Spotify for News: a solution for investigative journalism

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Democracies are fragile. If we want them to live and prosper, we must support their pillars. And one of them is currently under attack: journalism.

Beyond Fake News

It’s not the latest fake news epidemic that threats journalism. It is actually the other way around. Journalism is under threat and this has left the door wide open for fake news.

No, it’s not a conspiracy. The problem with journalism is financial.

With the advent of the internet, the business model of the old news organizations collapsed. Attempts to adjust to the new era have nor provided a general replacement, despite eventual success here and there.

The root of the problem is advertising. Gone are the days of the expensive full page ads. Internet does not offer something similar. And when it does, it brings in much less.

Internet ads cannot sustain adequately staffed, investigative, unbiased news teams. That’s why paywalls are on the rise among media companies. But a subscription is roughly equivalent to the newspaper price on the street, if we take out the paper costs. It was not the newspaper, the actual paper, sales that drove the income of the news outlets. It was advertising.

So, to save journalism, a new news business model is required. A business model that can generate enough revenues for news organization to thrive and prosper.

Enter the aggregator

If you ask those who continue to read the news (and care about content quality), where do they get them from, the most probable answer will be something like Flipboard. That is, not from specific “old” news brands directly.

But if this is what people like and people do, this where the monetization lies hidden.

Drawing parallels

Does this ring a bell? Certainly. We all have experienced something similar with the music industry. People don’t buy records or CD’s anymore (although the LP is making a come back, lately).

The iPod opened the way to buying single songs.And, then, came Pandora and the Spotify and their like, where you buy nothing, you own nothing, yet you can listen endlessly and at a very low cost.

A Spotify for news

Imagine a service which would be connected to all the major news organizations. Content would be categorised and served on demand much like in Flipboard. With one caveat. The content would not be free. It would require a subscription.

Another paywall? Yes. But with a difference. Paying for what one actually consumes. Proportionally.

Measuring readability is easy. And can provide the basis for splitting the subscription proceeds. So, the news orgs would continue to compete for capturing a greater audience within such an aggregator, but through other means.

What’s the difference?

… you might ask. It’s the psychology, stupid!

No hard facts here, but such a model can potentially attract a much bigger subscription base than the total aggregate of all newspaper subscribers.

Let me relate you my personal experience. In the past year, I bought subscriptions to two major publications. After a few months, I discontinued both, not because I was not satisfied with the content. On the contrary. I discontinued because I felt I did not consume enough of this content.

Why so? Because skimming content that superficially came my way through social media, I was tempted to jump here and there. But this innocent act of betrayal to my subscriptions, limited my available time. And I ended up feeling that I paid for something I was not making use of.

If the flitting behavior is our inherent preference, it should be the new black to. It should be the attitude we feel comfortable to pay for.

Is there an interested entrepreneur among my readers? Hey, you! You have a potential client here.

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Have you heard the news? Literally.

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The phrase of the title comes from the old times when the news, were heard, not read. The news, and about everything else.

Nowadays, hearing the news equates to radio, web-radio and podcast content consumption.

Is there any reason why bother with audio, when text and image are omnipresent? Yes, if you value the content and if you value your time.

Miss reading?

Reading on the internet is almost a joke. No-one reads. People scan a page, savour the title and a bulleted list and that’s it. Most of the time.

Which is astonishing, if you come to think of it. Compare the endless hours spent reading newspapers and magazines a few years back. These same people, now, cannot finish an article with more than 150 words.

With the internet and so many different devices, we are always connected. There is too much distraction. Too much craving for the next piece of “news”, be it a tweet, a facebook status or an instagram photo.

“Interference” is now the signal, not the noise.

But, what if you want to delve deeper on certain topics? What if you want to protect your eyesight from the constant focus on tiny phone screen letters ? What if you want to avoid the ensuing fatigue from the light the screens emit?

To add insult to injury, what if you’re over 45 and far-sightedness is already taking its toll on you. What if the casual reading of your smartphone has become tedious, without glasses? Next to impossible?

Finally, what if you were avid book reader and a life’s turn has wiped out much of your time? The time you dedicated to your relaxing hobby or personal education and development?

A personal observation

Sometimes my eyes get so wary from work that the slightest glance to my phone makes them hurt. A lot.

During weekends, when the eye pain problem afflicted me, I realised how much my life depends on seeing. And how impoverished my world would be without it.

Drop reading (no books, no tv, no computer, no phone or tablet) and immediately you are confronted with the question: “How will I fill the empty time?”.

Socialising with friends or an outdoor activity could make up for the loss. But, alas, the environment is not always amenable to our needs.

It was then that I started experimenting with the accessibility tools of my iPhone.

Tools of the “trade”

Turning on text-to-speech reading, allows one to listen to his favourite web pages .

Admittedly, this kind of synthetic voice is neither too appealing nor without mistakes. But it’s better than nothing.

Let me note here, that some years back, I was a podcaster. It’s odd to admit it, but it was not the love of audio that made me one. I was experimenting with all the new social media forms and podcasting was another one of the bunch. And I was also consuming podcast content, at times, quite a lot. So turning back to audio was no stranger to me.

After a little experimenting with the text-to-speech feature, I discovered something unexpected. Reading an article with the voice-over switched on required significantly less mental effort. Plus I enjoyed better comprehension.

This observation opened my appetite for more voice. But real voice this time, not synthetic.

Luckily, I knew of at least two websites where I could enjoy articles in audio and text form: Medium and Aeon.

Listening to articles read by professionals was a superior experience . It made me stick to this new habit.

The next step was audio books. I made a subscription to Audible and started listening. The first book went down easily. I am still struggling with the second though. Two reasons. It’s too long. And it’s rather complex, requiring extra attention from my still inexperienced ear.

I am not finished experimenting with audio books. But my feeling is that non-fiction books of the scientific kind are not well suited for the audio format. Literature, History and Politics seem better candidates.

But what about news? This is the title, remember?

Bloomberg’s app has a text-to-speech feature which works better than the one provided by the phone. For a quick catch up of the latest headlines, it works fine.

there is something even better. Curio. This I discovered through the Aeon magazine, mentioned above, as the audio content of Aeon is provided by Curio.

A subscription to Curio, provides you with a selection of articles from 20 high profile publications, beautifully read. I am already looking for other similar apps as they are worth their money.

Audio time

If you live in a big city, like me, chances are that you spent more than an hour commuting to work daily. Reading while driving is impossible. In buses and subways, it’s feasible but not enjoyable. The vehicle vibrations make the hand holding the book or phone shake. And the letter dance along with the trembling hand.

Turning on the radio is a solution. Provided you are ok with the quality of the program of modern radio stations. As for me, I listen to radio only for the music.

Commuting is suitable for listening to curio and medium, or an audio book. It makes the trip enjoyable and the listener better informed.

My journey to sound is definitely not over. All the content I am consuming so far is in English. I would like to find some in my native language too. And I would like to have the text and the audio always coupled.

If you have any suggestions, I would like to … hear them 🙂

Wish, Try, Achieve. Why it is false, but good to believe, anyway.

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I can’t remember how many times people have joked with Paulo Coelio’s quote:

And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

And I can’t also count how many people hold it high up in their belief system, even if they have never heard of Coelio at all.

Motivational speakers and startup mentors routinely attribute success to relentless effort. And effort to strong will. To an unbending spirit. To a fighter’s mentalityTo an internal locus of controlTo a growth mindset.

No wonder. This belief is so rooted in our culture that can be traced back to religion:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7.7)

Unfortunately, like many common beliefs, it is not true¹. It is not true because there is this menacing element in life, called luck, that gets in the way. Or, to put it more scientifically, one is bound to encounter variability, randomness and unpredictability, regardless of his intentions or efforts.

When counting for whatever quality we have, we fall somewhere on a bell curve that measures this particular quality for the human population. We might be above or below average. So, if, say one is endowed by mother nature with qualities that fall in the lower quartiles of the distribution, he is destined to achieve less than one falling on the higher quartiles, given the same amount of effort and all other thing being equal. Doesn’t sound fair, but not preposterous either.

But there is a more chilling statistic. Because chance gets in the way, those in the higher quartiles do not achieve what they were destined too. Counting for effort too, the disparity is greater. And there is a dynamic that helps those who start earlier and reap benefits earlier: they take a boost and leapfrog their equals and more. As a result, whenever we measure outcomes like success, riches, fame or power, we are confronted with an entirely “unjust” distribution, the Pareto distribution where the proverbial 10% has 90% of whatever is counted. Just look at all those articles complaining about how the 1% of the ultra-rich controls half of the worlds wealth.

As I was heading back home from work today, I was listening to an audio book: Robert Sapolsky’s “Why Zebra’s don’t get ulcers”.

I must admit is hard to grasp this kind of content in audio form, as the book has a lot of endocrinology and neurochemistry references that don’t come down easily without visual aids. Nevertheless, somewhere around chapter 17, I heard a piece of information that elucidated the subject of this post.

Sapolksy’s book is about stress and it’s effects. And it has a wealth of information about what stress can do to our bodies and minds (mostly bad things). In Chapter 17 though, there were some good news about how to cope with stress, or, better, what can make our reaction to stressful situations less pronounced or even non existent, at all.

One prominent such factor is being, or, at least, feeling, in control. Surprisingly, it doesn’t make a difference.

Life is stressful, modern life more so. Aiming higher than the average is even more stressful. And if you want to make it to the top, the stress is almost unbearable. So it is paramount to get any help you can on the way. And such a help is a deeply held belief that the outcome is depended only on your efforts. That you are in control of your life, of your happiness, of your destiny. Or, to put it more realistically, that you feel like you are in control. Down goes the stress.

With less stress, any effort has better chances of a more benevolent outcome. So if luck is blind to our efforts, we should get blind to its obstacles. We might not reach our destination, but we will get closer, and we will have a much more pleasant journey.


  1. It is also a, so called, metaphysical claim, a term the epistemologists use for sentences that cannot be proved wrong. Why it can’t be proved wrong? Simply, because if you try as hard as you can and come to no end, you do not disprove the proposition, as one can always tell you: “You didn’t try enough”.

The five stages of GDPR

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1. Denial

It’s not about us. We do not have sensitive data. It will not be implemented. People won’t understand it or adopt it. We are too small to matter. Who will dig up our sh*t, anyway?

2. Anger

Those bastards in Brussels, what else they will come up with? F*ck them, we won’t do anything. Let them come. We will deliver trouble.

3. Bargaining

If we change our contracts to look compliant, will we avoid detection? If we move outside Europe? If we delegate to third parties? If we delay a few months past the May 25 deadline?

4. Depression

We will never make it. We don’t have the skills or the resources to comply. If we get sued, it’s game over.

5. Acceptance

Roll up sleeves. Get a quotation from this consultant. Arrange a meeting with that lawyer. Dig up this diagram with your processes. Dig in your data files. Get insurance coverage. And, God help us.

3 thoughts about what is coming

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We just changed to 2017 and writing about time looks fitting.

It is three years now that when I encounter an extraordinary event, I mentally play a game: I am trying to predict what its repercussions will be, both short and long term.

For example, after the Brexit vote, I tried to divine what will be the medium term reaction of the markets to the British pound.

I won’t boast that I have made any spectacular predictions so far. If there is anything that has turned up from this habit, is that I am now alert of the possible outcomes and won’t be but moderately surprised from what will eventually take place.

This mental game though, has led me gradually to longer term prediction attempts. Not really predictions of an outcome, but rather fathoming of the consequences of a possible outcome.

There are three things, that currently look remote, but which I deem not so, and which, regardless of the time span, I think will have unprecedented consequences. Not for my/our/current view/life/perspective, but for the humankind as a whole.

Here they are, ordered by their future proximity.

The end of work.

This is the first thing that I see coming. And it cannot come easily. If you skim the news these days, you can’t miss either announcements of factory job replacements by robots or white collars turned obsolete by a certain AI.

The truth is that technology has reached a point where it can substitute any kind of human labor.

There is a line of thought that goes like this: a lot of jobs will be lost, but new ones will be created.

Numbers are always missing in such claims, because they are hard to come up with, in the first place, but, primarily, because they are very inconvenient. If there is going to be a shift in the type of labor on demand, it will be but an insignificant fraction of the type turned obsolete.

A more realistic approach is the discussion about a Universal Minimum Income for all. UMI, or basic income, the theory goes, will be given unconditionally and without exchange. And regardless if the recipient is employed or not. Actually, it is even presented as a job stimulant, in certain cases. And there are already a few countries (CanadaFinlandScotland) experimenting with the concept while the EU MP’s have started a discussion for a Pan-European roll out.

This makes more sense. There are huge unanswered questions about what a life without employment will be like, what will it mean to our psychology, curiosity, drive, creative powers, relationships etc. But at least, UMI will prevent us from one very violent thing: a massive revolt that will bring an unprecedented global bloodshed without solving the problem.

Why a revolt wouldn’t solve the problem?

Time and again, we have seen that once a technology is introduced, it cannot be taken back. It can only become obsolete by another technology. Regardless of how many people will lose their lives in such a luddite but truly justifiable uprising, robots and AI are here to stay. And we better be prepared.

Leaving scepticism aside for a moment, let’s try to imagine what UMI implies.

All the economies of the world today combine capital with labor to make products and services. This is what Adam Smith and Karl Marx have taught us.

Robots and AI are a sort of capital. They are owned by individuals or firms, and, if they become the sole production factor, the capital owners are entitled to all the gains from production. No salaries are due or required, no income for the average person is generated. Everything goes to the capitalist.

There are big question marks here. Those with an economic background will raise a flag: “Supply creates its own demand” they will say, echoing John Maynard Keynes and his reformulation of the Say’s law. With one apparent difference: labor was the factor mediating between supply and demand. As supply increases, wages are paid that become income that becomes demand, it turn. But what happens if the need to pay wages does not exist anymore?

Longevity.

The life expectancy kept increasing in the previous century, going from ~40 to ~80. It has, effectively, doubled in a century. And this trend will continue. There is a biological limit which we have approached very closely. But it is questionable whether this limit is meaningful any more, since biotechnology and genetics are making inroads into reverse-engineering human biology something that can increase artificially the human lifespan (there are already companies founded with this sole purpose).

By how much?

Who knows? Maybe indefinitely. If you can break down a mechanism to its parts and then can replace the faulty ones and reassemble it, you can make it work almost indefinitely.

But here is the double problem: All the more people will become jobless but will potentially be able to live longer because, to a certain extent, the breakthroughs in the human engineering will drip down to anyone. Restless ness will be on the rise.

But, say, a key part of bioengineering is very expensive. Like, rejuvenating a brain. What if this can give people a 50% increase in their life expectancy? And what if it is marketed so as to be affordable only by the very few? Historically, death was the great equalizer. It is what religions have always preached: we are all equal in front of death. This teaching has been some consolation for the poor, and, at times, a form of justice. The only one they were left with.

But if this final limit becomes a luxury product, then the poor will feel shattered, ultimately cheated, deprived of the last drop of worth and dignity. And they will revolt. Much more fiercely than they would because of wealth differences. And then what? Resolution or dystopia?

The great leap forward.

In a jobless world with longer lifespans and re-engineered bodies, space travel will not be that unthinkable anymore. Even with the current spacecraft speeds, going to the nearest star and back will be within the span of a lifetime.

But why go to space, in the first place?

If Elon Musk’s argument (being an interplanetary species gives us more chances of survival) is not convincing you, then the quest for raw materials will make more sense. The asteroid belt is full of them and technology is always hungry for more.

I am not talking about fossil fuel, of course. There aren’t any elsewhere in the solar system, and, with the progress in renewable technologies soon we won’t be needing them anyway.

I am talking about metals, rare metals, too expensive to find on an earth already overexploited. Far fetched? Well, Luxemburg is already drafting laws about asteroid exploitation. And, at least two (Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries) companies have announced relevant plans.

But the economic aspect, while compelling, it is not the most thrilling one. The most thrilling aspect is the possibility of a first attempt to an interstellar manned travel.

Think of it: the Earth will be full, people will not worry about subsistence, lives will be longer and healthier. Certainly some people will think, even out of sheer boredom, to make the big leap and try to explore the Cosmos. The Martial colonisation already has attracted volunteers even without the conditions mentioned before. How many more will come then, when the prerequisites materialise?

Given the advances in medical technologies and AI, and for the needs of such a travel, we can imagine various enhancements of the human biology and cognition. Enhancements that might frighten us now but that will be fundamental for the survival in outer space.

And if we arrive to this, shall we be humans anymore? The nuances of what is human, transhuman and posthuman will be all too real and pretty much blurred.

One thing is certain: the future will not be boring.

Updates:

Here I will list all things that corroborate the views expressed above.

The AI Threat Isn’t Skynet. It’s the End of the Middle Class.

As Goldman Embraces Automation, Even the Masters of the Universe Are Threatened

What It Would Take to Reach the Stars

UAE Announces Plans to Have a Human Colony on Mars by 2117

.Net Core on a Mac

It’s been ages since I blogged anything. More, anything technical. Since I am in the process of experimenting with ASP .NET Core on my Mac, I thought to take the opportunity and log this journey here.

So far I have done three things:

This isn’t as straightforward as just installing Visual Studio Code. To have scaffolding one  needs to rely on CLI tools, and to do some client side development on the usual suspects: bower, jQuery, bootstrap etc. Which means you need to spend a lot of time  with the Terminal.

  • Set up a development database

While one can experiment with SQLite or MySQL, I wanted the real Microsoft thing, SQL Server, and since this isn’t available for Mac I used Virtual Box with a Windows 10 LTSB guest, where I installed SQL Server Express.

To connect to the database from the host, the VirtualBox has to be on bridged networking and SQL Server should be accepting TCP connections.

  • Found a relatively simple project that entails the most common workflows.

Our company’s website  is multilingual and it is WordPress based (no wonder). While the blog  parts serve their purpose nicely, the pages are bloated (HTML-wise) and have a lot of javascript code running (for a reason) which could benefit from a slimming diet.

So, I thought, why not try to migrate the WordPress pages (not the posts) to an MVC site based on Asp .Net Core. To make things more interesting, I want to add some dynamic content too, pulled from our app’s database (why should I be bothering with SQL Server if I didn’t?).

And here I am. So far, I have made some progress which I will relate in subsequent posts. This post is only an introduction to the theme. If you have interest in such experiments, stay tuned.

Why people stick to their views despite evidence to the contrary?

Why people stick to their views despite evidence to the contrary?

More, why do they stick to their views fanatically especially when there is evidence to the contrary?

From the little I have read on the subject, the explanation seems to lie in our perception of “self”. Our views are an essential part of what we perceive as our “self” and an attack on the views is considered as an attack on the “self”. Therefore, we counterattack.

To reinforce the sense of “self” we stick to like minded people, read and watch only what confirms our prejudices and revel on the trashing of the “opponents”.

This must be a “bug” of our mental apparatus. Because, in the course of time, we change views anyway. Only never when we are told so. So we change “self” and disprove the importance of having this specific view or the other.

But in the short term we consider our views as “eternal” because this serves well the “selfishness” of this plastic thing called “ the self”. Maybe this is what led Buddha to proclaim that the “self” is an illusion.

How do we fix this “bug”? This is an open question. My personal experience leads me to believe that it happens more easily in non-confrontational situations. More likely when you are reading a book, or watching a documentary, than when you are discussing with another person.

Which shifts the problem to “how one picks the right book/documentary/experience etc” that would help him to fix his views?

In essence, we never “pick”. Like the social media maxim goes, the “news” find us. And it is precisely into this modern space, the social media space, that it gets easier to pick up new views provided that they just “flow” around you and not directed at you. At least, I think so.

The productivity of illness

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
It has happened to me a few times but it wash’t until today, the third day of being confined at home because of my flu, that I began to see the pattern.

Being sick is a great chance to think! 

“Oh, man, this is … sick”, you might say. Maybe, but it is true nevertheless. And there is a very good reason for this: you don’t have many alternatives.

What I mean is that if you are really sick, you probably are in bed, cannot do a lot of work, cannot see or talk to many people, watch tv, read books or surf the net. If you are really sick. Or you can do all of the above but for a limited amount of time. And the rest of the day you lie on your bed suffering and waiting.

But there is an organ  that is not too much affected by the condition of the rest of the body: the brain.

Yes, you might be sleepy or feel that your thought is misty, yet, in the absence of external preoccupations, and with plenty of idle time,  all your latent thoughts, worries, forgotten tasks, fears, hopes and desires will find a way to sneak into your consciousness. And here lies your moment of opportunity: you can play it like tv, i.e. watch and forget, or you can try to make some sense out of this mental jumble, discover things, short out other and finally, find inspiration and motivation to change your way onwards.

And this is precisely the pattern I realised today: it has happened to me each time I was in bed for more than one day. And each time I got away with something good. Not always significant or lasting, but, at least temporarily, beneficial.

As a matter of fact, this is how I came up with the Discoveroom idea. It was two years ago when I was in bed for about a month because of my waist. As a matter of fact, lots of ideas came to me then. I even had  a moleskine by me to note them down quickly. I also started learning ruby and embarked in a pet project utilising codeigniter. But the one thing that got stuck was Discoveroom (not by this name, or any name, in the beginning) and now that I am again in bed, this is the one I find myself deliberating about.

So, what’s the moral here? Get ill to get things done? Of course not. The moral is that there is no idle time. Only idle people. You choose what you are.