Ubers abysmal year in review

Let’s recap: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick joins President Trump’s business council, and faces an immediate backlash; Uber is accused of undermining a taxi driver protest at JFK airport; the #DeleteUber hashtag goes viral; Susan Fowler speaks her mind; Waymo files its lawsuit; a self-driving Uber runs a red light; a self-driving Uber crashes; Travis Kalanick is caught on camera being a jerk; we learn about Uber executives visiting a South Korean escort bar; Apple threatens to remove Uber from the App Store; “Greyball;” “Hell;” Anthony Levandowski pleads the Fifth; Anthony Levandowski is fired; Uber considers smearing a rape victim in India; many Uber executives resign; Kalanick resigns; Lyft outpaces Uber; London bans Uber; the new CEO apologizes; a failed auto-leasing program is canceled; a major Uber investor sues Kalanick, who countersues; Uber is subject to five separate criminal investigations; Uber is fined for enabling unqualified drivers; a data hack exposes personal information of 57 million riders and drivers; the hacker is paid off and the hack is covered up; and (last but not least) Uber’s secret spying unit is exposed, and it sounds insane.

— Andrew J. Hawkins (2017, December 29). The Verge 2017 tech report card: Uber

Why are there so many knobs in Garageband?

The first Billboard #1 single that was recorded to a hard drive instead of tape was “Livin’ La Vida Loca” in 1999; 18 years later, in 2017, most audio software still looks like the designers attempted to replicate physical equipment piece for piece on a computer screen. Faders, switches, knobs, needles twitching between numbers on a volume meter — they’re all there. Except you have to control them with a mouse.

Winamp may have been Patient Zero in this gaudy epidemic, but it has spread far and wide. I spend a lot of my time mixing and editing audio, and that often involves having multiple audio plugins (essentially applications that run inside the main audio program) from multiple vendors running simultaneously. But all audio software, for what I suppose are historical reasons, features the most egregious skeuomorphic design in all of software.

— John Lagomarsino, The Outline (2017, August 24). Why are there so many knobs in Garageband?

Apple has recently flattened the UI for both Logic and Garageband, but knobs are still frustratingly abundant.

51% of China’s $11trn internet-payments market is controlled by one company

China’s internet-payments market is the world’s biggest, reckons Goldman Sachs, with $11trn in transactions last year, twice the size of America’s credit- and debit-card industry. Ant controls 51% of it. The firm is 16 times larger than PayPal, an American counterpart, on this measure.

China’s lead is about more than size, though. People make payments mainly by using phones. Whereas Western products such as Apple Pay typically piggyback off credit-card firms’ networks to access clients’ funds, China’s firms often access bank accounts directly, cutting out the middlemen.

Ant has developed a menu of services: its home screen lets you buy train tickets, pay utility bills and invest in mutual funds. Yu’e Bao, a money-market fund run by Ant, has $166bn of assets. Ant lends to its clients, but so far its balance sheet is modest: outstanding loans to small firms were $5bn in 2016. Fees are low, but Ant’s profits still reached a chunky $820m last year, up by 14% since 2014. (It does not publish its books, but some figures can be inferred from Alibaba’s accounts.)

— The Economist (2017, August 19). China’s digital-payments giant keeps bank chiefs up at night

Crazy to think how little movement there has been in the internet payments industry in Australia. It'll be interesting to see how western governments respond to Ant, and it's competitors, starting to move intro their markets.

What the world worries about

Share of respondents who think their country is on the right or wrong track. Though populism is rife, the causes vary from country to country.

Unemployment is the main worry in France, but not in Britain or America, where immigration and terrorism dominate. Germans, who will hold elections next year, fret about poverty and inequality. Those who vote for populist parties and politicians often focus on single issues at the expense of other problems. In Britain, less-educated white voters, who are suspected to have voted in droves for leaving the European Union, may find they suffer the most from an alternative settlement rather than full membership.

— The Data Team, The Economist (2016, November 24). What the world worries about

Australia is doing a little better than average. Interesting how good morale seems to be in China and Saudi Arabia.

FedEx offers customers $5 for the inconvenience of requiring Adobe Flash

FedEx's website offers a credit of $5 for customers forced to use Flash. 'We apologise for the inconvenience, but it looks like your browser no longer supports Flash. In order to enable Flash and continue with your FedEx Office print purchase, please update your browser using the simple steps provided below. As a thank you for your patience and for being a valued FedEx office customer, please use this coupon code at checkout to receive $5 off on orders over $30' For its part, FedEx is apologizing to customers and offering $5 discount for the fact that printing labels online still requires the browser plug-in.

— Ina Fried (2017, March 24). FedEx offers customers $5 for the inconvenience of requiring Adobe Flash

The good news is, in the time since this post on Axios, FedEx have launched their new beta which does not require Flash.

Flexibility is software's miracle, and it's curse.

“When we had electromechanical systems, we used to be able to test them exhaustively,” says Nancy Leveson, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been studying software safety for 35 years. She became known for her report on the Therac-25, a radiation-therapy machine that killed six patients because of a software error. “We used to be able to think through all the things it could do, all the states it could get into.” The electromechanical interlockings that controlled train movements at railroad crossings, for instance, only had so many configurations; a few sheets of paper could describe the whole system, and you could run physical trains against each configuration to see how it would behave. Once you’d built and tested it, you knew exactly what you were dealing with.

Software is different. Just by editing the text in a file somewhere, the same hunk of silicon can become an autopilot or an inventory-control system. This flexibility is software’s miracle, and its curse. Because it can be changed cheaply, software is constantly changed; and because it’s unmoored from anything physical — a program that is a thousand times more complex than another takes up the same actual space — it tends to grow without bound. “The problem,” Leveson wrote in a book, “is that we are attempting to build systems that are beyond our ability to intellectually manage.”

— James Somers (2017, September 27). The Coming Software Apocalypse.

This is a great article form The Atlantic about the flaws of software.

The software did exactly what it was told to do. In fact it did it perfectly. The reason it failed is that it was told to do the wrong thing. Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination.

When things go wrong with software it’s always because the software was told to do the wrong thing. This is why it’s so important that product and engineering teams don’t function in silos. How one person interprets a story is totally different to how another may interpret it. If your "product people" can’t clearly articulate how something should work, it doesn’t matter how good an engineer is at communicating logic to a system. This is a risky situation.

This article also serves as a good introduction to TLA+ and model-based design.

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