Alex Muir

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Google ads are now virtually indistinguishable

I've been using Google daily for over a decade. Today was the first day I found myself unable to quickly parse past their adverts in a search.

I'm not sure how they can continue argue that advertising isn't effectively paying to be boosted to the top of their search results.

Android tablets will win

A couple of days ago I bought a Nexus 7 tablet to play around with a concept for an app. Colour me impressed.

Packaging was slightly below Apple's standards, but it inconsequential. The product had a feel of quality and heft. It works. Setup was a breeze. It's fast, flexible and easy to use. I don't like the on-off button on the side, I would much prefer it on the front but that's very minor.

I installed Twilight, an Android version of Flux, which dims the screen at night - something I really need with iOS 7 and it's super-bright whites.

Developing on Android is easy and fun to get started. Within an hour I had a little app working on the device. No cost, no complex downloads.

Developing is fine and good, but I think Android is going to dominate the iPad into oblivion over the next couple of years. The Nexus 7 is £200 off the shelf at retailers, or easily found for £180 on offer, or £150 on a hot deal. Apple won't come close to this price. Tablets are first and foremost a web and video consumption device. I'd say the Nexus 7 works better than my iPad for this. At a significantly lower price. I could have picked up a Hudl for £120 which would be pretty similar.

I have a feeling that tablets will be commoditised before phones. Phones have an important social element - iMessage helps here, and apps are arguably more important on this smaller form factor. I'm fairly locked in to a couple of subscription apps that I've bought for my iPhone. This isn't the case with the tablet, where I almost exclusively use the web browser.

I might write some time about iOS 7, but having lived with it for a while I think it's brought almost nothing new. I dislike the design strongly - it is new, not better.

Officers

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent -- their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy -- they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent -- he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

-- Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord

Bitcoin's potential market cap

As I write this, a Bitcoin now costs over 400 USD, giving a market cap of $5billion.

I am told that Bitcoin has a limited supply, and I have to take that as fact because I do not have the skills to investigate. In the same way that buyers of gold or diamonds are told they cannot be manufactured. If tomorrow it turns out that gold can be printed out of milk and charcoal then the gold market will tank.

If we ignore that risk, then we ask what Bitcoin's market cap could feasibly be.

Bitcoin will take some chunk of the following markets -

Drugs

The annual value of the drugs market was estimated at $321bn in 2003 But estimating on such an enormous scale is unlikely to be accurate, let's look locally... Scotland's drug market was valued at £1.4bn in 2009.

Now Bitcoin is suitable for some drug transactions - end-user purchases by mail-order, and also potentially for wholesale purchasing and transfer of money. £250,000 in cash takes a holdall to move so there is obviously an appetite for alternatives in wholesale transactions. The €500 note is also much harder to use now in Europe, which was the cash of choice or anything over £100k.

40% of Scotland's drug market is estimated to be heroin. I think these end users will never have access to, or use Bitcoin. Even now they don't have credit on their mobile phone (if they even have one).

Prostitution

Unlikely, but possible. Adultwork is transacting tens of millions of dollars of business in the credit card system. It can't be long before they are slapped with some regulation and forced into the Bitcoin system - at least for payouts. Clients and service providers may also prefer this as it keeps transactions off bank statements. Personal services will still be cash though.

Dark porn

There can't be any doubt that Bitcoin is already the currency of choice for child porn and other deep underground sexual business. I don't know what the value of this economy is, I don't think it can ever be known. It must be in the hundreds of millions of dollars though.

Blackmail, ransomware and extortion

Receiving ransom by Bitcoin has to be a textbook use case. Plus this sort of business is 100% profit and so BTC exchange rate fluctuations are less of an issue than in business with slimmer profit margins. This could be kidnapping, piracy, straightup blackmail, and ransomware. Analysis suggests that just one ransomware operator was clearing $5m per year, this is going to balloon as bitcoin becomes more mainstream and a higher percentage of users pay up.

Black hat economy

The black hat hacking world will be fueled by Bitcoin. What's it worth? No idea. DDOS attacks, spamming, virus creation, day-zeros , botnets, click-fraud. That has to push us into the billions.

Money transfer

Right now, transferring $1,000 USD to the Philippines via Western Union will cost 3% after currency spread and fees. I can see a future for Bitcoin here, but not while the exchange rate is so volatile. Bitcoin varies by 3% every hour. A more stable currency though and it becomes a real alternative.

US online gambling

Previously hundreds of millions of dollars.

eCommerce

The widespread use of Bitcoin for anything other than 90%+ profit businesses is going to depend entirely on its stability. No-one wants to be selling physical goods for a currency that falls by 10% in a day. This isn't so apparent in the current environment where Bitcoin is clearly trending upward.

_I think that assuming Bitcoin retains its integrity, it's market cap will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. That is to say, at least 20x what it is today. _ However, I think the likelihood of technical issues with Bitcoin to be between possible and probable.

Missed productivity

Things don't get done because it's hard to find people to do them. This happens too often. And at the same time there are capable people who want to do things, but the two don't connect.

I want to do something about this.

Amateur educators

When I was at school, there were Adult Education centres, or night schools, which taught much cooler stuff than I was learning. I longed for the time that I could learn welding or woodworking instead of practicing handwriting. By the time I was an adult, these education centres had mostly closed.

Those that haven't closed now focus on either soft-skills, employability, or block release apprenticeships. They aren't at all geared up to the hobbyist or dabbler.

For a time I think there was a void, but it feels like it's being filled. Just watch this beautifully produced video from Frank Howarth where he teaches how to build a lawn chair.

Online, there is a solid business model in providing freemium training videos. For programming there are screencasts, but there are also video producers for many mainstream activities now. And the quality of their productions is amazing.

Ryan Bates runs [Railscasts](http://railscasts.com/], where he has produced a couple of videos each week since early 2007. Some videos are free, the more advanced videos are only for subscribers. Subscribing is $9 a month, and my feeling is that he has at least 3,000 subscribers - a very healthy income.

Marc Spagnuolo has a similar format for woodworking. He publishes some videos free to Youtube, but also runs a paid-for community called the Wood Whisperer Guild where plans are provided and lengthier projects tackled.

Again with woodworking, Steve Ramsey runs a Youtube channel called Woodworking for Mere Mortals which has 140,000 subscribers. He doesn't seem to have any premium content - but recently has been experimenting with a kickstarter-style subscription platform called Subbable.

Painting a car? There's LearnAutoBodyAndPaint.com. Learning a language? Try Radio Lingua.

The real world

Some skills can't be learned from videos. I tried learning to plaster by watching Mastering Plastering, a well produced training DVD. Complete waste of time.

But earlier this year I did a four-day plastering course at The DIY School and since then I've got fairly good at skimming walls and ceilings. If I went to a publicly funded college to learn plastering, I'd be going through an application process, paying more and spending two evenings a week for A WHOLE YEAR.

Up the amateurs.

Facebook and I

I've recently deleted all the content from my Facebook account, but kept the account open. This rambling post is something of an answer to the people who ask me why.

Our history

I first saw mention of TheFacebook on a photocopied piece of A4 paper stuck to a lamp post in St Andrews. This was back in 2005. St Andrews was one of the first universities outside the US that Facebook arrived at - I've no idea who put the poster up, or what else it said.

A user only had one photo back then. People mostly posted nonsense on each others' walls. Facebook was primarily a tool for messing around, and finding people's phone numbers when one lost one's phone. Posting ASCII art of snowballs or ugly trucks was as much gaming as got done. [I tried to find images of any of this early stuff and couldn't. ]

I was never very active on the site, but I did see its potential and showed it to quite a few people well before they could join. I remember people pitching me ideas for clones - one for high schools, another for Bangladesh. (At this time Facebook required a university email address, and you could only view people within your university.)

As an aside - Linkedin has barely added a single meaningful feature between 2005 and today. Facebook has Evolved.

Why it worked

There are a few key reasons why Facebook worked.

  1. Real names. Facebook was a closed network within universities. People used their own real names from the outset. There was no need to invent a username, or to know someone else's username to find them. Sites like Myspace, Bebo and Faceparty all used alex_0161 and the like. Real names made it easy to find people and form meaningful networks. Think about how common it is to log in using an email address nowadays. Facebook is the first site that I remember doing this! - All users could find some friends.

  2. Students. By 2005 all students had computers and were online and savvy. Virtually 100% of your student friends would be on Facebook. In the general population though, you'd only find a handful of friends on other networks. Time is another factor. In its early days, Facebook was pure and pointless procrastination. - Large (and therefore valuable) networks formed.

Me and Facebook

The Vacuum effect

I've never been a particularly active user - I'm not sure why. For a long time I didn't have a Facebook account at all. I created one because I felt I was missing out on social events, and the only other people who didn't have accounts were tinfoil hat wearing oddballs. I didn't want to be in that bracket. For the past year or so I have posted quite often but I found it quite demoralising to post something that I've made or built, only to receive no comment or feedback. I don't know if that's a criticism of what I do, my social group, my expectations, or all three. I think the honest truth is that every unliked post might as well have had 150 comments that said "Don't care." And one from my mum, obviously.

Conversation killing

This is a big reason why I'm largely off Facebook. I'd see someone that I hadn't seen for a while:

"I got married." "Yeah, I saw on Facebook." Next topic.

I want to describe the deserted beach I was on last week. If you're interested I might show you a photo on my phone. And I'd love to hear about your trip to Las Vegas, who you went with, and that funny incident in the elevator. But it's ok... I can wait a few months for it - we don't need to both immediately pause our lives while you type it and I read it. Then never mention it again.

The good

Facebook at its best is a beautiful photo shared, a problem solved, a party filled, or a personal and heartbreaking message shared and deluged in good wishes and sympathy. For me the signal to noise ratio is too high.

Monetization

I remember a friend telling me early on that Facebook should start charging £5 a year for user accounts to make money. But from the outset Facebook did have a means by which users could pay some money to put a text advert across their university. It wasn't clear if this was making any money, but Facebook has stuck to this targeted display advertising model ever since. I believe that Facebook advertising is effective, profitable and that this is a sustainable model in the same manner as TV networks. I think Facebook has a much easier task than Twitter or Snapchat.

Facebook's future

For a time there were no alternatives to Facebook. It was a product of the desktop, which has managed very well to survive the rise of mobile.

But there is a risk that there are now lots of viable alternatives to Facebook. Snapchat, naysayers be damned, thrives precisely because people want to share trifling, fleeting nonsense. I actually think it'll do Facebook some good for people to share that elsewhere.

Twitter is somewhat faddish at the moment, but it is evolving into the Public Facebook. And I'm not sure, but I think another Private Facebook will launch at some point. Medium is there for long form content.

I don't think Facebook is going anywhere. I don't think they are an evil company. I don't overly worry about their disregard for privacy. Mark Zuckerberg has done an outstanding job, and I don't see him going anywhere.

I love knobs

Knobs and dials have been in decline for years now. And that's a pity because for me they are an almost perfect UI tool.

Volume knob

  1. Knobs allow the rate of change to be chosen. You ram the volume up by quickly twisting a knob, or you can turn it slowly. Digital alternatives don't even come close to this.

  2. A knob shows its value, permanently. A knob with an indicator shows at a glance what its current position is. We don't need on-screen indicators. Many digital up/down buttons must be pressed for us to see what they are set to.

  3. Hands free. Once you know where a knob is, you can use it without even looking. Some buttons are like this but knobs are easier to work, and there's only one of them to find, while buttons that replace knobs have to come in pairs.

  4. There's just something cool about a whole range of knobs to be twisted and fiddled.

Knobs do not work digitally. Sliders are the way to go on touch screen devices. And the iPhone combines a slider with up/down buttons brilliantly. Though I wish a double-tap on the volume buttons would skip tracks like my Blackberry used to do - I guess this is a patent situation.

Things I own and love

This is just a list of the things that I've bought which have value far in excess of their cost. It's in no order.

Leatherman Wave

I bought a Leatherman at the last minute before I went travelling in Egypt in 2005. I felt extravagant buying it for £85 (if I remember rightly).

It was mildly useful there, but in the eight years I've now owned it, I have used it thousands of times. I use the knife all the time to slice through packing tape, packaging, banding and anything else. I cut through a floorboard yesterday with the saw. I usually cut my fingernails with the scissors. It's as good as the day I bought it.

Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500

This scanner is a beast. I load it up with 20 A4 pages at a time, it scans both sides, OCRs the text and gives me a PDF. I am virtually entirely paperless now, and I can access anything from anywhere. I have a single box with important papers in, everything else has gone. This scanner also did the scanning for my side project, How A Car Works.

ExpenseMagic on iPhone I'm hesitant to include this because it's only been a part of my life for three months or so. That said, it's financially paid for itself 10x already. I photograph all my receipts, they are then processed offshore by ExpenseMagic and imported into my accounts package. Total cost: £50 per year. Total time saved - easily 40 minutes a week and a couple of lost receipts that get written off.

Macbook Air

My mum bought the family an Atari ST in about 1990. In 1995 I got my first PC at a cost of £500. In 2011 I bought my first Apple computer for £1,100. Since then I have massively improved my productivity and become a better programmer. This is the most expensive item on this list, but also the best tool I own.

Festool TS55 Track Saw

One for the builders here. We aren't really into tracksaws in the UK, and I'd never even heard of Festool until I watched The Wood Whisperer. This thing makes cutting sheet material an accurate joy. Festool is the Apple of the tools market. Expensive fantastically designed and engineered equipment which has a resale value of approximately 100% of its new cost.

Cointoss

Sometimes I toss a coin. Should I get KFC or McDonalds? Should I quit my job?

If I can't make a decision then I'll just toss a coin. Why? Three reasons:

  1. If I'm prepared to go for a coin toss then the decision is a pretty close-run thing. Even I make a conscious choice, the result is as much chance as the flip of a coin.

  2. As I throw that coin into the air, I often find myself hoping it comes down on one side. That moment reveals what I actually want to do. I ignore the coin result and do what I wanted anyway. The one-second window often reveals what a few hours or days of mulling has failed to uncover.

  3. Action is better than inaction.