The Creator’s Paradox Of Choice

Quite some time ago, I set up this blog with the intention of having it as some sort of brain dump for all of the things I enjoy writing about. Despite having many different interests, I haven’t created any content because I can’t find what to write about. In fact, the breadth of my curiosity has been precisely why I can’t find a topic.

This dilemma reminds me of the famous (and excellent) TED talk about the paradox of choice.

The interesting thing about that is that the paradox is often discussed in the context of consumers, but the problem also exists for creators.

I have been very busy lately building Lernabit, and that will always take priority over blogging. But my inability to blog has mostly been the result of being faced with so many topics that I’ve ended up not writing about any of them. I have interests ranging from business and entrepreneurship, to science, to programming and web development, skepticism and critical thinking, and even news items and opinions.  Not to mention that I could also create a blog in which I cover any two of those topics and how they overlap. For example, a blog looking at the world of business technology would be exciting to me. With all of these possible blog topics available and interesting to me, I didn’t cover any of them.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has this problem. As creators, builders, and tinkerers, we often have many ideas running through our head like a fire hose that is sometimes hard to turn off. It gets very difficult to just focus on one topic, or one project, or one business idea. Instead, we work on one thing for a few weeks or months, fail to get traction, and move on to something else. This is damaging in so many ways.

From a business perspective, it is bad because it often leads to us giving up on something that is fundamentally a good idea that just needs a little bit of tweaking.

As builders, it limits depth of knowledge. We cover a topic briefly, obtain a surface-level understanding of it, and quit. One thing I have learned from web development is the importance of building and maintaining a long term project, because it teaches a very different skill set than just hacking together a weekend project. When you maintain something over months or years, you learn a lot about good code structure, correct database design, building for scale, and so many other potential problems that aren’t noticeable after just a few weeks. A lack of focus can cause builders to miss out on those learning experiences.

I have been thinking about some possible solutions to this problem. For really big projects, it is helpful to think about it as a series of numerous small projects. For example, on Lernabit, I wanted to find a way to optimize the audio streaming to use fewer system resources. I took that on as a project of its own. Instead of saying, “How can I make Lernabit use fewer resources?”, I asked myself, “What is the most efficient method of audio streaming in general.”  I turned into a more abstract problem that ended up teaching me a lot more about how audio streaming works. And instead of just tweaking some code, I set out to make some rather substantial changes to the basic infrastructure that will make the site scale better in the long run. The whole project was like a game as I tried to squeeze more juice out of the system.

Another approach I use to overcome paralysis is to give myself some free time to just… tinker. It is very similar to Google’s “20% time” for employees (which I don’t think they do anymore), or more recently, their Google X Lab, which is a space to just experiment without any expectation of profit. This time is very valuable to me. I use it to explore new programming languages, tools, and just learn random things that may or may not end up being relevant to building my business.. This is how I have learned about Grunt, AngularJS, React, Bower, Java, TypeScript, and countless other tools. I’m only using a few of those on Lernabit, but all of them taught me something new and made me see programming from a different perspective.

Whether you are a writer, or a programmer, or a builder of businesses, it is important to find one thing and focus on it. But don’t be afraid to experiment, tinker, and just let your mind run. It’s better than doing nothing.

Picture of an iPhone

I Stand With Apple Against The FBI

The big tech news lately is the court case between Apple and the FBI. The FBI has an iPhone from a murderer/terrorist, and they want Apple to write software that would bypass the encryption on the phone so they can see if it contains any useful evidence.

Obviously, it should go without saying that the shooting was a tragic event. Especially in this particular case, given that it was a mass shooting in which 14 people were killed and 22 injured. Nobody is denying the horrifying nature of the crime.

The debatable part is whether or not Apple can be compelled to help the FBI bypass the encryption. On that matter, I side with Apple. Let it be noted that I don’t even own any Apple products; I’m an Android guy, so I’m not coming at this as an Apple “fanboy”. My concern lies in the security implications of the case.

The main issue I have with the FBI’s demands is that it would not only create a slippery slope in favor of more government control over our digital lives, but also that I have doubts over how effective it would even be to combat terrorism.

1. Slippery Slope

First, the most common argument is that by forcing Apple to comply with the FBI’s demands, the courts would be creating a slippery slope that would lead to even greater government intrusion into our digital rights. I agree that this is a reasonable risk.

While the slippery slope argument can sometimes be fallacious, I believe it is a very real concern when it comes to high profile court cases. The US legal system is based on a system of precedents, in which the outcome of one case is used as a baseline to help determine future cases. Thus, to some extent, slippery slopes are built in to the court system itself.

By winning this case, the FBI would gain a legal precedent in which they can say, “Hey Google/Microsoft/Facebook/Acme Inc., a previous case ruled that we can compel Apple to bypass encryption. We’d like to take a look at what you have too.” With such precedent on their side, government agencies would have far more leverage to help them gather even more data from our online activities.

2. Security Risk

Another point of concern is the security risk of what the FBI is asking Apple to do. They aren’t asking Apple to “crack” the encryption; that is mathematically impossible, and if it could be done, the FBI would probably be the ones to figure it out. The fact that they are asking for Apple’s help is a sign that they probably haven’t figured out a way to do it.

Instead, the FBI wants Apple to bypass the encryption entirely by creating a “backdoor”, or a “golden key” that would allow anyone with access to it to decrypt the data. In theory, only the FBI would have access to that golden key.

In theory.

Therein lies the problem. There is no good way to guarantee that only the FBI would have access to it. If a hacker found out about the key and managed to crack it, they would have access to pretty much any device they wanted. If those hackers are state-sponsored attackers from, say, North Korea, or China, or Russia, this is not an unrealistic possibility. You want national security? Then putting a backdoor into every device sold in America is a horrible idea.

3. It wouldn’t work anyway

This leads me to my third argument, which is one I haven’t seen anyone else mentioning. It is, simply, that the backdoor would not really do much to prevent attacks, and it could even backfire to make it more difficult to gather digital evidence.

The government might be able to make laws requiring tech companies to install a backdoor onto devices, but they can’t do anything requiring terrorists to use those devices or software. Does the FBI really think a terrorist is going to avoid uncrackable encryption because it would be against US laws to do so?

US laws are only applicable to people in America, and terrorists and criminals care least of anyone about complying with those laws. That’s why they are criminals.

If the FBI wins, a more likely scenario is that American tech companies are forced to install security vulrnabilities like backdoors into their devices and software. Meanwhile, the bad guys just write their own encryption tools. The result? Bad guys get around the government surveillance while the rest of us are carrying around devices with security weaknesses.

Requiring tech companies to intentionally put exploits into their products is a really, really bad idea. There is literally no way it would end well.