually build it in real life. I’ll get to why this is important in a moment.

I first spoke to Greg Bloxham, who is the computer operator for the show. That title doesn’t really do his role justice, which is critical to the whole operation. I then exchanged emails with Marc Janowitz, who is the Production and Lighting Designer for the show. Both guys have developed the look and feel and chose the technologies that are used each week.

If you are a fan of Minhaj’s standup, you probably have seen his Netflix special, Homecoming King. Janowitz was involved in that production, which really was a beta test of what the TV series is doing.  “Patriot Act is more like a deep dive into a particular subject that requires intense visual aids to help support the thesis. We had this desire to delve into a style of visual narrative that blends imagery, form and structure and helps to immerse the audiences in the material,” said Janowitz. And as I said earlier, the studio audience is immersed. “A big part of the design impetus for this show was to capture the energy of a live performance with an audience,” he said. Basically, they have turned the tired model of anchorperson-behind-a-desk on its head.

Bloxham spends two days a week on each episode, one day for basic rehearsals, the next day for more detailed rehearsals and then the live-to-tape final run through. He has had a long career in lighting and media design, starting with the Oprah show and then moving into doing live music events and other extravaganzas. “This was a field that was pretty obscure a few years ago, but is now getting to be more common,” he told me. If you remember Oprah, she had video screens around her studio, but not to the extent that Minhaj uses on his show, and certainly not to the extent that they are run in real time.

One of the reasons for the look and feel of the show has to do with Minhaj’s personal preferences. He is very involved in the pre-viz process, naturally, and also has a lot of opinions in how the final shows appear. “It is nice that he is so deeply involved,” Bloxham told me. The show takes a lot of collaborative work, because as you might imagine having such powerful tech means that writers can change things pretty much up to the last minute. He takes the content from the animators and then puts it all together so that they can run the visuals in real time during the actual performance. If you look carefully at any of the episodes, you’ll see the set lighting change colors in synch with what is shown on the video screens. “You can literally program things to move in time with each beat,” he said.

The gear that they use is the Disguise 4x4Pro, which is a specialty piece of hardware that is pretty much the gold standard in the industry and used in many concert venues to drive their complex lighting and visual effects. “The Disguise system is what allows the set to exist as a 3D immersive visual display and can map these different surfaces into a cohesive image,” said Janowitz. “The set design is composed out of multiple different styles and resolutions of LED video displays.’

This system costs tens of thousands of dollars, but what you’ll find inside is a couple of 16-core Xeon CPUs and 32GB of RAM, running Windows embedded 8.1. It outputs 4096×2160 video streams to the various LED screens that are part of the show’s set. “We are certainly pushing a lot of pixels,” Bloxham told me, although I was surprised that this is well within the reach of a typical high-end PC server. “The tech has gotten approachable,” he told me. Each summer he runs a boot camp in Vegas to teach video designers some of the tricks of his trade.  “Your average PC with a good graphics card can do a lot today.”

Actually they have two media servers, one for backup. “Tech always has a risk, and this way I can switch over to the backup system with just a push of a button,” said Bloxham. He has a control console board  that is custom built, and includes the lighting controls as well. Given the number of people involved in producing the show, paying for a second server is a wise investment.

So check out Patriot Act on Netflix and let me know what you think. I think years from now we will be talking about its influence, just as we wax on about The Sopranos today.

Fear of Facebook: becoming social, but only behind our keyboards

As many of you know, for the last several years I have been doing a regular podcast with Paul Gillin on B2B marketing trends. Gillin has been in tech journalism for more than 30 years, having run Computerworld and TechTarget and written numerous books. It is a fun gig, and we offer a lot of insight, and you should subscribe if you are interested in the overall topic.

In our latest episode, we return to talking to Dan Newman, who is a very insightful guy for just being born when both Paul and I started in IT. Newman said one thing that I want to expand upon here. We were talking about the rise of customer self-service portals and methods, including using chatbots as a tool to provide quick answers. He thinks this is an indication that “We have become more social, but only behind our keyboards.” That is an interesting phenomenon.

I would amend that position to say not only have we become more social, but more critical to a fault thanks to our consumption of online social networks. You could lay the blame on Reddit, as this recent book does. (We are the Nerds, as reviewed in the NY Times here.) A better title for this book, as the reviewer David Streitfeld states, should be “We are the Trolls” and suggests its tag line should be “Two inexperienced young guys created something they didn’t understand and couldn’t control.” He writes, “the lack of adult oversight; the suck-up press; the growth-at-any-cost mentality; the loyal employees, by turns abused and abusive” all contributed to its offensive snark. In the end, it didn’t matter. Forget about connecting the world, or doing good, or bringing a voice to the disenfranchised. Reddit is a $2B media property, and in the Valley, money is what eventually matters.

That is a common theme for many tech companies, and it seems we are seeing the same effect happening down highway 101 at the Facebook campus (shown here). You should watch the two-part Frontline series this week about Facebook. During the program, you will see how in the process of connecting the world’s populace, it has inflamed their worst passions and stoked their fears. It interviews several current and ex-employees. While the latter might have axes to grind, it is worth hearing their points of view. You’ll hear how Trump’s digital media manager spent $100M on Facebook ads before the 2016 election. If you haven’t thought about this before, it is worth viewing both episodes to see how much influence the company has had, and how poor Zuck’s leadership has been. The program also highlights the rise of “fake news” across Facebook, such as these companion posts on the Pope endorsing either Trump or endorsing Clinton.

Think fake news is easy to spot? Take this quick quiz developed by the Newseum education staff. My wife and I tried it, and while we did reasonably well, we still got a couple of items wrong. Granted, we had a timed deadline to complete the quiz, and some of them we just guessed answers. But we saw that it is harder than we both thought, even when you have been told to be on the lookout. Imagine how much harder this task could be in our normal lives consuming online media posts?

The Frontline program interviewed their chief of security Alex Stamos who says, “Russia [through its advertising and fake accounts] wants to find fault lines in US society and amplify them, and to make Americans not trust each other.” Russians orchestrated two concurrent and co-located protest rallies in Houston, seeding participants on both sides. There is no question that Facebook is being used as an amplifier to promote hatred of all kinds. Just look at your own news feeds.

Farhad Manjoo’s column in the NY Times this week makes a case that Zuck is “too big to fail,” playing off the phrase used for the 2008 mortgage banking crisis. He mentions reports that tie Facebook posts to the Myanmar genocide, discriminatory advertising and multiple federal legal inquiries. He concludes by saying either Zuck fix Facebook, or no one does, like it or not.

But here’s the thing: as we become more social behind our keyboards, we can’t be as discriminating as we can when we meet people face-to-face. In embracing the self-service world, we are all doing ourselves a tremendous disservice too. Lies become truth, and democracy is turned inside out. It is time Facebook took responsibility for its power and role in this process.

Looking for a portable VPN? Don’t pick these products.

I have been testing some interesting devices to help you set up VPNs when you travel. By now most of you know not to connect to open WiFi access points, because your Internet traffic can be monitored, recorded, invaded, and used against you. The way to avoid these issues is to use a VPN. Until recently, you had a few different choices to install some software or bring your own VPN device. Both are more suitable for corporate networks, and aren’t all that easy to install and configure. These three devices attempt to make things easier for consumers. Sadly, they all aren’t quite up to the task.

Both the Butterfly and eBlocker are small hardware devices. The Butterfly has a USB end that fits in any USB AC power adapter. The eBlocker is a cube two inches on a side with its own Ethernet and power cables to connect it up. The Webroot product is only software. You see I listed their prices above, and that is my first complaint: a consumer VPN should be priced transparently. Figuring out their prices shouldn’t take a combination of a CPA and a PI.

The appeal of the three products are their supposed ease of installation. However, I ran into problems on all of them. For example, the eBlocker is made in Germany, and the default menus are shown in German. If you want to change this to English menus, you have to learn enough German to navigate through the menu tree to find the switch to make this happen. The Butterfly (setup menu at left) is designed to operate with a simple open WiFi router. As you move about the world, you have to find and connect to one before you can establish your VPN connection. That is great, but you will have problems on other routers that aren’t completely open. For example, you’ll have issues if you connect to hotel or airport routers with captive wireless portals that require you to bring up a web form to acknowledge something. Also, there was no way to change the default password in any of its  configuration menus, which seems like a major security shortcoming. The Webroot VPN was the easiest to install, since it was just software that runs in the background, but it had issues that I will get to below.

On all three, you can select various VPN endpoints for your traffic to appear to come from. At right, you can see how you can do this with Webroot, by clicking on the locations shown in the list. That has a lot of appeal — if it really worked as advertised. With eBlocker, you can also set up your Internet traffic thru the TOR network for even more privacy. I had issues with all of them when verifying the IP addresses with a public service, such as WhatisMyIP.com. They didn’t always consistently work, and despite conversations with each vendor, I couldn’t exactly tell you why.

Webroot also allows you to select a particular VPN protocol (like IPsec or PPTP) if you need to connect to a corporate VPN. That is a nice touch.

All three also do more than just setup a VPN. Webroot does rudimentary content filtering. eBlocker can anonymize your originating IP address and block ads in your browsing sessions. It has this privacy discovery page where you can see what kind of information is being collected from your browser session, if you need reminding. Here is what its dashboard looks like:

Blocking ads seems like a great idea, until you run into lots of websites that won’t deliver any content to you until you unblock them. As an example, my hometown newspaper doesn’t allow any visitors from EU countries because of potential GDPR liabilities. (That is probably a canard, but still.) There is a whitelist to add sites to try to get around this, but it didn’t seem to always function as intended.

Using a VPN can also come in handy when you travel overseas and want to access content from the streaming video services. This is because the shows that we take for granted here in the US aren’t necessarily licensed for overseas viewing. For example, I was recently in Israel, where I was pleased to see that Amazon was streaming “The Man in the High Castle” but blocked just about every other one of their other original shows. However, none of the VPN services of the three devices would work reliably in this situation. And with Webroot’s VPN engaged, I couldn’t access any Netflix content whatsoever. It could be because of cookies set on my computer, or because of how I registered for the service, or it could be something else. The bottom line: if you want to securely access your content when you travel, you can’t depend on any of these devices.

And that is why I recommend you don’t buy any of these three items, at least until each vendor does a better job with fixing the issues I mentioned above. Consumer-grade VPNs are a great idea, especially if you travel frequently. But they are still a challenge, unless you have an IT department standing by to assist you when you run into snags on the road.