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Month: February 2018

Newley’s Notes 123: iPhones vs. China Rivals; 15th Century Linguistic Riddle; Exploding Supernova

2018 02 27 trees

Edition 123 of my email newsletter went out on Sunday.

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Hi, friends. Welcome to the latest edition of Newley’s Notes: The best of what I write. The best of what I read.

🙏 Reminder: If you like this newsletter, please forward it to a friend. If you received this from a pal, you can sign up here.

NN was on hiatus last week in part due to travel: We took a fantastic trip to the Southern Indian state of Kerala. It was my first visit to this part of India, and I really loved it: It’s much less crowded than many Northern Indian cities, and with its tropical climate it feels almost like Southeast Asia.

🛥️ We met some friends and did a houseboat tour through the Kerala backwaters, then took in the sights in the city of Kochi (aka Cochin), among them the Commonwealth’s oldest synagogue, built in the 16th century.

I’ll probably write more about this journey soon. Highly recommended.

On to this week’s NN:

✍️ What I wrote in The Wall Street Journal

— “Why the iPhone Is Losing Out to Chinese Devices in Asia.” The story begins:

NEW DELHI—The iPhone X has set a new benchmark for smartphone prices and bolstered Apple Inc.’s bottom line, but its steep price may be hobbling its future in Asia’s biggest markets and allowing Chinese challengers to grab market share.

Buyers from India to Indonesia are opting for models from Chinese smartphone makers like Xiaomi Corp. — sometimes called “the Apple of China” — along with BBK Electronics Corp.’s Oppo and Vivo.

Click through to hear from consumers in India and Indonesia on why they’re giving up their iPhones in favor of inexpensive models that nevertheless have some cool features.

Note: I am not entirely certain, but I think this passage…

Oppo’s “selfie expert” F3 offers options such as a front-facing camera for selfies with wide angle that lends itself to “wefies,” or group shots with several people crammed into the frame.

…may represent the first time the word “wefie” or “wefies” has ever appeared in The Wall Street Journal in print (vs. online)… 🤳

📲 5 Cool Tech-ish Reads This Week

1. Dropbox filed for an IPO. The popular cloud storage company’s public offering could be the biggest tech IPO since Snap’s in March 2017, according to our WSJ story. Here’s the wider context:

Dropbox’s offering will give public investors rare access to the class of richly valued tech startups. Most of the startups with the highest valuations have put off IPOs as they still have access to ample amounts of capital from giant investors including Japanese firm SoftBank Group Corp.

Uber Technologies Inc. and home-rental company Airbnb Inc. aren’t expected to debut until at least 2019, and with the exception of Spotify AB, which will go public without raising new capital in an atypical debut, few of the best-known private companies are expected to go public this year.

CNBC has a rundown of who stands to make the most cash from the deal:

Co-founder and CEO Drew Houston is Dropbox’s biggest shareholder, owning 25 percent of the shares before the offering. Arash Ferdowsi, the other co-founder and former chief technology officer, owns 10 percent.

Among institutional investors, Sequoia Capital, which led Dropbox’s seed round in 2007 and first venture round the following year, owns 23 percent, followed by Accel at 5 percent and T. Rowe Price at 3.5 percent.

2. Jason Kottke on how blogging has changed. I’ve read Kottke’s blog,, pretty much since it launched twenty years ago, in 1998. It’s one of the world’s longest running and best known independent blogs. I launched my blog — back when they were called “weblogs” — four years later, inspired in part by Kottke’s mission to essentially just share cool stuff online.

In this Q&A with Laura Hazard Ownen at Harvard’s NiemanLab, Kottke talks about content consumption trends: Fewer people are reading blogs following the rise of social media and the fall of RSS, but as advertising has diminished he’s launched a successful new membership model to help pay the bills.

3. A 15th century linguistic riddle, solved? University of Alberta scientists used algorithms to show the fabled Voynich manuscript may be written in a coded version of Hebrew. Not everyone’s buying the conclusions, as described by some media outlets, however.

For more, here’s a 2016 New Yorker piece with additional details on the mysterious manuscript.

4. “The Case Against Google.” File under: the burgeoning backlash against Big Tech. In this New York Times Magazine long-read doing the rounds this week, Charles Duhigg details antitrust complaints about the search giant. There are plenty of anecdotes here from execs who say Google has unfairly crushed their rival companies. The other side of the coin: Are customers actually being harmed by Google?

5. Hot new Q&A site: Molly. “Silicon Valley insiders have recently been answering questions about themselves via a new service called Molly,” writes Kia Kokalitcheva at Axios. “Ask personal questions,” the Molly tagline reads, “Molly gets answers.”

🌟 Quote of the week

“It’s like winning the cosmic lottery.”

That’s Alex Filippenko, an astronomer at UC Berkely, on fellow (amateur) astronomer Victor Buso’s impossibly lucky photograph — the first of its kind — showing a burst of light from a exploding supernova.

✈️ 1 Silly Thing

This is what happens when you activate an airplane’s emergency slide. A highly watchable gif.

👊 Fist bump from New Delhi,


Why the iPhone Is Losing Out to Chinese Devices in Asia

2018 02 26 iphone asia

That’s the headline of my newest story, which ran last week.

It begins:

NEW DELHI—The iPhone X has set a new benchmark for smartphone prices and bolstered Apple Inc.’s bottom line, but its steep price may be hobbling its future in Asia’s biggest markets and allowing Chinese challengers to grab market share.

Buyers from India to Indonesia are opting for models from Chinese smartphone makers like Xiaomi Corp.—sometimes called “the Apple of China”—along with BBK Electronics Corp.’s Oppo and Vivo.

China’s manufacturers are increasingly churning out higher-priced devices that compete directly with Apple’s smartphones. They often have high-end features, but carry lower price tags than the iPhone X or even older iPhone models. They are targeting potential Apple customers by offering phones with robust hardware such as metal bodies, beefy batteries and unique features iPhones lack, including special cameras for taking better selfies.

Click through to read the rest.

Newley’s Notes 121: Notes from ‘Sapiens’; Tractor Hacking; ‘Donkey Kong’ Scandal?

2018 02 10galaxy

Edition 121 of my email newsletter went out on Monday.

To join the list, simply enter your email address here. It’s free, it’s fun, it’s brief, and few people unsubscribe.

Hi, friends. Welcome to the latest edition of Newley’s Notes: The best of what I write. The best of what I read.

What I wrote at

Book Notes: ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,’ by Yuval Noah Harari — You might have heard about this book. It’s been all the rage among Silicon Valley types for a few years. I loved it, so as I sometimes do, I shared my notes.

📲 5 Cool Tech-ish Reads This Week

1. Cryptocurrency utopians are flocking to Puerto Rico, where they want to build a blockchain-based community, Nellie Bowles reports in the New York Times. Among the reasons:

Puerto Rico offers an unparalleled tax incentive: no federal personal income taxes, no capital gains tax and favorable business taxes — all without having to renounce your American citizenship. For now, the local government seems receptive toward the crypto utopians; the governor will speak at their blockchain summit conference, called Puerto Crypto, in March.

2. Farmers in the Midwest are hacking John Deere software to fix their tractors themselves rather than using pricey dealerships. Interesting video report from Vice’s Motherboard.

3. Megan McArdle’s 12 Rules for Life. Not exactly tech related, but just plain smart and fun: From relationship tips to giving better compliments to dinner rolls, the always-excellent author and Bloomberg View columnist has got you covered.

4. Did “Donkey Kong” legend Billy Mitchell cheat? Venture Beat’s Jeff Grubb reports:

A Donkey Kong fansite has removed three high scores from arcade legend Billy Mitchell after an analysis revealed he likely misled the community about playing on real arcade hardware and that he instead submitted emulator gameplay.

Using an emulator rather than the real arcade game could make it easier and thus enable cheating, apparently. The lion-maned Mitchell stars in the excellent 2007 documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” (Trailer is here.)

5. “The Chrome Extensions We Can’t Live Without,” by Wired staff members. There are some gems in this list of add-ons to Google’s browser, such as the new-to-me Great Suspender (stops loading tabs you’re not using); HabitLab (a Stanford University tool for curbing your use of social media and other sites); and xTab (which sets a limit on how many tabs you can keep open).

🔬 Quote of the week

“I think this is one of the greatest advances in over 150 years of Maya archaeology.”

That’s from Stephen Houston, a Brown University archaeology and anthropology professor, on the huge network of previously undiscovered Maya ruins researchers have found in Guatemala.

💫 1 Silly Thing

“Mr. Bean Is A Master Of Physical Comedy.” An entertaining video from NerdWriter.

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👊 Fist bump from New Delhi,


Newley’s Notes 120: Apple’s New HomePod; Exercise Data Dangers; Silent Music Videos


Edition 120 of my email newsletter went out on Wednesday.

To join the list, simply enter your email address here. It’s free, it’s fun, it’s brief, and few people unsubscribe.

Hi, friends. Welcome to the latest edition of Newley’s Notes.

If you like this newsletter, please invite others to sign up.

Administrative note: Anasuya suggested a tagline for Newley’s Notes:

The best of what I write. The best of what I read.

Do you like it? If not, hit me up and suggest a better one!

📲 5 Cool Tech-ish Reads This Week

1. Apple’s HomePod is coming. The $349 voice-activated speaker, which was supposed to launch before the holidays, will be in stores beginning Feb. 9, my WSJ colleague Tripp Mickle reports. It’ll have to play catchup to Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home devices. At The Verge, Dieter Bohn writes:

The bet on the HomePod is the same as the bet on almost every new Apple product: that the spec list doesn’t add up to the whole experience. It’s a bet that there will be some special Apple design magic in the hardware and the software that just makes it feel better to use.

We’ll see.

2. Amazon’s cashierless convenience store opened to the public. Recode has a bunch of photos of the shop, located in Seattle. You scan an app when you walk in, and cameras in the ceiling match you to your account; you’re billed when you walk out. More in a separate Recode story here. With Amazon buying Whole Foods, it’s clear they’re moving into physical retail in a big way.

3. File under: Whoops. A reminder that our connected devices give off data exhaust: Fitness tracking app Strava released a map based on more than 3 trillion GPS data points around the world — such as where people exercise outside — showing the location of U.S. miliary personnel, Alex Hern writes in The Guardian:

In locations like Afghanistan, Djibouti and Syria, the users of Strava seem to be almost exclusively foreign military personnel, meaning that bases stand out brightly. In Helmand province, Afghanistan, for instance, the locations of forward operating bases can be clearly seen, glowing white against the black map.


… a map of Homey Airport, Nevada – the US Air Force base commonly known as Area 51 – records a lone cyclist taking a ride from the base along the west edge of Groom Lake, marked on the heatmap by a thin red line.

The map in its entirety is available online here.

4. “The Follower Factory.” This in depth New York Times story illuminates the murky world of social media manipulation, focusing on a little-known U.S. company called Devumi, which “sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online.”

5. is a blog (and soon to be book) about fonts in sci-fi movies. Nerd out on examinations of “2001: A Space Odyssey,“, “Alien,” and — my favorite, of course — “Bladerunner.”

🍔 Quote of the week

Whopper neutrality was repealed. They voted on it.

That’s from an entertaining video explainer/advertisement in which Burger King gives the world its take on net neutrality — using burgers.

💫 1 Silly Thing

“Silent Music Videos.” After the item in last week’s NN about Wookies dubbed to sound like Pee-Wee Herman, reader Lee LeFever writes in with a couple of gems.

People are now, it appears, creating new versions of music videos — and inserting non-musical audio. The result is quite bemusing.

Here’s David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s “Dancing in the Street,” and Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” Thanks, Lee!

👊 Fist bump from New Delhi,


Book Notes: ‘Sapiens,’ by Yuval Noah Harari


From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Published (in English): 2014
ISBN–10: 0062316095
Amazon link

Brief Summary

A deeply thought-provoking book about how homo sapiens came to dominate the world – and how our advancements have come at a significant cost.

My notes

I love big, sprawling books that tackle huge subjects and challenge you to change the way you conceive of the world.

This global bestseller, which has been all the rage among Silicon Valley technologists in recent years, in particular, is one of the best of that sort of title I’ve read.

It’s a kind of even-bigger-picture “Guns, Germs and Steel,” the hit 1997 book (which I also loved) in which Jared Diamond famously demonstrated the role the environment has played in shaping civilization and material development.

I think anyone who reads this fun, fast-paced, surprisingly easy-to-read book will be hard pressed not to come away with the sense that:

Human life is insignificant in the grand scheme of things;
– Our advancements as a species have been mind-bogglingly rapid, with humans and the planet paying a huge price;
– The way we have been living for the last 200 years is radically at odds with how humans have existed over the long term;
– The jury is out, according to Harari, as to whether humans will survive in the long term. He is not optimistic.

(Okay, all that may sound depressing, I know realize, but still…)

  • Harari, a historian, shows how homo sapiens evolved in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then 70,000 years ago spread out of Africa as the cognitive revolution took over, in which language emerge and allowed sapiens to either kill off or out-flourish other humans, like Neanderthals.
  • We all know that sapiens wiped out the world’s biggest animals, but Harari reinforces this point, recounting how we killed off megafauna from Australia to the Americas over time. Sapiens has historically destroyed everything in its path, and now that we have nuclear weapons, Harari is not bullish on our long term survival. But, of course, the universe doesn’t care about people. Cockroaches and rats are thriving today despite our having driven other creatures to extinction, and could in millions of years evolve into sophisticated creatures, thanking us for demolishing the planet and setting the stage for their rise.

  • The agricultural revolution, which happened about 12,000 years ago, was “history’s biggest fraud,” Harari writes, because it lead to widespread suffering for farmers and laborers producing food for elites, while life as hunter-gatherers may have largely been more conducive to human happiness despite shorter lives and higher rates of violence.

  • 2,500 hundred years ago coinage came into use. Money equals trust. Harari is big on “imagined orders” and the power of ideas to bind or separate us, such as democracy, capitalism, racism and the caste system.

  • The scientific revolution, about 500 years ago, lead to the industrial revolution some three hundred years later, and ultimately imperialism, with all its devastation for those subjugated.

    “The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years,” he writes. Capitalism + scientific inquiry = imperialism.

  • The industrial revolution – while providing us with undeniable material and medical benefits – has meant “family and community” have been replaced by “state and market.”

    “Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members,” he writes. “Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.

  • Industrialized animal husbandry feeds the world, but “If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.

  • I found the penultimate chapter, on human happiness, to be particularly thought-provoking.

    Money doesn’t ultimately bring lasting happiness due the luxury trap: there are diminishing returns to having fancy things, and someone always has even nicer stuff. That’s the case even for most billionaires.

    Community, family, positive marriages, and living according to one’s values – and with a sense of purpose – matter more. It could be that happiness most flourishes when we buy into belief systems or religious delusions, even if scientifically life has no meaning.

  • Harari seems to promote Buddhist philosophy and meditation as an antidote to alienation. “People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them,” he writes.

  • Ultimately, for all our advancements, human suffering is still rife in the world – whether it’s due to consumerism, ongoing oppression, or other factors. That puts all of our economic and scientific progress into perspective. Are humans actually happier today than tens of thousands of years ago? We are undoubtedly healthier and safer, but we may not be any happier.

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