Send-to-Kindle from Chrome

I came across Postlight’s Mercury Reader not too long ago. It’s great for improving the readability of long articles and essays online. Soon after, I also found out that it can send such pages to Kindle! This is a really cool hack to be able to read long reads from the web on your Kindle, with all the nice formatting and fonts that you’re already used to.

The Parser behind their reader is now open-source too, which I thought was cool.

Related: Amazon also has a Send-to-Kindle via Chrome extension, but it doesn’t seem to work as well for me.

Newsletters and the Inbox as our News Feed

All of a sudden, it seems just about everyone is either a) starting a newsletter or b) bragging that they started a newsletter back in 2012. (“I sent one before it was cool.”)

The move towards email newsletters has been going on for a while. Not sure the initial trigger that kicked off the conversation this past week. In one corner, maybe it was the good Craig Mod post “Oh God, It’s Raining Newsletters”. It’s newsletters once more because email is an open system that no one owns, a do-what-you-will-with-it bit of freedom from the big tech giants. We’re “leaning on an open, beautifully staid, inert protocol. SMTP [is] our savior.”

Underneath the trend:

  • We’ve all been wanting away from the social platforms and the noise they bring: Email allows the writer to feel as if they’re writing in “Distraction-Free Mode”: they’re writing only for you. They don’t have to go into a platform to see everyone else’s thoughts before contributing their own. Curating links and writing thoughts takes time, and the writer better do a good job, lest they get unsubscribed. On the other side, when someone else reads it, their interface also is “Distraction-Free”: it only shows the writer’s note by itself, one-email-at-a-time — tap in to read it and swipe back to list;
  • We crave owning our data, not just content, but fans & followers as well – their emails, the ability to start a new conversation directly with them, leaving it to the individual to determine whether to respond, block or share you;
  • We want some sort of decentralization, whatever that means for who you are and what you care about: no middlemen taking a cut; no central authority in charge; no algorithms getting in the way and determining who and what gets seen; no bad actors getting between your content and your fans;
  • We crave direct access to numbers – engagement, opens, replies – not the algorithms and what the central players decide – but what end readers care about. The readers are the ones opening your emails and sharing them based on how good your writing is.

To me, none of this is any different than all of us slowly starting up (or restarting) our blogs again. It’s a way to get back to owning our own destinies once more: brand & design, domain names & URLs, followers & micro-communities.

With our social feeds being so polluted these days, combined with the fact that we no longer have easy ways to subscribe to specific people and feeds through well-designed feed readers, we have no place else to go. The inbox has become the feed reader by default, as it used to be before we had RSS, readers, social feeds and the like. We’ve gone full circle to where we started, and there are many things broken about it (e.g., discovery), but it’s a move towards something better.

Borrowing e-books from NYPL

I feel like I just discovered some sort of superpower. And I can’t believe I’m only now jumping on this when others have probably known this secret for a while now: You can borrow e-books (and audiobooks) from your local library. You don’t even need to leave home (well, except to get a library card if you don’t already have one).

To get going, you’ll need to link your library card – NYPL, in my case – to an app like OverDrive’s Libby. Then, you place holds as you would physical books, and depending on the number of books your library can let out, you’ll be put on a wait list. After a book is borrowed, you can also have the app send them to your Kindle, so you can read them alongside books you’ve also bought on Amazon. This is quite nice, because you can stick with the device and reading app you most prefer, as opposed to being forced into a new reading experience inside Libby (as great as it is).

Now that we nearly always seem to have Baby in hand, I’ve been getting into audiobooks as well. The great part about using an app like Libby is that you can borrow audiobooks for free from your library too. There’s a place-hold/wait/borrow flow similar to e-books.

Advantages:

  • you don’t have to spend $25+ on an audiobook;
  • the library hold queue is nice because you can just add books as you come across them, and Libby will alert you once it’s been borrowed;
  • the 14-day or so hold periods are nice because they force you to read or listen to a book and give you a short window in which to do it. If you don’t like a particular book, it more quickly gets you to a state where you say, “I think I’ll just return it”, instead of trying to slog through it.

Disadvantages:

  • bookmarks and highlights work, but you’ll have to borrow the book again to find out what they were. So for some books in particular, especially those you want to come back to and re-read, you’ll probably just want to buy the physical or Kindle copy.

I’m only a few weeks into the year and I realize I’m on leave, but I’ve already gotten through six books using this method so far.

README

I’m trying a new experiment: a Telegram channel where I can share interesting reads. TBD how long I can keep up such a thing, or what I might learn from it, but here goes! My hope is that it will be less noisy than the other social graphs, and much more two-way a conversation than the read-it-later sites which aren’t really meant for sharing with others. I imagine it will mostly be about technology, startups, New York City, dogs, and soon, about babies.

Subscribe if you wish: naveen/README.

The Hacker’s Dozen HOPE

For a little bit this past weekend, I hit 2600’s HOPE XII (A Hacker’s Dozen).

I didn’t spend long enough time hanging out and exploring to really get into it this year, so my new learnings list is far smaller:

  • Qubes has a lot of cool features:
    • Discrete VMs for each app, and perhaps for each document or link you might want to open
    • The ability to intercept clicks on links so that you don’t accidentally click phishing links and can route which VM to send them to. So, technically, you could click on a link in your email client in one VM, and then capture that to open it in a completely separate throwaway VM where the other side won’t have your details from your client you don’t want them to.
    • sys-usb – an interesting way to control and route all USB devices you plug into your computer (as soon as you plug in a device, it’ll ask you what you want to do with it, and you can redirect it to a specific VM, if you so choose)
    • For very serious compartmentalization and anonymity, you can run Whonix inside of Qubes and tunnel the whole thing via Tor
    • If you really want to separate your Signal identity and be anonymous, or have multiple ones (which you can’t do on your phone because it’s tied to your phone number), you compartmentalize a Signal desktop with a Twilio number on top of a Qubes VM (!)
  • Kali is a Linux distribution specifically designed for digital forensics and penetration testing and comes with all the pen-testing tools pre-installed, so you can just run it off a USB stick.
  • Hologram and Particle are cellular connectivity platforms for IoT, like those you see in all those electric scooters: they all need an easy way to phone home cheaply and efficiently.
  • Four Thieves Vinegar Collective works to put out guides to making your own medicine, especially if it’s not otherwise available or if you can make it for far less money than you would pay (they’ve been eluding the FDA by only making guides, not actually selling drugs).

Towards the end of the first day, my friend Chad reminded me of an old-but-great Times article about a hacker gathering in the Puck Building in 1997. This gathering, of course, was the second HOPE conference: Beyond HOPE. (Be sure to click to step back into 1997 Lafayette Street & the Puck.) The article was about hacking the at-the-time newly released gold MetroCard – the only way to see if it’s secure and a threat to privacy “is to tear it down and see how it ticks”.

Disguised in his trademark red ski mask and a yellow Transit Authority baseball cap given to employees, Red Balaklava — who refuses to identify himself, for obvious reasons, but who showed his Transit Authority identification card to a reporter — gave a seminar yesterday summing up the progress thus far. Overcoming the now ubiquitous Metrocard is an issue of privacy, he insisted, not free rides.

”They can tell where you’ve been and when you’ve been there,” he said. ”All the information is stored on their computers. Does anyone here have a problem with that besides me?”

”Yes!” came the resounding reply.

Privacy was a major theme at the last HOPE I attended too: it hasn’t gone away or gotten any easier for any of us in the last two decades. With all the talk these days of where your data resides and who can do what with it, my favorite part came at the end of the article:

Katie Lukas, 20, of Brooklyn said she already had the best way to ”hack” the Metrocard.

”I use tokens,” said Ms. Lukas, who wore a beeper in the waist of her skirt. ”It’s the Transit Authority, you know. Anything that is going to store information at all and has the word ”authority” on it, I try not to use.”

How times have changed indeed.

Just kids

A wander through the old Whitney building (now The Met Breuer) always reminds us of one beautiful part of Patti Smith’s Just Kids where she and Robert Mapplethorpe go exploring the city.

On other days, we would visit art museums. There was only enough money for one ticket, so one of us would go in, look at the exhibits, and report back to the other.

On one such occasion, we went to the relatively new Whitney Museum on the Upper East Side. It was my turn to go in, and I reluctantly entered without him. I no longer remember the exhibit, but I do recall peering through one of the museum’s unique trapezoidal windows, seeing Robert across the street, leaning against a parking meter, smoking a cigarette.

He waited for me, and as we headed toward the subway he said, “One day we’ll go in together, and the work will be ours.”

Oculus Shift: Experience and Accessibility

I still remember the first time I had a ‘wow‘ moment with VR: I was playing with a student’s project at NYU ITP a few years ago. I found myself in an abandoned hilly town. It had simple graphics, like an early 90s first-person game, but it was fun to explore the streets as one would in any new city. There was something wrong with the town though: it was flooding, and the water level was quickly rising. This wasn’t a game; there was no help or prompt or alarm blaring in my headset, just the occasional reflections off the choppy surface showing it was coming for me. The program didn’t tell me to do so, but as soon as I realized what was going on with the water, I kept navigating to higher ground.

When the water level finally caught up with me and I was just about to submerge, I gasped! I took a sharp breath in and my heart skipped a beat and I swear there was some balance adjustment from my ears signaling my feet there would be no more ground. It was very subtle, but it had fooled my mind – even if for just a second.

Even though I’d tried a few different headsets and played with immersive games before, that was the first time that I truly felt like something had shifted – with the platform, for the developers programming experiences, for me.

The next time an experience changed things for me was when I was exploring one of the VR spaces in New York City, including the Hubneo VR space in the Lower East Side.

They’ve built their own motion rigs upon which you can sit and use the headsets: a car rig with two dimensions and a plane rig with three dimensions. (All were connected to Oculus Rifts). The experience really elevated my expectations of the virtual: I tried flying an old WW2-era plane over England and a spaceship in 360-degree space. After a few minutes, it really felt like I was a part of each craft, with the freedom to look up, roll up and back in many directions – the dogfights came alive like never before.

To top it off, a flight sim that would’ve cost tens of thousands in the past was put together with some shocks and discount pieces of wood from Long Island City. (Note: I don’t know where he got the wood.)

This is the second such place I’ve been to in New York: the first was a small shop on the Bowery where kids rented time on an hourly basis to check out various VR rigs and games. Sure, maybe you won’t have these at home anytime soon (and definitely not in our small NYC apartments) but these spaces bring these toys and experiences to kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to have it.

I highly recommend you try one of the in-person spaces, because their equipment and setup is already perfectly tweaked for you to get the best immersion in a small amount of time.

Both of those past transformative experiences though, require a few thousand dollars worth of headsets and computers and rigs. So it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I tried the Oculus Go for the first time where I had the next evolution of that ‘wow‘ – this time because of the access it affords to many more people.

At $199, it is one of the cheapest pieces of equipment you can buy for your living room – right in line with an Apple TV. It syncs quite easily enough with your phone and is wireless – set yourself up anywhere you wish. Go feels like the beginning of the first mainstream virtual reality device that many people could have in their homes and offices. You can sense a small shift in computing.

To get it hooked up and running, I had to get back on Facebook. Ugh; I could feel my anxiety level rising. I haven’t been on Facebook all year (see: Reconnection), and I was a little bit bummed to have had to log back into the service to set up the device. But for all its missteps, you have to hand it to Facebook: they’ve gotten all their acquisitions right (photos, texting, virtual reality).

The setup and first-time flow is just very smooth. As soon as you put it on, you get immersed into the user interface and you get going. All the apps you might expect are already on the platform. There are a few games, including a few from worlds like Marvel’s Suicide Squad and Stranger Things, the latter of which is a very scary immersion. Oddly, Netflix is also included: you can sit on your real couch in front of your real TV but with Go on your face within which you’re sitting on a couch watching Netflix on a virtual TV hanging on the same wall in front of you. I…am not so sure about this. You’ve also got chat which leads me to think it would be cool to do some new sort of video conferencing through this. Imagine one where you can project multiple parallel screens of information to one another, which isn’t easily possible in normal video conferencing, because your primary viewport is taken up by the person projecting.

Maybe we won’t be all sitting at home with these things (think of our spouses) – but I can see it becoming a side experience. It won’t become a primary interface for anything anytime soon, but it feels like it is is strong enough to be a second screen for when you need it, like an iPad. Take it with you and use it for moments you don’t want to sit with your phone and where you want a different screen. I can already see people sporting these on the NYC-SF geek flights. (*shudder*) It’s like a coach version of those Emirates first class pods – shut off your neighbors and be by yourself and in your own world. Flying on the plane, you’re no longer on the ground; flying in virtual reality, you’re no longer on this plane.

Kit and Patreon (and The Whole Earth Catalog)

We launched Kit a little over two years ago with a simple idea: help people discover the products worth getting — and create a new kind of experience where your creativity and knowledge actually earn you money. We were excited to see the idea take off as YouTubers, Twitch streamers, bloggers, and creators of all types used Kit to share their favorite products with their fans and followers.

Today, we announced that Kit will be joining up with Patreon.

At Patreon, team Kit will continue the commitment to connecting creators and fans, by building tools to enable creators to share their life’s work and making it easier to reward creativity and expertise.

It got me thinking back to the early days of Kit.

Like many other communities before it, Kit was inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog and by the counterculture movement and thinking started by Stewart Brand in 1968.

The Whole Earth Catalog was sort of a Google before Google and online review sites were around: people coming together to create a publication to help one another with tips and products to make life easier. “Things worth getting”, Kit’s tagline, was inspired by lines from the opening page of the 1969 Catalog:

Function

The WHOLE EARTH CATALOG functions as an evaluation and access device. With it, the user should know better what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting.

An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed:

1. Useful as a tool,
2. Relevant to independent education,
3. High quality or low cost,
4. Not already common knowledge,
5. Easily available by mail.

CATALOG listings are continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of CATALOG users and staff.

Purpose
We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.

We found ourselves aligning with these original ideas and purpose. One of the first things we did at Kit, almost before we wrote the first line of code and did the first user study, was to write down our purpose and our values and how we wanted to treat one another and to treat creators (and how we saw ourselves as creators too – photographers, writers, designers). We set out not only to build a successful product and team, but a long-lasting community as well.

We started thinking of Kit as a modern-day Catalog: what the catalog was in the late sixties in the medium that was possible then (a magazine put together by hand), we were doing in 2018 with tools and community and technology that we have access to now.

The strange magazine – part tools catalog and part how-to book – was re-imagined as an online community in Kit where creators and experts could share their learnings about photography, arts & crafts, DIY, health, music and so many more topics. People came to help people: creators and experts helped amateurs and those that wanted to know more. Build tools for the individual, share that knowledge with whomever is interested and allow people to find inspiration and conduct their own education.

The Whole Earth Catalog turned fifty this year.

In a bit of coincidence, later this week, there will be an event in San Francisco with Stewart where he will look back on the impact and long legacy of the Catalog. (I wish I could be there!) It is wonderful to pause and think of how many ideas his movement touched: the early internet, the maker movement, health and wellness, online communities and, of course, Kit.com itself.

Thank you to all who helped work on Kit over the years: Camille, Will, Grant, Armand, Tom, John, Miles, Aloke, Jen, Jico, Eli, Kevin, Mia, Tim, Leslie and Julia.

In the words of the Catalog: Stay hungry, stay foolish.