Whither native app developers?

I’ve noticed something interesting lately. Five years ago, senior developers with significant iOS experience available for new work seemed approximately as easy to find as unicorns who also laid golden eggs. Even two years ago, they were awfully hard to unearth. This year, though? Maybe it’s just a random blip — but this year, like the truth, they seem to be out there. And a few things make me suspect it’s not a blip.

App Annie’s “State of Mobile 2019” refers obliquely to “mobile maturity,” i.e. the point at which the number of downloads per year flattens out in a given market. That same report shows that the US is there; the number of app downloads in the US increased a paltry 5% from 2016 to 2018 — though it’s worth noting that app revenue which flowed through the app store increased 70% in that same time.

Meanwhile, the number of apps in the iOS App Store is essentially flat over the last two years — this has been influenced by more stringent approval standards from Apple, yes, but is still noteworthy.

Meanwhile meanwhile, non-native cross-platform development platforms are growing in popularity. “We scanned Microsoft’s iOS and Android apps and discovered that 38 of them, including the likes of Word, Excel, Xbox, and many others, were recently updated to include React Native” reports AppFigures, who add “In the last year use of React Native has nearly doubled.”

I can confirm anecdotally that clients are increasingly interested in building cross-platform apps, or at least simple cross-platform apps, in React Native. I certainly don’t think this is always the right move — I wrote about this decision and its trade-offs for ExtraCrunch a couple of months ago — but It’s certainly a more viable option than Cordova/Ionic, which I’ve had nothing but multiple terrible experiences with over the years. And then there’s the slow but distinct rise of PWAs.

Is the app boom over? Are today’s app experts doomed to become the COBOL programmers of tomorrow? Not so fast. Native development tools and technologies have gotten a lot better in that time, too. (For instance, I’ve never talked to anyone who doesn’t vastly prefer Swift to Objective-C, and while Kotlin is newer, it seems to be on a similar trajectory for Android.) And we’re still seeing consistent growth in a “long tail” of new app development, which, instead of being built for mass consumer or enterprise-wide audiences, are built and iterated for very specific business needs.

But I’d still feel at least slightly uneasy about going all-in as a specialist app developer if I was early in my career. Not because the market’s going to go away … but because, barring some new transcendent technology available only on phones (maybe some AR breakthrough?) the relentless growth and ever-increasing demand of yesteryear is, in mature markets like the US, apparently gone for the foreseeable future. There’s still some growth, but it seems that’s being sopped up by the rise of non-native development.

In short, for the first time since the launch of the App Store it’s possible to at least envision a future in which the demand for native app developers begins to diminish. It’s certainly not the only possible future. This certainly isn’t the conventional wisdom — just ask any of the hordes of Android developers flocking to Google I/O in May, or WWDC in June. But it might be worth building up a backup strategy, just in case.

Some ruminations on decentralization of identifications

It’s tax season, which has me thinking about one of decentralized technology’s holy grails: self-sovereign identities. It’s a stirring vision, of a world in which control over our driver’s licenses, passports, birth certificates, social security numbers — the table stakes to participate in the modern economy — rests in our hands, rather than that of the governments who issue them and the companies who demand them. A world in which the tools of identity are as accessible to a stateless refugee as they are to an investment banker.

The concept is most eloquently explained by Christopher Allen in his essay “The Path To Self-Sovereign Identity” a few years ago. This piece recapitulates online identities: the hierarchically dictated identities of the Domain Name System and certificate authorities, still in use today; the idealistic, impractical “Web of Trust” of PGP; OpenID and OAuth; argues that the next phase of identity is self-sovereign identity; and itemizes its ten core principles. (Independent existence, user control, user access, transparent systems, long lives, transportable services, wide usability, user consent, minimized disclosure, protected rights.)

“Sounds great,” I hear you saying, “but what exactly does that all mean?” When you boil that stirring set of concepts and principles down to “what actually happens at the DMV after it switches to self-sovereign identities,” it probably — though there are conflicting visions — looks like this. Warning: blockchain ahead.

  1. Your unique, global, personally controlled “identity” is an account on a global shared datastore not beholden to any government or organization. (I told you a blockchain was coming.) You access this account via the knowledge of a secret series of words, which can be transformed into a cryptographic private key.
  2. You bring your phone — on which you’ve already unlocked your identity — to the DMV, and have it convey to their systems the identification they need. Today, I would need my physical green card, with my photo, and two physical proofs of address — say, one each from PG&E and Chase Bank. In a self-sovereign world, I wouldn’t need any documents at all. I wouldn’t even need my own phone; any trusted piece of hardware with access to that decentralized system would do. That “identity account” would already include attestations from the US government, PG&E, and Chase, stating e.g. “Chase Bank confirms that Jon is known to receive physical mail at this address,” signed with Chase’s own unforgeable private key.
  3. I would approve the sharing of those attestations — and only those relevant for this particular mission; the DMV needs my address, but doesn’t need my bank account balance or my credit rating. My green-card attestation would include the photo of me taken during that process. The DMV would then take their own photo of me, and…
  4. send to me their own attestation, “Jon is licensed to drive cars and motorcycles for noncommercial purposes in California until 1 April 2024, and this is a picture of him as of 1 April 2019,” signed by their own private key. My phone would then verify this attestation (presumably transferred to me as something like a QR code) and attach it to my own global identity account.
  5. When carded at a bar, I would then provide that photo and the attestation of my age. If pulled over by the police, I’d provide all the legally required information regarding my identity and registration … and no more.

You’ll notice that this “decentralized” solution requires buy-in from the State of California, PG&E, and JP Morgan Chase … i.e. the current centralized providers of identity information. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that they’re willing to participate in this system, sign and use digital attestations, etc. Certainly enterprises are at least interested in the notion.

The advantages are significant. Identity theft would become vastly more difficult; knowing my social security number and address would do no good if the thief couldn’t sign them as me. The estimated billion people on Earth with no formal documents could begin chains of attestations, starting with local establishments who know them personally, or the UN High Commission on Refugees, which could in time accumulate into something solid enough to build credit and formally own property. Best of all, as long as you remembered your mnemonic phrase, you would literally carry all of your ID in your head, and would only ever need a cheap burner phone to use them. It would be a world devoid of any fear of losing your passport / green card / driver’s license / credit cards.

(You’ll note that Apple Card is a half-step towards such a world…)

Online, persistent passwords could be replaced by one-time-use ones — something as simple as signing a salted timestamp with a private key (well, in practice probably a revocable intermediate key) and having the site in question check that signature against your identity account’s public key. Phishing would become a thing of the past, because no password would or even could ever be used twice.

The complexities and disadvantages are also, to understate, nontrivial. In the case of losing or being forced to surrender your identity key, you could have a “social recovery” procedure in which, say, a majority of 5 out of 7 people, chosen by you, presumably very close and trusted, would have the power to recover or rotate your identity key, rendering your old one useless… but this is obviously much more difficult and fault-prone than going to a centralized power who can fix you up with the stroke of a single key.

What’s more, the sheer accumulation of all those attestations in one place could turn that into a single point of failure, and make them more vulnerable to misuse. Right now, immigration officers don’t usually ask for your credit rating, because it isn’t realistic to expect everyone to carry or have access to that information. But in a world where the same technology which tells them “this person is a citizen of Nation X” has the power to inform them, at the same time, of their credit rating … that expectation may change.

It’s possible that unifying identities and attestations in a single place is actually quite undesirable; individuals may theoretically have control over what they share, but in practice, can be put under duress where they have little choice to surrender it all. It’s not hard to envision a world in which states put you through the equivalent of an IRS audit, and airlines demand all your banking and credit information which then use to relentlessly upsell, every time you travel between countries … purely because they can, because doing so has become technically easy, and all your attestations are known to the attesters too, so you must constantly “volunteer” all your data to get anything done.

(You’ll note that people from poor countries applying for visas to rich countries must already go through this kind of invasive in-depth investigation of their personal and financial history. In this future technology would be a great equalizer! …by treating everyone in the same dystopian way.)

In short: decentralized self-sovereign identities are not a panacea, and if not carefully structured, they could even be an accidental boon to authoritarian governments. But their potential is great enough that I’m glad to see more and more companies working on them (particularly Sovrin and uPort, and Keybase is doing good work in this area too.) Watch this space: I expect a lot of interesting developments in this field over the next few years.

We don’t need no education?

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately, and I’ve been watching the rise of Lambda School — which I think is fantastic, incidentally — and the combination has me wondering two things:

  1. how educated do software engineers need to be?
  2. And how well does that map to what they actually learn from formal education?

Let’s step back and define some terms before we try to answer those. First, by “formal” education I generally mean a four-year accredited university, whereas people with eg Lambda School or boot camps behind them are “informally” educated, and in turn distinguished from autodidacts. This is not universal. Early Google didn’t seem to consider anyone with less than a masters “formally” educated.

Second, of course there’s no absolute need. Since the dawn of the first vacuum tube, and very much including hardcore grotty stuff like compilers and cryptography, software has been a field in which people with no formal training whatsoever have thrived and succeeded wildly. Obviously neither a formal nor an informal education is actually necessary. What we’re actually asking is: in general, is there reason to believe software engineers with formal educations are better hires?

Note that, speaking as an employer, I don’t actually care whether this is due to selection bias, i.e. whether it’s because capable people are more likely to be formally educated or because they actually learned from it. I’m happy to accept that the entire university system in any country, especially yours, is deeply and increasingly pathological, unfairly and jealously hierarchical, terrifyingly high-priced, and deeply flawed at credentialing and capability signaling.

That’s a big deal to me personally … but when wearing my hiring hat, I don’t care about how that credentialing sausage is made. All I’m interested in, when I’m interviewing, is: are those signals meaningful? Are those people more or less likely to succeed, or make a mess I will subsequently have to clean up?

It’s awfully hard to find applicable statistics here, let alone any whose compilers didn’t have some implicit axe to grind. And of course I have my own biases: I have a four-year degree, from a (Canadian) school outside the hierarchy of the (American) nation in which I live, but with a strong international reputation (Waterloo), in a field (electrical engineering) only somewhat associated with software development.

I used to ask an interview question or few about theory. One of my go-to questions used to be: “Do you have a favorite algorithm, and why?” I’ve stopped asking it, because the answer is almost always some variant of “no.” Even those who have formally studied algorithms rarely care about them. Sometimes I get some variant of “I know what an algorithm is, but I’ve never actually written one.”

That’s not surprising. A whole lot of modern software engineering consists of connecting pre-existing components in slightly new ways. “Algorithms,” as we usually understand them, come baked into our tools and libraries. Does a formal education in big-O notation and Turing machines help at all? Short answer: no. Is prior experience with matrix multiplication and eigenvectors useful? Actually yes, in the rarefied case that you want to understand modern machine learning … but, as the tooling improves, not so much if you just want to use it.

Modern software engineering often — but not always — has much more in common with plumbing or carpentry than with hacking art, architecture, or computer science. It’s more like cranking out aggregative blog posts, or writing business nonfiction, than it is like crafting a novel, much less writing poetry.

Of course, this comes with the important caveat that the analogy only stands if every few years the tools which plumbers and carpenters used changed completely, along with the occasional rise of whole new approaches to their fields. But still, the need for constant re-education is probably an argument against formal training; why spend four years learning how to use tools which will probably be obsolete two years after you graduate?

So it seems reasonable to argue that if — if — you strip out theory and history, then the pedagogical content of “formal” education, vs. “informal” education plus a year or two of experience, is roughly equivalent. Autodidacts? …They’re a difficult edge case. They tend to be highly intelligent, and both hard and fast workers, but they haven’t spent as much time implicitly learning from others’ mistakes, so if still anywhere near their larval stage, they’re more likely to make them anew. An autodidact with an extensive history / portfolio, though, has no strikes against them.

What about the credentialing and selection bias of smarter people being drawn to universities? I concede there’s something to that. If it’s a university I’ve heard of (again, I didn’t grow up here) then that biases me in favor of a candidate. But at the same time, America’s education system is so screwed up, giving such advantages to the already privileged, and the existence of “legacy” students (who don’t really happen in Canada), that at the same time I’m extra wary.

You might conclude that ultimately I don’t distinguish between formally and informally trained students. But you’d be wrong. Most of the time they actually are surprisingly equivalent. But software engineering isn’t always like plumbing — and because of that, I find myself pretty unwilling to strip out theory and history from the analysis after all.

Formal education, whether it be engineering or the liberal arts, is supposed to teach you how to think critically, how to analyze systematically and strategically, and how to educate yourself efficiently, more than it’s supposed to import any particular body of knowledge. It doesn’t always succeed at this. And most of the time you don’t need any of those skills (except the last, which you need forever.)

But on the occasions that you do need those other meta-skills, you need them badly — and it seems to me that you’re noticeably less likely to gain them from informal training or autodidacticism. You’re probably right to be suspicious of this view. I’m suspicious of it myself. It’s probably essentially impossible to measure and test.

It still seems to me, though, that what you gain from formal education is not so much an expansion of your mind as a specific and (somewhat) controlled expansion of your worldview, one which hasn’t yet been replicated elsewhere. That doesn’t mean it can’t be. But there’s more to it than just intensive training in technical skills … and maybe that kind of meta-skilling is the next step in nontraditional education.

The most important developments in Crypto 2.0

Something strange is happening in the world of cryptocurrencies. To the investor, the speculator, or the casual observer, the industry is in the midst of the “crypto winter” marked by dwindling public interest and stagnant prices after last year’s massive plunges.

But to the engineer or the founder, it is an industry which has never been so feverish; a sector erupting and overflowing with new initiatives, new developments, and new technologies. What follows is a brief, oversimplified summary of what I view as the most important current initiatives.

Outsiders ask, quite reasonably: will anyone outside of a tiny minority ever really care? But “ever” is a long time, and blockchainers are still fairly flush with funding from the boom, and — more importantly — armed with two of the most potent weapons known to humankind: technical brilliance and true belief.

Where did social media go wrong?

For most of my life, the Internet, particularly its social media — BBSes, Usenet, LiveJournal, blogosphere, even MySpace, early Twitter and Facebook — consistently made people happier. But roughly 5 years ago it began to consistently make people more miserable. What changed?

I posted that question to Twitter a week ago, and the most notable response was the response that did not exist: not a single person disputed the premise of the question. Yes, Twitter responses are obviously selection bias incarnate — but looking at the opprobrium aimed at social media from all sides today, I’d think that if anything it understates the current collective wisdom. Which of course can often be disjoint from factual reality … but still important. So, again: what changed?

Some argued that new, bad users flooded the Internet then, a kind of ultimate Eternal September effect. I’m skeptical. Even five years ago Facebook was already ubiquitous in the West, and we were already constantly checking it on our smartphones. Others argue that it reflects happiness decreasing in society as a whole — but as far back as 2014? I remember that as, generally, a time of optimism, compared to today.

There was one really interesting response, from a stranger: “The nature of these social networks changed. They went from places where people debated to places where lonely people are trying to feel less lonely.” Relatedly, from a friend: “The algorithms were designed to make people spend more time on those sites. Interestingly, unhappy people spend more time on social sites. Is unhappiness the cause, or the result of algorithms surfacing content to make us unhappy?” That’s worth pondering.

Pretty much everyone else talked about money, basically buttressing the argument above. Modern social media algorithms drive engagement, because engagement drives advertising, and advertising drives profits, which are then used to hone the algorithms. It’s a perpetual motion engagement machine. Olden days social media, early Facebook and early Twitter, they had advertising, sure — but they didn’t have anything like today’s perpetual motion engagement.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that there’s apparently a whole other perpetual motion machine at work in parallel, too: engagement drives unhappiness which drives engagement which drive unhappiness, because the kind of content which drives the most engagement apparently also drives anxiety and outrage — cf Evan Williams’ notion that social media optimizes for car crashes — and arguably also, in the longer run, displace other activities which do bring happiness and fulfillment.

I don’t want to sound like some sort of blood-and-thunder Luddite preacher. There’s nothing automatically wrong with maintaining a thriving existence on Facebook and Twitter, especially if you carefully prune your feeds such that they are asshole-free zones with minimal dogpiling and pointless outrage. (Some outrage is important. But most isn’t.) Social media has done a lot of excellent things, and still brings a lot of happiness to very many people.

But also, and increasingly, a lot of misery. Does it currently bring us net happiness? Five years ago I think that question would have seemed ridiculous to most: the answer would generally have been a quick yes-of-course. Nowadays, most would stop and wonder, and many would answer with an even faster hell-no. Five years ago, people who worked at Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) were treated with respect and admiration by the rest of the tech industry. Nowadays, fairly or not, it’s something a lot more like disdain, and sometimes outright contempt.

The solution is obvious: change the algorithms. Which is to say: make less money. Ha.They could even remove the algorithms entirely, switch back to Strict Chronological, and still make money — Twitter was profitable before stock options before it switched to an algorithmic feed, and its ad offerings were way less sophisticated back then — but it’s not about making money, it’s about making the most money possible, and that means algorithmically curated, engagement-driven, misery-inducing feeds.

So: social media is increasingly making us miserable. There’s an obvious solution, but financial realpolitik means we can’t get to it from here. So either we just accept this spreading misery as a normal, inescapable, fundamental part of our lives now — or some broader, more drastic solution is required. It’s a quandary.

Welcome to the hub of all hubs: Cosmos has launched

Last week the Cosmos Network launched, which I believe to be a major event. Yes, it’s a blockchain initiative — but definitely not just another one. If I’m right, its repercussions will one day reach your life too, though it’s sufficiently bleeding-edge that those ripples probably won’t hit you for a decade. Maybe five years, for a cutting-edge TechCrunch reader like you.

(Yes, those are bold words, but if I do say so myself, my track record is pretty good with this sort of thing. The last blockchain launch I wrote about was Ethereum, which you may have since heard of … and I was the only non-specialist commentator / journalist to cover it at the time.)

This launch is an abstruse and extremely technical achievement, currently only important to those who already live amid that tiny, weird subculture of humanity which reveres blockchains as the path to a better, decentralized, fairer future. (Not to be confused with the much larger number of who view cryptocurrencies primarily as an opportunity to get rich quick, never mind how sketchily.) But it’s a highly impressive technical feat, with every chance to ultimately become important to many more people.

Cosmos calls itself “the Internet of Blockchains,” and it is that, but it’s also something else important: it is one of the first major decentralized Proof-of-Stake networks to launch. (No, EOS doesn’t count.) In this model, instead of being secured by “miners” who solve computationally hard problems at the cost of gigawatts-and-counting of electricity, blockchains are verified by “validators” who purchase (or are delegated) cryptocurrency which they “stake.”

These validators, per the name, then ensure that the chain’s transactions are valid, knowing that they will earn rewards if honest and accurate … but if they are dishonest, or in error, or offline, their stakes will be “slashed” i.e. they will lose money. (At present there are 100 validators; this number is due to triple.) It has been shown, at least in theory, that even if validators dishonestly collude, as long as at least two-thirds of them remain honest, the chain remains secure.

This is a very big deal because the enormously better efficiency and speed of Proof-of-Stake open a pathway to decentralized systems which support many many more actions than Proof-of-Work chains like Bitcoin or (today’s) Ethereum, with a vastly vastly smaller ecological footprint. If Proof-of-Stake succeeds in the harsh, cruel real world — admittedly a big if; its implementation is complicated, and has a much larger attack surface, both social and technical, than Proof-of-Work — then blockchains may finally be able to seriously scale, with acceptable security, without consuming a noticeable fraction of the world’s electricity.

Cosmos’s ambitions go much further, though. Cosmos isn’t intended as Just Another Blockchain. We have more than enough of those already. It’s intended as a hub which connects other blockchains to one another — hence “The Internet of Blockchains.” What’s more, it provides tools which, in theory, make it far easier for any software engineer to build a brand-new, custom-designed blockchain … which in turn can interoperate with an arbitrary number of others.

Why does this matter? Because if blockchains are to matter at all beyond cryptocurrencies — if they are to be used for applications such as namespaces, file storage, digital collectibles, supply chains, self-sovereign identities, and decentralized social media, to trot out the usual laundry list of desirable decentralized apps — those applications would benefit greatly from being able to interact with one another.

To a certain extent they can already. One can perform “atomic swaps” which trade Bitcoin for Zcash in a single indivisible transaction. But this kind of interoperability is difficult and restricted by the host chain’s limitations, whatever they may be. Cosmos offers a compelling alternate vision: instead of a single “world computer” chain on which all decentralized applications run, it proposes many blockchains, one for each application, speaking to one another, and passing assets, collectibles, data, and cryptocurrencies to and from one another, via agreed-upon “hubs.”

This week’s actual launch was the first of those, the Cosmos Hub. In principle, in the future, anyone can run a hub, A lot of the Cosmos vision remains “in principle, in the future.” At present no other blockchains are connected; in principle, in the future, Cosmos’s validators will vote to start interoperating with them. (Cosmos also includes built-in “governance,” in the parlance of blockchainers, i.e. on-chain voting.)

Even then, only certain kinds of blockchains, those with an architecture similar to Cosmos itself — with “fast finality,” to be precise — can connect via a hub. In principle, in the future, adapters for other chains, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and ZCash, can be constructed; this arguably makes Cosmos a Bitcoin “sidechain,” and/or a competitor / coopetitor to the Lightning Network, as if it wasn’t wearing enough hats and offering enough futures already.

Do I sound skeptical? Not moreso than usual: I’m just cautious about making pronouncements before vaporware becomes software. The Cosmos Hub which launched last week, though, is very much the latter not the former, and even if I’m wrong about its eventual real-world importance, it remains a major, significant technical achievement. Congratulations and kudos to its team. It may seem to investors and speculators that we remain in the grip of a seemingly endless crypto winter; but to engineers, the launch of Cosmos is a strong sign that spring is en route.

The future of flying

From 3500 feet up California is a glorious patchwork quilt of green and gold, textured by rippling mountains and shining water. Ahead of us we see the Carquinez Bridge and the Bay; behind us, the fingers of Lake Berryessa curl into the steep hills. Twenty minutes ago I stood barefoot in the soft grass on the bank of one of those narrow coves, many miles from any road. Twenty minutes from now I will be driving to Five Guys for lunch.

“Hey,” I think to myself, “even a flying car couldn’t do this.”

Last year I became a Valley cliché, took up pilot training, and wrote about the experience — and the decrease in pilots worldwide, and the looming pilot shortage — for TechCrunch. ICON Aircraft, the manufacturers of a radically new kind of light airplane, the amphibious ICON A5, saw that and invited me to come to their Vacaville headquarters to experience a few days of their training. (At no cost to me, I should disclose, aside from paying the TSA $110 because I am a suspicious Canadian.) I turned up fearing that since, for tedious reasons, my training has been on hiatus since last July, I’d be so rusty I could barely fly.

It turned out that wasn’t a problem at all. Maybe I wasn’t really rusty at all … or maybe I was, but the A5 is so easy to fly that it didn’t matter.

I ended last year’s piece with “I think flying seems like a very 20th-century activity in the popular imagination.” That obviously isn’t true of ultramodern commercial jets, but it is of general aviation. It’s not at all unusual to learn to fly in a “six pack” airplane whose instruments and controls have basically not changed in 50 years or more. Sometimes they are actually are 50 years old.

Even the more “modern” “glass cockpit” light aircraft have screens with weirdly complex, user-hostile dials-and-knobs controls rather than a simple touchscreen. Even the vintage-2000 Diamond aircraft with which I started my training “features” a starting procedure which involves combining the mixture and the throttle in just the right way; significant left-turning tendencies such that you sometimes have to perform high-speed differential braking just to take off in a straight line; manual fuel-tank management; etc.

Individually these things are not such a big deal. Eventually these things are not such a big deal. But learning to navigate three-dimensional space, and land safely at busy airports — especially while dealing with restricted airspaces and air traffic control — is complicated enough that anything which adds to the initial cognitive load is a big deal.

Worse yet, most individual training is by independent Certified Flight Instructors with very different attitudes, beliefs, and curriculae. Some like to start students doing landings quite early, and some save it for quite a bit later. Some like to demonstrate, some like to instruct. It’s more a master/apprentice experience than an actual school.

Flight schools are obviously more consistent, and, in retrospect, probably a better way to learn, not least because you fly a lot in a short period of time, rather than trying to schedule with a capable but overcommitted CFI and ending up flying only every couple of weeks, which significantly retards your progress. Not that I’m speaking from bitter experience or anything.

Aaaaanyway. Let us not dwell on the unfortunate past. Let us talk about ICON, because both their aircraft and their training feel like a big step forward, right down to their instrument panel. On the A5, that panel is dominated by an Angle Of Attack indicator, which describes how much bite your airplane’s wings are taking out of the air. This is is insanely useful, especially when you are landing, when AOA is critical.

This instrument doesn’t even exist on other light aircraft. In my previous planes, Diamonds and Cessnas, landing was a complicated dance of carefully watching and managing speed, power, and seat-of-the-pants feel, while also mostly looking outside, such that one arrives at the runway at just-the-right-angle, then, a few feet above ground, rounds out at just-the-right-time to the next just-the-right-angle.

In the A5, you just set your power, make sure the AOA gauge is pointing the right way, and then glide happily down, occasionally glancing down at that single instrument, before bringing it up a notch for the round-out. Sure, you still might have to make adjustments for wind or height or whatever. But it’s a lot easier. Again, the cognitive load is so much less.

Military aircraft have AOA indicators, because, well, they’re so very useful, but no other general aviation airplane comes with one. You can buy them aftermarket, but that’s not the same. Why don’t other common general-aviation aircraft have them? Once again: because most general aviation has been stuck in the bad old days.

That extends to a slew of other things, too. The A5 is built for simplicity. No mixture to mess with; no manually controlled propeller RPM to adjust mid-flight; no magnetos to check in the run-up. In fact, if you cover the AoA gauge, altimeter, and attitude indicator, the controls look a lot like a car’s. This is by design.

You don’t even need high-octane aviation fuel; it actually runs better on standard 91-octane gasoline. (Although you can use either, or both.) The two-person cockpit, designed by BMW designers, is remarkably comfortable, and the view from its canopy is unparalleled, since its 100-horsepower engine and propeller are behind you rather than on its nose.

Perhaps best of all, it is fully amphibious. Its carbon fiber hull resembles a Jet Ski with wings, and on the water it can basically behave like one too (although that’s frowned on in excess, because the spray can wear at the propeller, and if you get crazy with it you risk dipping a wing into the water.) Takeoffs and even landings on sizable bodies of water in good conditions are ridiculously easy, courtesy of that AOA gauge.

You can even lower the landing gear, wheel it down/up a ramp to/from the water, and fly it for years without ever having to land it on a runway. What’s more, the wings fold back, which takes one person 10 minutes, so that the entire airplane can easily be stored in a nine-foot-wide trailer and driven to and from the water.

That really changes one’s perspective on flying. Instead of being limited to point-to-point flights between a fixed set of runways, anywhere on any reasonably large body of water can be your destination, weather permitting, and you can gas up at any marina. (It would be especially great in Canada, which is riven by countless lakes; the A5 is still classified as an experimental airplane there, but hopefully that will change soon, because e.g. Northern Ontario is practically made for it.)

On one flight this week we landed in a broad channel of water, navigated down a little winding side cove, beached — well, “grassed” — the plane on the shore, walked around a bit, then got back in, pushed off, restarted the engine, taxied out to the open water, and flew back to Vacaville … all very casually, keeping one eye on the wind and terrain to ensure it would be easy to get in and out of course, but really no big deal.

Let’s talk about stalls, because stalls are dangerous, and tend to happen when your plane is most vulnerable, i.e. taking off or departing. They are especially dangerous (PDF) when they progress into a spin. The most aerodynamically remarkable thing about the A5 is its stall resistance. It is the first production aircraft certified as spin resistant by the FAA, courtesy of a wing which is essentially divided into two sections, one of which stalls before the other, meaning the outer wing retains authority even when the inner wing is stalling.

Honestly, having flown it, I’m not sure how you would get it into a spin even if you wanted to. I put it into a power-on stall and held it there for full 15 seconds, banking from side to side, while the warning horn blared at me … and it gained altitude. In a power-off stall it lost height, but only at circa 10 feet per second, and was still amenable to banking. An “accelerated stall,” i.e. one while banking sharply at high speeds, is a maneuver sufficiently sketchy that student pilots have it demonstrated to them but do not usually attempt it themselves. I did one in the A5 and, just like the other stalls, it was anticlimactic in the extreme.

Oh, and if you were to get into serious trouble aloft, it also comes with a Complete Aircraft Parachute — although, to be honest, that seems to exist more to reassure your passenger than because you might use it in any conceivable circumstance, other than suddenly being struck blind or suffering an in-flight stroke.

ICON’s military background (its founders and early employees were largely Marine Corps pilots) has informed its training philosophy, too. They stress humility and being quick to volunteer your mistakes. Their training materials are much more accessible than the dense standard FAA tomes, and just the existence of a consistent curriculum across trainers is a big step forward. Their training focuses on a “sport pilot” license, which is restricted compared to “private pilot” — you can only fly light aircraft (nothing bigger than the A5), by day, in good visibility, below cloud cover — but it also requires less training, and is a very viable step towards the latter.

It will by now be more than apparent to you that I loved this airplane, and also really liked ICON’s training. Having established that, though, let’s talk about some downsides and concerns.

First, it would be disingenuous to write about ICON without mentioning the cloud of tragedy which still hangs over the company. Two years ago ICON’s lead engineer and another employee were killed in a crash on Lake Berryessa. According to the NTSB, the crash was due to pilot error, apparently when mistaking a dead-end canyon for one which led into the main body of the lake while flying at low altitude over water.

Later that year they released new low-altitude guidelines … and three weeks later, one of their first customers, former Major League Baseball superstar Roy Halladay, crashed his A5 into the Gulf of Mexico while flying at low altitude, and died. That too was declared pilot error; Halladay apparently had “high concentrations of morphine and amphetamine” along with Ambien in his system at the time.

On the one hand, even expert pilots (the chief engineer in question had flown F-16s in the Air Force) can make mistakes, and obviously one should never, ever, ever do drugs and fly. On the other, one can’t help but wonder if the fact that the A5 is so easy to fly in and out of water — landing it on a lake in good conditions is objectively easier than, say, docking a powerboat in a slip on a windy day, and takeoffs are easier yet — breeds a dangerous complacency when over water. Obviously the way to combat this is with training, and I can attest that ICON’s training today has a heavy focus on humility and caution, especially at low altitude … and yet, that kind of complacency will remain a risk factor.

Second, there’s no question that none of this comes cheap. Airplanes are expensive in general but the A5’s list price of $389,000 is noticeably more than that of, say, a new Cessna 172, the world’s most popular starter / training aircraft … which carries twice as many passengers and almost twice as much weight. The A5 is very much a light aircraft; my CFI and I’s combined 410 pounds meant we could only fill the tank halfway to stay within weight/balance restrictions, although it’s also miserly enough with fuel that that wasn’t any problem. It’s a great little airplane, but there’s no question that you’re paying more money for a smaller plane.

Their intent is to lead off as the Ferrari of light aviation, and eventually build something more like — well, not a Honda, but maybe a Maserati, in terms of relative price. They burned through some goodwill by initially claiming the list price would be $189,000. Right now they’re ramping up their production facilities in Tijuana (where all the carbon fiber components are made) and Vacaville (where those components are assembled along with everything else.)

One can imagine the price diminishing as production quantities achieve economies of scale … but it’s still never going to be anything like the price of, say, a used Cessna 172, which can easily drop down into five figures.

The A5, and its easier/improved flying experience, and ICON’s more consistent training, and the simpler sport-pilot license associated with it, all do combine to make flying substantially more accessible … to the rich. It certainly won’t help the pilot shortage, though. Anyone who can afford an A5 doesn’t need to start flying professionally.

The big question is, will its advances — simpler & touchscreen cockpits, a built-in AOA gauge, spin-resistant wings, consistent training, etc. — filter down to the more affordable end of the industry, and/or into more affordable ICON aircraft? I optimistically think it will. Not anytime in the next few years, no. But much faster than we’ll get, say, affordable hex-rotor VTOL flying cars.

When people imagine flying they imagine it as a magical, dreamlike experience, and it frequently is — but at the same time, learning to fly can sometimes be more Type II fun than Type I. (I suspect that this, more than the admittedly high cost, is why a lot of student pilots peter out and never finish their certification.) Whatever the price point, the ICON people deserve kudos for building an aircraft which makes flying reliably far more the latter than the former. If that experience can scale semi-affordably — admittedly two huge ifs — then instead of facing a pilot shortage we’ll have a happy, excited, adventure-seeking glut of pilots out there, soaring from runway to runway and from lake to lake. May you try it yourself and enjoy it as much as I do.

Regarding Facebook’s cryptocurrency

If Bloomberg and the New York Times are to be believed, later this year Facebook will introduce a cryptocurrency which will allow WhatsApp users to send money instantly. Yes, that’s right: Facebook. Cryptocurrency. Earthquake! Revolution! The world is tilting on its axis! The end times are cometh!

Except – um – what exactly are people going to do with FaceCoin, once they receive it?

This is not Facebook’s first venture into virtual currencies, payments, or peer-to-peer payments via messenger app. Remember Facebook Credits, its previous virtual currency, launched in 2011 and sunset two years later? Remember Facebook Gifts, launched in 2012 and sunset two years later (there’s a theme here) in part because, to quote the redoubtable Josh Constine, “Facebook never found a way solve distance and localization problems to make Gifts work internationally”? And of course Facebook Messenger Payments launched in the US in 2015 and expanded to Europe two years later.

But FaceCoin is different; FaceCoin is on a blockchain. (As a longtime blockchain enthusiast I feel I have earned some right to be a bit sarcastic here.) And FaceCoin is reportedly a stablecoin backed by a basket of fiat currencies, a la the SDRs of the IMF.

So it’s on a blockchain. What does a blockchain give you? Well, conceivably, smart contracts, but if it’s a backed stablecoin used for P2P transfer, it’s hard to see how those are relevant. Also, conceivably, privacy. Right now the crypto world offers stablecoins (Dai, Paxos, etc.) and privacy coins (ZCash, Monero, Grin) but — weirdly — nobody offers a private stablecoin. If Facebook were to do so, that would, in fact, be a genuinely big deal. Not least because:

Conversely, if FaceCoin isn’t private:

…although that assumes that it’s actually widely used, an outcome which is, to say the least, far from automatic. Again, just because Facebook launches a stablecoin cryptocurrency for peer-to-peer payments doesn’t mean people will actually use it. Remember Facebook Credits. Remember Facebook Gifts.

The trouble with stablecoins for payments, at least at the moment, is that businesses don’t accept them, so you have to convert them into fiat currency, like dollars or euros or cedis or what-have-you, in order to actually buy things like groceries or rides. True, Facebook could offer goods and services for purchase themselves in exchange for FaceCoin, but then it would basically be Facebook Credits all over again.

But remittances! you cry. Yes, very much so. Remittances are a massive market, and a holy grail of cryptocurrencies, and WhatsApp is widely used worldwide. Remittances are the obvious target market here. And it would be huge, and important, and wonderful, if Facebook were to make remittances 10x cheaper and faster … but that would require much more than fast international stablecoin transfers, because, again, those stablecoins are not legal tender at their destination, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed but businesses tend to have this whole thing about receiving legal tender.

So, yes, it’s great if you can send five thousand FaceCoin to your family in Ghana for an 0.1% fee. But then your family in Ghana has to somehow convert them to cedis at an exchange — a task which is, as of this writing, likely to be slower, much clumsier, far more user-hostile, and very possibly even more expensive than the usual medium(s) of remittances.

If Facebook can bulldoze that obstacle, though — then we’re talking about a big deal.

I see two possibilities. One is to establish partnerships with other companies such that they will accept FaceCoin themselves, so it becomes valuable outside of Facebook’s walled garden. But I can’t see this working. Again, it’s still not legal tender; it’s infeasible to partner with everybody; and it just adds more complexity for the user — “wait, do I want to pay for this with FaceCoin or cedis? Wait, do they even accept FaceCoin? Hmm, how does my government feel about FaceCoin and taxes, I wonder?” — , and the global WhatsApp audience rightly doesn’t want to deal with this. They just want money they can use.

But the other alternative is for Facebook to establish relationships with cryptocurrency exchanges worldwide, or — even more dramatically — become or sponsor exchanges themselves. Remember, much of the world already uses mobile money extensively. Imagine if FaceCoin could be seamlessly converted into eg M-Pesa or Orange Money immediately upon receipt. Then you could buy a thousand FaceCoin for US dollars in Houston; send it to your brother in Ghana, at the speed of the Internet (or maybe in a few minutes, depending on how FaceCoin’s blockchain works); and when he wants to spend it, he just pushes a button on his phone to convert it at the day’s rate into cedis in his MTN Mobile Money account, courtesy of Facebook’s Ghanaian exchange partner, in exchange for a tiny percentage of that rate.

That would be a huge, huge deal. First, it would offer seamless, immediate, user-friendly international remittances, which itself would be massive (the remittance market is roughly half a trillion dollars a year.) Second, it would allow anyone with a phone and the Facebook app to maintain a personal account in stablecoins backed by a basket of hard currencies. Ask any Venezuelan or Zimbabwean, or for that matter Argentinian, why that would matter.

That would also be insanely messy from a legal / regulatory standpoint. There are privacy issues. There are security issues. There are liquidity issues. There are KYC / AML issues. There are regulatory issues involving not just one, or a few, but conceivably hundreds of regulatory domains. But if anyone has the reach and money and wherewithal to push that armada of boulders up this hill, it’s Facebook — and the carrot of collecting, say, a few dozen basis points from the $500 billion/year remittances market is more than enough to incentivize them to do so.

I could well be wrong. There’s a very good chance that FaceCoin will just be Facebook Credits meets Facebook Gifts, except on the blockchain for no particular reason, in which case it too will presumably fade sheepishly away to be sunsetted two years after it launches. And even if I’m right, I too am deeply uneasy about Facebook, who have repeatedly shown themselves to be the opposite of trustworthy, becoming the global gateway for remittance payments worldwide. (Although, hey, it could arguably be even worse.) Maybe their blockchain will be sufficiently decentralized to be somewhat decouple from their influence, but that seems awfully unlikely (and would be pretty undesirable to regulators).

But if I’m right — then this is actually a really big deal, one which could be meaningfully important on a very personal and day-to-day level for many millions of people worldwide. Facebook would be, to my mind, at very best a deeply flawed messenger of this change … but they’re still (probably) better them than nobody, and, importantly, if they were to blaze this trail, it would then be much easier for others to follow.

How Netflix is eating the Academy

It’s Oscar night! Do you care? If you’re me, and/or the statistically average watcher, the answer is: a whole lot less than you used to. Last year’s viewership hit an all-time low. Whither Hollywood, which just does not dominate the cultural conversation the way it used to?

Oh, at first glance it’s doing just fine — last year the total US box office hit almost $12 billion, the highest ever. But look a little deeper and the numbers are more troubling. Most of that gain is from higher ticket prices. The total number of movie tickets sold in the USA has fallen by more than 10% over the last 20 years, despite population growth.

“Netflix!” you say, and yes indeed, and even more than you think. “Hollywood is now irrelevant,” says no less an authority than onetime Hollywood mogul Barry Diller, now chairman of IAC. “Netflix has won this game.” Streaming is the future, despite the studios’ attempt to promote “cloud lockers” for movie ownership, one of which (UltraViolet) closed down last year, while others, such as Disney’s Movies Anywhere (disclaimer/disclosure: I did some ancillary work for MA at my dayjob a couple of years ago) have not exactly conquered the landscape.

In fact, perhaps the keenest-eyed industry analyst alive, Matthew Ball, former head of strategy at Amazon Studios, argues that Netflix has so transcended Hollywood that its real competition is another, and surprising, entity entirely:

He unpacks that in a fascinating piece which is then surpassed by his fourpartsandcounting deep dive into “Netflix Misunderstandings,” composed last summer and since then required reading for every armchair media analyst worldwide. Some highlights:

This cash loss only exists because Netflix is funding next year’s content against this year’s revenue. Netflix could have chosen to stabilize its 2018 content offering at 2017 levels … and had the company done this, it would have generated $700MM in cash, not lost $2B.
[…]
At a time in which most tech companies need to be bullied into admitting they’re also media companies, Netflix’s tech identity is often glossed over. It is as much a technology and product company as Google, Apple or Amazon.
[…]
Hastings knows that if Netflix falls short of, say, 250MM subscribers, his business will buckle. His spend is predicated upon achieving this degree of scale … Even at the low end, Netflix would have achieved greater dominance than the media business has ever seen.
[…]
The company boasts that it will launch 700 total original series in 2018 (or 14 per week) and offer more than 1,000 by the end of the year. This raises the question of what, exactly, is an “Original” … Understanding this difference is critical for any attempt to benchmark SVOD services

We can conclude that Netflix’s (and, to a lesser extent, Amazon Prime’s) reshaping of the visual media industry has only just begun; the repercussions of the first few tremors are still rippling through Hollywood, but we can expect ever bigger quakes in the years to come.

The saving grace is that the rest of the world is getting wealthier, and spending more on Hollywood … although the studios only pull in roughly 25% of what their releases in China gross, compared to 50% back home. Still, 25% of a huge number is still very large, and China is huge. Two of last year’s top 15 worldwide movies made essentially all of their money in China. It seems plausible that The Wandering Earth, which has pulled in $557 million in China only two weeks, will make more money there this year than presumed 2019 #1 Avengers:Endgame will in the USA. (Infinity War earned $679 million domestically.)

So where does that leave Hollywood? Being slowly disrupted back home by technical superiors in the form of Netflix and Amazon Prime, while racing to make up their losses overseas. But it’s not like Netflix doesn’t have a robust international strategy. Hollywood’s studios aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but, with the possible exception of Disney, they’ll soon have to get used to being mid-level players rather than the kings of the world they once were.

Please stop marking yourself safe on Facebook

Let me begin by saying that Facebook’s Crisis Response pages do a lot of good. They are a locus for donations and offers of help. But that said, for the love of humanity, when something bad happens, please stop marking yourself safe on Facebook.

They don’t mean to prey on our anxieties. They mean to assuage them. But all they do is reinforce the incorrect notion that the world is a terrifying place where unpredictable awful things happen frequently; they worsen the problem by attempting to treat the symptom.

Consider, for instance, “The Tornado in Ottawa, Ontario and Gatineau, Quebec, Canada” a few months ago. As a former Ottawa resident I have multiple Facebook friends there. Todd and Jennifer marked themselves safe; but what about Joe? Stefan? Stephane? What happened to them?

Yeah, they’re fine, thanks, because that region has a population of 1.3 million, and while it is a shame that six of them were hospitalized as a result of that tornado (which hit Canada frequently) when you do the math you quickly realize that that is equal to one out of every 216,000 people. If a single person were hospitalized as a result of an incident in a single town of 216,000, would Facebook call on every resident of that town to mark themselves safe?

I mean, if Facebook did do that, why, your feed would be a nonstop deluge of Crises from which people are Marked Safe. The world would seem like a cauldron of terrors, and any unknown much too scary to venture into, full of things which might harm you and your friends and family. You would be fearful of other places, and maybe eventually, almost logically, by extension, people from other places, too.

Our brains are well known to weigh our fears based in part on how vivid they are rather than how likely they are. So we worry more about vivid events than actually fearsome ones. Would Facebook call on New Yorkers to mark themselves safe if a terrorist attack killed 15 people in a busy subway station? Of course they would. It’s not even a question, is it.

But 15 is fewer than the number of New Yorkers killed in traffic every single month. Is Facebook calling on New Yorkers to mark themselves as “Safe From Cars” every month? Of course not. That’s a laughable concept. But the risk of that is greater than the risk of any given New Yorker being killed in that hypothetical terror attack.

And – here’s the key – when Facebook asks you to mark yourself safe, and reports that you’re safe to all your Facebook friends, it may reduce some specific anxiety in the short term, but it does so at the cost of increasing generalized anxiety — about the world and everything in it — in the long term.

There are of course some crises so awful, so huge, so widespread, that this no longer applies; where the risk to any individual is in fact much higher than, say, the annual risk of dying in a car crash. If Facebook reduced its calls to mark yourself safe to such actual crises, then none of the above would apply. Let’s hope that one day they ratchet down their anxiety-inducing algorithms and do just that.