May 29, 2015

Ross Ulbricht Sentenced to Life in Prison

The Verge:

Ross Ulbricht, founder and mastermind of the Silk Road, has been sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of narcotics conspiracy and other charges earlier this year.

I’ve been waiting for an update on the affair so I can share this must-read two-part story on the rise and fall of Silk Road.

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May 28, 2015

Half a Herd

Well, this place has been dormant for a while, hasn’t it?

Dormant” might not be the right word because this was never supposed to be your source for breaking news. Maybe breaking views. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

I did publish some pieces I’m proud of, like The Future of Information and Radio Revolution. But by and large, career developments and other life matters got in the way. Excuses.

There are so many things I want to write about.

Like Grandpa.

That man. Worth writing a whole book about him.

My grandfather died one and a half years ago. Me, my father, and my sister were on a vacation when that happened.

In London. Two thousand miles away from Israel.

We couldn’t catch a flight early enough to make it to the funeral.

But this isn’t going to be a post about Grandpa.

There are parts of your life that are so significant, you can’t just write about them. Everything feels reductive. And you never want to settle for that. It’s like that bottom-most drawer that contains so many… things. You don’t just open that. How do you make sense of it all? How can you get any one thing out for strangers to see, leaving the others hidden, never to be shown?

It could never do this man justice.

So I’ve never written about Grandpa, and probably never will.

But I would like to tell you a story.

This is not a post about Grandpa.


My grandfather was born on the 13th of March, 1938. As a teenager, he was already working the land in a town 15 miles away from his small village. He had no car, so to avoid the commute, he often slept in the field, or in a nearby cave in the mountains.

He started out working for others, but before long had enough to buy his own piece of land. Landowners from his village found the commute and the hard labour too much. They preferred to work closer to home.

For twenty years, my grandfather worked close to twenty hours a day. When my father and his brothers were old enough, he gradually left the day-to-day management to them. But he never, in his life, missed a day of work. The fact his body couldn’t do as much anymore didn’t mean his head and heart weren’t devoted to the (now-expanded) business and its future.

Grandpa was a man of vision. He amassed all of his assets single-handedly.

He was also a religious man.

Any dollar you make by means of deception or with unclean intentions, you will lose ten against,” he would say, with a stern smile on his sun-beaten face.

He loved the land, not for its future worth as real estate, but for what it was now. My late father always told me, never trade a piece of land for something that air can pass under,” he once told me, meaning - never trade land for money or anything that isn’t land.

My grandfather was an agronomist. I’m a farmer, you can leave that fancy word to those with a diploma on their wall.” Okay, my grandfather was a farmer. He never felt it was a derogatory term, so neither should I.

Indeed, Grandpa’s clothes — plain jeans, khaki shirt, and Tembel hat — did well to camouflage his acumen. I owe much of my financial security — so scarce these days — to his sweat and tears.

But this isn’t a post about Grandpa.

So, the story.


My grandfather owned several herds of livestock. Some were his, and others were jointly owned.

One day, his partner in one of the herds informed him that he wanted to part ways. Okay, how would you like to do it?,” asked Grandpa.

I don’t know, friend, it’s a herd, you know. There are milk cows and there are calves, and sheep. They are all different ages and sizes. How in the world are we going to split a herd?”

Well, we could appoint a…”

I don’t want to spend no money on middlemen! I don’t have the money.”

Alright,” said Grandpa. He nodded his head towards two cups of coffee that were now in front of them, inviting his nervous partner to relax a little.

How could there possibly be a solution that would leave both men feeling they got a fair deal?

I’ll tell you what. You head to the field now, and you divide the herd into two groups. After you do that, call me. I’ll come by and choose the half I like better.”

The man was speechless.

Or, we can do it the opposite way — I split, you choose.”

And that’s the story of how you split a herd of cattle fairly.

It’s not about Grandpa.

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May 17, 2015

People of Sheep, Government of Wolves

Ars Technica reports:

The UK government has quietly passed new legislation that exempts GCHQ, police, and other intelligence officers from prosecution for hacking into computers and mobile phones.

While major or controversial legislative changes usually go through normal parliamentary process (i.e. democratic debate) before being passed into law, in this case an amendment to the Computer Misuse Act was snuck in under the radar as secondary legislation. According to Privacy International, It appears no regulators, commissioners responsible for overseeing the intelligence agencies, the Information Commissioner’s Office, industry, NGOs or the public were notified or consulted about the proposed legislative changes… There was no public debate.”

I, the government of the United Kingdom — established for the sole purpose of ensuring the liberty of the people of this land — hereby restrict citizens from hacking into computers. I deem my many extensions and branches, however, completely exempt from prosecution for doing the same thing to citizens, for any reason.”

Is there a more flagrant violation of a people’s rights? Oversight for all, but not government? Made possible behind closed doors?

I know a definition for this.

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May 14, 2015

Las Vegas, the Next Brooklyn?

Freakonomics radio’s latest show was very intriguing:

Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, presiding over a corporate culture that most corporations wouldn’t recognize. Among Hsieh’s priorities at Zappos: having fun, empowering his call-center employees, and making customers happy at almost any cost. We’ve written about Hsieh and Zappos before — how, for instance, company meetings are sometimes held in a bar. And why customer reps are encouraged to talk to a customer for as long as they want, all without a script, how they authorized to settle problems without calling in a supervisor and can even fire” a customer who makes trouble for them. And how Zappos gives new employees a chance to quit their brand-new job and get a quitting bonus” because Hsieh figures he’d rather weed out anyone who doesn’t really, really want to work at Zappos.

Now Hsieh (pronounced shay) has basically bought part of downtown Vegas for $350 million. The Downtown Project,” as it’s called, is merely interesting per se, but anything this guy does, I want to know more about.

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May 14, 2015

Call or Message Contacts with Alfred

Every time I needed to use Handoff to contact someone, especially calling, I thought to myself surely there’s an Alfred workflow that shortcuts all this clicking.”

I finally Googled it this afternoon. Bingo.

Simply precede a contact’s name with Call, SMS, or IM. A tiny quibble is that it opens the Contacts app in the background (minimized) after each query.

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May 10, 2015

How to Get into Harvard

LRB blog:

WikiLeaks has published all the Sony emails that had been hacked last November, and made them searchable by keyword. In 2014, a senior executive emailed an Ivy League vice-president of philanthropy: he’d like to endow a scholarship, anonymously, at the $1mm level’. In another email, he tells a development officer that his daughter is applying to the college as her first choice. It’s all very decorous. The development staff arrange a customised’ campus tour for his daughter and a meeting with the university’s president; but he asks for no favours and nothing is promised. An email from the president says that his daughter’s application will be looked at very closely’. She gets in. He writes to his sister: David… called me. he is obsessed with getting his eldest in Harvard next year.’ She replies: If David wants to get his daughter in he should obviously start giving money.’ Obviously.
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May 7, 2015

Psychology of Pricing

Compelling yet concise laundry list by Nick Kolenda:

Welcome to a massive list of psychological pricing strategies.

Whether you’re launching a new product, selling items on eBay, or negotiating a deal on your house, you’ll learn how to choose a price that will maximize your profit.

Kolenda got some heat for some of the techniques he mentioned, but to be fair he emphasizes the purpose of his compilation upfront. It’s one surely worth contemplating.

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October 16, 2014

Pocket Premium: A Review

Yesterday, less than an hour before an entirely different version of this review was about to go live, I received an email from Pocket’s community manager, Justin:

Hello again, Shibel!

I have some great news for you — we finally heard back from our search partner, and were able to track down the the cause of some of the search operator issues that you reported.

The good news were that almost four weeks after I’ve reported a series of bugs, Pocket Premium’s search was no longer dysfunctional. The not so good news, for me at least, were that the 2,508-word review that I was about to publish was rendered irrelevant.

This made me think about why technology fascinates me to the extent it does, especially web and software: If you ship a tangible product with faulty hardware design, like a phone, you’re screwed. At least until your next production batch. If you launch a broken web app, though, you can fix the most significant of issues very quickly. Your only dependencies are your own priorities and skills.

Anyway, here’s the revised review.


The way I organize what I read online, which I wrote about in January, has changed. This is a review of Pocket Premium and my experiences while using it as the sole tool for reading and filing articles. I’ve been using Pocket Premium for almost a month now, testing it very actively for the first two weeks.

Unique Circumstances

For me, a good bookmarking service allows the user to send links independently of where they are, or what OS they’re using. At home, I have a MacBook and an iPad. At work, I’m forced to work on Windows PCs with corporate settings, something that prevents me from customizing them for my needs. I can’t install bookmarklets or browser extensions, let alone applications.

It doesn’t help, either, that I work in a news-desk, which at many stages of the day can be an inordinately busy and chaotic place. This means that I can’t bring my MacBook there, because someone will inevitably spill coffee, sit, or stomp on it. Moreover, I often have to give my seat pretty quickly during sudden emergencies and events, so staying logged in to my web accounts isn’t an option. Try standing in the way of a producer whose interviewee isn’t picking up two minutes before his show starts.

The Previous System

The way things worked previously was that I used Pocket (the free version) not only as a read later service, but also as a docking station” for stuff that I may want to save to Evernote for future reference. What I save doesn’t have to be an article: it can be a YouTube video, a product homepage that I want to check out later, or a tweet with an embedded image1.

So, at different stages of the day I’d scan my Pocket list, and there would usually be three kinds of items on it:

  1. Articles that I saved to read later: This is the typical use case of Pocket. Some of these articles would be tagged and sent to Evernote once they’re read, and some would get archived inside Pocket.

  2. Articles that I’ve already read and wanted to save to Evernote: Funny, but Pocket was (and is) better at sending bookmarks to Evernote than Evernote’s own apps.

  3. All kinds of other content and media that weren’t really text, but that I wanted to save for one reason or another.

For this type of role, Pocket has a few strong advantages over its competitors:

  1. Wider and better support by browsers and third party developers.

  2. A better sharing system on iOS: Pocket uses its own share sheet and supports export to a plethora of services. Better yet, sharing is done in-house, meaning you don’t have to leave to the destination app to share something from Pocket. For Evernote, you can tag an article quickly from the share sheet, something that isn’t possible in Instapaper because it sends you to the Evernote app. Which, you know, sucks just like Evernote’s apps.

  3. Save by email: I called this the X factor” in my workflow review in January, and it still is, especially when I’m browsing at work: I don’t have to be logged in to any service, not even my own email address, to add something to my Pocket queue. I just set up Pocket to accept all items sent to add@getpocket.com from my workplace’s address, and since Outlook is always open there, adding an item is a breeze.

  4. Tags: Instapaper, for example, uses folders, which limits the user to one reference point per article.

My previous workflow was entirely device agnostic, something I always look for in services and products. But its weakest link, Evernote, gave me little incentive to take advantage of the hundreds of items that I’ve accumulated. What made working with Evernote such a bad experience were its iOS and (especially) OS X apps. I don’t think I need to expand on how buggy and slow they are; anyone who’s used them knows. CEO Phil Libin himself admitted in January Evernote wasn’t focusing on the core experience,” and promised better Evernote apps were coming in a matter of weeks”.

As I was writing this review, Evernote rolled out version 5.6 of their OS X app, a few days after shipping version 7.5 of their iOS app. On Macstories, Federico Viticci seems impressed with Evernote’s new sharing extension on iOS, and while it does sound versatile, it still does not support tags(!). As for OS X, while Federico writes that he found the new version to be faster and more reliable than before,” it’s not something I can corroborate since this version hasn’t hit my local App Store yet.

In any case, for me the ship has already sailed.

What Changed

A few things have changed since January, the last time I revisited my workflow:

  • Pocket launched Pocket Premium, with three features that aren’t available for free members. I’ll cover those in a bit.

  • One month later, Pocket began offering a 45% lifetime discount ($25 instead of $45) on its annual Premium plan to original Read it Later Pro” customers, who I’m one of.

  • iOS 8 was released in September, introducing extensions.

  • Evernote, meanwhile, continues to be Evernote, and I don’t have the patience for it to prove otherwise.

Pocket Premium: Features

The trigger for trying Pocket Premium was iOS 8: Pocket’s extension was the first I tried, and sharing from Safari worked great, letting me send and tag items quickly and intuitively. This is when I decided to give it a go, as each of its three major features had something in store:

Permanent Library

This looked like the perfect opportunity to ditch Evernote.

I’ve verified with Pocket’s support that it does not only save the parsed text, but also the HTML version of web pages. This is important because these parsers will sometimes trim articles prematurely, and miss (or mess up) certain elements like images and tables2. Having the HTML version as a backup is a must for those situations.

Suggested Tags

Many of the articles I read have recurring themes: Technology, Apple, finance, and statistics. If Pocket Premium spares me some or most of the tagging, that’s great. This feature also helps eliminate tag redundancy (e.g. iOS-8, iOS 8, and iOS8).

And suggested tags work excellently. Pocket nailed this feature. It isn’t particularly sharp” when you first start, only offering generic terms, but once a certain tag has been added manually, it’ll suggest it in future texts. It’s really good.

Powerful Search

Pocket promises several additional search features for those who upgrade to Premium: While the free version only searches by titles and URLs, Pocket Premium’s search FAQ advertises full-text search, search by topics and authors, multiple tag search, and the following advanced operators:

OR — Find items with either search term AND — Find items that include both search terms NOT — Find items that include the first term but not the second term sample” — Find the exact phrase +sample — Requires that the search results include this search term -sample — Requires that the search results do not include this word

Note: The search operators are case-sensitive.

When I started testing it about a month ago, Pocket Premium’s search was broken. There isn’t any other way to put it. The above operators simply weren’t working as expected. As a customer, I was very disappointed. As a reviewer, I was dumbfounded by the fact it hasn’t been noticed yet. Fortunately, Yesterday Pocket’s support informed me that they’ve fixed the operators bug that I had reported, so this section was revised.

Still, search with Pocket Premium leaves a lot to be desired. Here are a few of the tests that I’ve carried:

Say I want to limit my search for articles that contain the term Steve Jobs”. If I type in Steve Jobs” Pocket finds the articles that contain these words. But what if I want to look for an article with the word job”? Typing either job or job” still returns articles that also appear for Steve Jobs”. Yes, some of those Steve Jobs articles also contained the term job”, but many didn’t. It seems that Pocket’s double quotes operator is very forgiving.

I also tried searching for Steve Job”, which shouldn’t return any results, and while Pocket listed less items this time, many articles still persisted. I went further and gave Pocket +Steve Job” and +“Steve Job”, and Pocket still pushed results with Steve Jobs.

Pocket also displayed completely irrelevant results from time to time. Continuing with our Steve Jobs example, it listed this article in my search results: Neither of the words Steve” or Jobs” appeared in it, and definitely not Steve Jobs”. I went to the original page to see if any of these terms appear outside the article — and they don’t. It’s an article about iTunes, so maybe Pocket is trying to be extra smart here? But I’m typing Steve Jobs” with double quotes, so it should only find the exact phrase” as advertised.

When using the search bar to perform a full-text search, Pocket will look in both the archive, and the reading queue, displaying results from both. You can then filter those results to show only articles that are on one of the lists. But if you select a tag from the drop-down menu, Pocket will only display results from either lists, the one you’re currently looking at. So if you have an article in your archive tagged with keyword, Pocket won’t find it unless you switch to view that list first. When I’m searching for something, I want to find it. I don’t care what list it’s on.

Frustrated, I tried to resort to searching with tags, like I used to do with Evernote. But there seemed to be no way to search only for items that are tagged. Pocket rectifies this by giving tagged items higher priority, so they always appear at the top of search results. I can live with that.

But you can’t use operators on tags, and you can’t select multiple tags from the drop-down menu either, which means you can’t search for multiple tags. Yes, you can give Pocket multiple terms that may or may not be tags, but you can’t search only for articles that are tagged with iOS 8 and tips, for example.

Additional Quibbles

When using the (very basic) double quotes operator, Pocket doesn’t like capital letters: Looking for ios 8″ returns expected results, but iOS 8″ shows none.

On Pocket for OS X, the search bar is placed at the bottom, which to be honest, for an app that was originally designed to be a read later” service, makes sense. But not for the app that wants to be the holy grail of bookmarking. I’m not a UX expert so take my observation here with a grain of salt.

The only way to add a link to Pocket on OS X is by pressing + S, which will populate the queue with the last URL in your clipboard. You aren’t offered to tag an article once it’s added, and worse: Pocket’s OS X app doesn’t suggest tags, even if you’re a Premium member See Update Below. This is a minor issue because most times you’re adding an item from your browser, and Pocket’s browser extensions do suggest tags if you’re a Premium member. But still, what if I want to organize my list on my Mac?

Update on October 21, 2014: Pocket for OS X 1.6 was released last Friday, the same day Yosemite became available to the public. This new version does support premium features, and it does so nicely. Click the tags icon or press T and you’ll be presented with a list of suggested tags.

Summary

A good library allows both to easily archive items and find those items when the need arises. Pocket Premium does the filing part admirably with its iOS extensions, wide third party support, and suggested tags.

But the other half of the job — retrieval — needs serious work. Pocket Premium launched on May 28, 2014, and you’d expect better polish after more than four months.

I want to be fond of Pocket Premium, and I’m definitely fond of their support team: Justin has been very responsive with all my questions and complaints, and even extended my subscription (unsolicitedly) by one month as an appreciation of reporting the operators bug (which, as mentioned, was fixed yesterday).

Pocket is still the best read it later” service, but at the time of this writing, it still hasn’t graduated from that to the bookmarking Swiss army knife it wants and promises to be. I’m keeping my Pocket Premium subscription for now, but given its relatively high price, a fix for its search issues can’t come soon enough.


  1. I like to hoard graphs for some unexplained reason and there are two people I follow that frequently post some of the most interesting tech related graphs: Horace Dediu and Benedict Evans↩︎
  2. All parsers, not just Pocket’s. ↩︎
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September 17, 2014

iOS 8 Review on Pixel Envy

Yesterday I was wondering aloud whether I’m the only person on the planet who’s more excited about iOS 8 and Yosemite rather than the new iPhones and the Apple Watch. I got some quick reassurance from a few people, including Sam Hutchings who said:

iOS 8 and Yosemite working together is Magic. iPhones are iterative upgrades, and Apple Watch is just too far away just now.

I don’t know about the iPhones or watch, I’d like to ponder a little more before I make up my mind. But magic” is exactly the word that came to mind during and after this year’s WWDC. The multitude of new features introduced for both operating systems, and their binding together through Continuity, are more appealing to me than a bigger screen size. And yes, more than being able to pay with a phone.

I’ll leave the analysis and sales predictions regarding the Sixes and the watch to Apple’s certified pundits, but iOS 8 and Yosemite are (supposed to be) a revolution, no less, as far as heavy users are concerned.

For its release today, Nick Heer of Pixel Envy published a comprehensive review of iOS 8:

This is what I have gleaned from using iOS 8 every day since June 2 on my primary (and only) iPhone 5S and my Retina iPad Mini.

I usually try to extract a longer pull quote to give readers a better idea of what they’re about to read, or highlight something that was especially relevant to me. I couldn’t quite do that with Nick’s review. I’ll tell you, and this is coming from someone who thinks superlatives are the devil, that this is the best software review I’ve read in years.

The first public version of iOS 8 is a step forward, but Apple clearly has work to do before it can function anywhere near what we saw during the announcement in June.

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September 16, 2014

Welcome to The Pickle Theory

If everything worked as planned, you are reading these lines on a new domain name, and if you’re not reading these lines inside an RSS reader, you’ve probably noticed the new look, too.

Welcome to The Pickle Theory.

Let’s start with some administrative notes:

  • The domain name is now pickletheory.com. You’ll still get here if you type in the old address, so previously saved bookmarks should work just fine.

  • Accordingly, the RSS feed is now at feed.pickletheory.com. Subscribers to the old feed should be redirected automatically without having to worry about any of this, but if you do experience any hiccups, switching to the new one should help. Apologies for the inconvenience.

  • The site now has a dedicated Twitter account at @pickletheory, which will auto-tweet newly published articles.

  • There’s a new weekly newsletter for those who prefer to receive updates to their inbox. You can sign-up here.

The Name

Here’s the story” behind this very unconfusing name as it currently appears on the new about page:

The Pickle Theory is a hedge against a change of mind or taste.

The toxic combination of perfectionism and indecisiveness has led this site to several different directions over its short lifespan. Seeing as it already went through more drastic changes than it should, I wanted to protect myself from myself or any future pivots by choosing a name I could relate to today and in the long haul.

But how can one protect against change when we all know change is inevitable? And that what you write about today may not be what you write about in two years? That not only your interests and priorities are bound to change with time, but that your personality — you — might as well?

Life takes you to places you could never expect to be, and it might in time alter things that you hold high and take pride in: opinion, philosophy, belief.

So I had to pick a constant. I figured that no matter who I am in three, five, or ten years, pickles are something that I’ll always enjoy. A radio guy or a businessman; writing about technology or Chivalric romance; rich or broke; it doesn’t matter. The pickle will always be there for me.

And this is The Pickle Theory. It’s the cold realization that, after all, our most durable characteristics may also be our most frivolous1.

I’ve talked with fellow writers about this, and they all said they liked The Typist”. It’s a good name, with a sort of allure to it,” as one of them put it. But the truth is I knew from day one it was temporary, and for many reasons. It implies singularity and author-focus, and is a tad bit too romantic. I’ve been sitting on this decision for a while now, but I wanted to couple it with the unveiling of my name so this weblog doesn’t become a diary about itself.

The Design

Unlike previous redesigns, this one isn’t a mere facelift: it’s almost 40 hours of typography research, sketches, fonts, color schemes, CSS, and PHP. Every element you see has been modified, line by line. Don’t worry, I’m not going to document each one of them.

One thing I do want to talk about though is the typography: Earlier this year, I had decided to change the main typeface from the very humanist Ideal Sans to a less pretentious, plainer one. I went with Proxima Nova, the deservedly acclaimed font by Mark Simonson.

With this overhaul, I’ve gone even further within the geometric sans-serifs family, to Avenir. Avenir isn’t available on non-Apple devices, so those devices will be served with Segoe UI. Titles are set in Tablet Gothic.

Making a geometric typeface readable is quite a challenge. I’ve spent much of my time adjusting line-heights and margins, but most of the attention went to characters per line (CPL), so even though the body text is bigger than it was before, the content area has been narrowed. This means less words per line, and hopefully less eye travel and neck strain.

But I think the biggest practical improvement is the new mobile design: Over 47% of this site’s visitors in the last 3 months were on a mobile device, and the previous version — while responsive — didn’t treat this segment too well. The fonts are now bigger, the layout tighter, and there are three breakpoints instead of one, which will ensure proper typography for both smartphone and tablet users.

Many of you have kindly taken out of their time to preview this design and give feedback, and it proved immensely helpful. Thank you. There isn’t enough space between these lines to express my gratitude.

If you see anything out of place, or have any suggestions, let me know on Twitter or send an email.

Also get in touch if you want to take the 1-year over on the next redesign..


  1. But really, I was just getting sick of trying to come up with a name. ↩︎︎
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