The real anti-Facebook is good old email

It all happened so quickly, about a year ago today. One minute, hardly anyone had heard of the ad-free social network Ello. The next, it was a viral sensation, spawning countless think pieces on its chances for survival. Then, as quickly as it appeared, Ello faded from the spotlight. Now, only a year later, Ello is nearly forgotten, filed away with other would-be Facebook killers like the open source Diaspora and the near-dead Google+.

All three are still around, but needless to say, none has managed to lead a mass exodus away from Facebook. Meanwhile, the conversation among Facebook’s critics seems to have shifted from trying to replace the service with something better to pressuring the company to improve its privacy protections and ditch its real-name policy.

But one service has quietly emerged as the go-to alternative to Facebook and other big social media sites: the email newsletter service TinyLetter.

Your list of email addresses is yours in a way few things online ever are.

The site, owned by email marketing company Mailchimp, has managed to avoid two of the biggest pitfalls of other Facebook alternatives: technical complexity and the empty room problem. First of all, it’s incredibly easy to use. Sending a newsletter is as simple as posting a status update to Facebook. Secondly, you don’t have to convince people to install yet another app in order to build an audience. Anyone with an email address—which is pretty much everyone, despite many efforts to kill email—can subscribe to your newsletter.

Journalists and techies have flocked to TinyLetter in recent years, slowly building its reputation as the hippest place to publish online. But it’s also starting to catch on outside the media and technology bubbles with newsletters dedicated to yoga, poetry and music, among other things. Today it has more than 161,000 users creating newsletters and more than 14 million subscribers to those newsletters, says Mailchimp’s Kate Kiefer Lee.

Yes, this means TinyLetter isn’t about to catch up with Twitter and its 316 million active monthly users, let alone Facebook’s 1.5 billion. But it doesn’t actually have to displace social networks to succeed. Rather, it provides a viable way for people to reach an audience without depending exclusively on Facebook or anyone else’s closed platform.

Just a Newsletter

Mailchimp doesn’t bill TinyLetter as a Facebook replacement, nor was it ever meant to be. When entrepreneur Philip “Pud” Kaplan created the site in 2010, he told TechCrunch he thought of it as an alternative to blogs. In the early 2000s, Kaplan ran Fuckedcompany, a site that tracked the demise of tech companies during the dotcom crash of the early 2000s. Fuckedcompany had an email newsletter that reached thousands of people, and Kaplan wanted a way to reach a large audience without the work that goes into maintaining a personal blog.

Of course many other mailing list applications also exist, but Kaplan was frustrated by their complexity. What sets TinyLetter apart is its simplicity. TinyLetter offers limited analytics and doesn’t include advanced features such as the ability to send messages to a select portion of your audience. But this lack of options also makes it far easier to use.

“TinyLetter appealed because I didn’t want to start, you know, a mailing list,” explains Fusion editor-in-chief and former WIRED contributor Alexis Madrigal, who publishes a newsletter called “>RealFuture. “I wanted to start a newsletter.”

The service soon attracted high-profile users such as Digg co-founder and former Google Ventures partner Kevin Rose. It was sold off to Mailchimp. But there was no real “viral moment” for the site. Instead, it’s been a slow, steady build. Journalists like Ann Friedman and Madrigal boosted the service’s visibility, as did programmer Rusty Foster, whose daily newsletter on the best and the worst of the internet, Today in Tabs, became a Newsweek online column before being picked up by Fast Company. But none of the newsletterists we talked to for this story could remember exactly where they heard about the service.

“Somehow, my fingers knew to type in that URL when I woke up one morning and decided to make the thing,” says Madrigal.

Why Email

“Why TinyLetter?” is an easier question to answer than “why email newsletters?” For many users, social media has become impersonal. Facebook algorithmically curates what we see, while Twitter overwhelms us with a firehose of fast-moving content, and LinkedIn is, well, LinkedIn. The most important part of the email newsletter’s appeal is that it still feels intimate—even if you are sending emails to total strangers. “Email is a weird medium, it’s both personal and massive,” says Foster.

Though it’s harder to get people to sign-up for an email newsletter than it is to follow your Twitter account, email readers tend to be more engaged. Your status updates may breeze right by your friends—if they see them at all—but people tend to pay far more attention to their email. “Almost 16 thousand people have somehow found their way to subscribing to my newsletter,” Madrigal says. “And on an average day, maybe 51, 52 percent of them open it. That’s pretty amazing to me.”

Part of that has to do with the fact that people don’t have to remember to visit yet another site. “Email appeals to my laziness,” Foster says. “You can just subscribe, and neither one of us has to do anything again. If you don’t like it, you can unsubscribe.”

But it’s more than just a better way to reach people. For years, geeks and activists have called for more decentralized alternatives to social media. Email, the original social media, is about as decentralized as it gets. “Even though I’m going through TinyLetter’s system, it feels like I have more control than I would using something else,” says Deb Chachra, the author of the technology criticism newsletter Metafoundry.

Email, the original social media, is about as decentralized as it gets.

Opting for the simplicity of TinyLetter instead of using a self-hosted option like PHP Newsletter or Sendy does mean giving up some control. If TinyLetter goes away, all your links to your sign-up form on their site will break, as will any archives you host on their site. But look at this way: If you decide to leave Facebook, you can’t import your Facebook friends into Twitter. But if you want to leave TinyLetter, you can export your subscriber list and easily import it into another mailing list system. Your list of email addresses is yours in a way few things online ever are. Even a domain name, which can expire or be seized, is less permanent.

TinyLetter is completely free. For now at least, Mailchimp is simply running TinyLetter as a kind of public service for the eclectic mix of people using it. The most obvious business rationale for the service is that it could serve as marketing for its paid mailing list services, which provide more in-depth analytics, list segmentation features, and the ability to send far more emails per day. But Lee says there’s not much cross-over between TinyLetter users and Mailchimp customers.

Mailchimp doesn’t even get much, if any, data out of running TinyLetter—Lee says that TinyLetter’s data doesn’t feed into Mailchimp’s analytics at all. Nor is advertising in the cards, she says. “It’s important to all of us that people feel like TinyLetter is a safe place,” she says. “They write to a known number of subscribers, they know who is subscribing, they trust us not to do anything with their accounts, so we’re very mindful of that.”

And if that ever changes, it will be easy for users to move on to the next thing. And that’s what makes email the ad-free Anti-Facebook we’ve been waiting for.

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The Newly Discovered Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh

I was taking photos in the main hall of the Sulaymaniyah Museum and came across a display case containing a small clay tablet. The description beside it said the tablet was part of the Epic of Gilgamesh and a fragment of tablet V. Immediately I thought it was a ‘replica’ as the description was superficial. It did not say the tablet was genuine, that it was newly discovered or even told about the many new pieces of information it had revealed.

A newly discovered tablet V of the epic of Gilgamesh. The left half of the whole tablet has survived and is composed of 3 fragments. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.

A newly discovered tablet V of the epic of Gilgamesh. The left half of the whole tablet has survived and is composed of 3 fragments. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.

After the US-led invasion of Iraq and the dramatic looting of Iraqi and other museums, the Sulaymaniyah Museum (directed by the council of ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan) started an initiative. They paid smugglers to ‘intercept’ archeological artifacts on their journey to other countries. No questions were asked about who was selling the piece or where it came from. The Sulaymaniyah Museum believed this condition kept smugglers from selling their merchandise to other buyers, as they would have otherwise done so ‘with ease and without any legal consequences.’

The description of the newly discovered tablet V of the epic of Gilgamesh in English and Kurdish languages next to its displaying case. Note that the description is "superficial and brief" and does not reflect the importance of this discovery!

The description of the newly discovered tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh in English and Kurdish next to its display case. Note the description is “superficial and brief” and does not reflect the importance of this discovery! Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.

In late 2011, the Sulaymaniyah Museum acquired a collection of clay tablets: The collection was composed of 80-90 tablets of different shapes, contents and sizes. All of the tablets were, to some degree, still covered with mud. Some were completely intact, while others were fragmented. The precise location of their excavation is unknown, but it is likely that they were illegally unearthed from, what is known today as, the southern part of the Babel (Babylon) or Governorate, Iraq (Mesopotamia).

While the seller negotiated the prices, Professor Farouk Al-Rawi (of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London) rapidly examined each item in terms of its content and originality. He even found a few fakes! The seller wanted a large sum of money for the tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He did not know what it represented, he only knew it was relatively large. Still, this tablet captured the attention of Professor Al-Rawi when he skimmed the cuneiform inscriptions on it. He immediately intervened and told Mr. Hashim to buy it, “just give him what he wants, I will tell you later on,” Al-Rawi said to Abdullah. The final price was $800.

Obverse of the newly discovered tablet V of the epic of Gilgamesh. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.

Obverse of the newly discovered tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.

Millimeter by millimeter Professor Al-Rawi cleaned the tablet. It was composed of 3 fragments and amazingly the fragments were already joined together… by whom, the excavators or the smugglers? We’ll never know.

Soon enough Al-Rawi realized that this tablet was one of the tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He informed his colleague Professor Andrew R. George about this discovery and with the help of Mrs. Hero Talabani (wife of the former Iraqi president Mr. Jalal Talabani) Professor George received a funded visit to the Sulaymaniyah Museum. Professors Al-Rawi and George resided in a guest house belonging to the General Directorate of the Antiquities of Sulaymaniyah.

Mr. Hashim Hama Abdullah, director of the Sulaymaniayh Museum (left) and Mr. Kamal Rashid, director of the General Directorate of Antiquities of Sulaymaniayh (right) discuss the importance of the tablet and how it was found. The Sulaymaniayh Museum, Iraq. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.

Mr. Hashim Hama Abdullah, director of the Sulaymaniayh Museum (left) and Mr. Kamal Rashid, director of the General Directorate of Antiquities of Sulaymaniayh (right) discuss the importance of the tablet and how it was found. The Sulaymaniayh Museum, Iraq. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.

In November 2012, work started on reading and translating the cuneiform texts; it took five days. Al-Rawi also drew sketches of both the tablet’s obverse and reverse sides. According to Al-Rawi and George, the new tablet is inscribed in Neo-Babylonian cuneiform language and represents the left half of the sixth tablet column. The tablet can be found at number T.1447 in the Sulaymaniyah Museum. It is 11 cm in height, 9.5 cm in width, and 3 cm in thickness.

The museum’s description beside the tablet said that it dates back to the old-Babylonian period (2003-1595 BCE).While Al-Rawi and George’s article hints it was inscribed by a neo-Babylonian writer (626-539 BCE).

The new T.1447 tablet, according to the article Back to the Cedar Forest: The beginning and end of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš published in June, 2014 is:

  • The revised reconstruction of Tablet V yields text that is nearly twenty lines longer than previously known.
  • The obverse (columns i-ii) duplicates the Neo-Assyrian fragments which means the Epic tablet can be placed in order and used to fill in the gaps between them. It also shows the recension on Tablet V was in Babylonia, as well as Assyria and that “izzizūma inappatū qišta” is the same phrase that other tablets being with.
  • The reverse (columns v-vi) duplicates parts of the reverse (columns iv-vi) of the late Babylonian tablet excavated at Uruk that begins with the inscription “Humbāba pâšu īpušma iqabbi izakkara ana Gilgāmeš”.
  • The most interesting piece of information provided by this new source is the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest:
    • Gilgamesh and Enkidu saw ‘monkeys’ as part of the exotic and noisy fauna of the Cedar Forest; this was not mentioned in other versions of the Epic.
    • Humbaba emerges, not as a barbarian ogre, and but as a foreign ruler entertained with exotic music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings. The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Humbaba.
  • The aftermath of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s slaying of Humbaba is now better preserved.
  • The passages are consistent with other versions and confirm what was already known. For example, Enkidu had spent some time with Humbaba in his youth.

I believe it is important to draw attention to this tablet because of it’s significance and it is my pleasure to tell you all about it!

I am a consultant neurologist not an archeologist so many thanks goes to Mr. Kamal Rashid, (director of the General Directorate of Antiquities of Sulaymaniyah) Mr. Hashim Hama Abdullah, (director of the Sulaymaniyah Museum) and Miss Hazha Jalal, (manager of the tablets’ section of the Museum) for their kind help and unlimited cooperation.

Miss Hazha Jalal, manager of the tablet's section of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, holds the tablet. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. ©Osama S. M. Amin.

Miss Hazha Jalal, manager of the tablet’s section of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, holds the tablet. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.

The author (left) interviews Miss Hazha Jalal, manager of the tablets' section of the Sulaymaniyah Museum. ©Osama S. M. Amin.

The author (left) interviews Miss Hazha Jalal, manager of the tablets’ section of the Sulaymaniyah Museum. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.

Miss Hazha Jalal, (manager of the tablet’s section at the Sulaymaniyah Museum of Iraqi Kurdistan) speaks (using Kurdish language) about this tablet: “The tablet dates back to the Neo-Bablyonian period. It is a part of tablet V of the Epic. It was acquired by the Museum in the year 2011 and Dr. Farouk Al-Raw transliterated it. It was written as a poem and this version has added many new things, for example Gilgamesh and his friend met a monkey. We are honored to house this tablet and anyone can visit the Museum during its opening hours from 8:30 AM to 2:00 PM. The entry is free for you and your guests. Thank you.”

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What’s a good router?

I haven’t bought a new router since 2007 or so. I wonder if routers have gotten better? And if they have, why not spend $100 or so to get a new one? I could always use a little more speed copying stuff around the LAN.

So I did a little looking, and judging from the reviews on Amazon, most of the popular routers came out four or five years ago. And they cost about $30. Is that right?

I have modest needs. Just need to hook up a few computers over wifi. They’re all Macs, iOS or Android devices. No need for USB or multiple networks, etc.

What’s a good router to get?

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Ditch Linux For Windows 10 On Your Raspberry Pi With Microsoft’s IoT Kit

An anonymous reader writes: Partnering with Adafruit, Microsoft has announced the Windows IoT Core Starter Kit. The $75 kit comes comes with an SD card preloaded with Windows 10 IoT. According to the Raspberry Pi blog: “The pack is available with a Pi 2 for people who are are new to Raspberry Pi or who’d like a dedicated device for their projects, or without one for those who’ll be using a Pi they already own. The box contains an SD card with Windows 10 Core and a case, power supply, wifi module and Ethernet cable for your Pi; a breadboard, jumper wires and components including LEDs, potentiometers and switches; and sensors for light, colour, temperature and pressure. There’s everything you need to start building.”

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Show HN: A Web Audio live-looper using microphone and MIDI input

This application is an 8-track live-looper. To use all the functionality of this application, you will need a MIDI keyboard connected to your computer. For the best experience, it is recommended that you use the latest version of Google Chrome.

If you want to use microphone input, you’ll need to give your browser permission to use your microphone (a popup should appear asking for your consent when this page loads. If you don’t see it, you may need to change your browser’s settings). After giving your browser permission, enable microphone input by clicking the microphone button (the big circle with the microphone icon in it), or press the [microphone] button (m, by default).

To use this application, start by clicking the animate button (the big circle with the triangle in it), or press the [animate] key (period, by default). When you’re ready to start recording, hold the [record] button (spacebar, by default), and choose a track to record to by pressing a number key, 1-8. Next, make some noise with your MIDI keyboard using the instruments included in this application, or using microphone input. All sounds you make will be recorded to the chosen track. All tracks will loop indefinitely, allowing you to build a complex piece of music, one track at a time.

You can configure the keyboard controls and the length of the loop in the Looper-Settings menu (click the big gear button). The individual instruments can be configured with the Instruments-Settings menu (click the big music-note button).

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Amazon’s $23,698,655.93 book about flies

A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly – a classic work in developmental biology that we – and most other Drosophila developmental biologists – consult regularly. The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).

I sent a screen capture to the author  – who was appropriate amused and intrigued. But I doubt even he would argue the book is worth THAT much.

At first I thought it was a joke – a graduate student with too much time on their hands. But there were TWO new copies for sale, each be offered for well over a million dollars. And the two sellers seemed not only legit, but fairly big time (over 8,000 and 125,000 ratings in the last year respectively). The prices looked random – suggesting they were set by a computer. But how did they get so out of whack?

Amazingly, when I reloaded the page the next day, both priced had gone UP! Each was now nearly $2.8 million. And whereas previously the prices were $400,000 apart, they were now within $5,000 of each other. Now I was intrigued, and I started to follow the page incessantly. By the end of the day the higher priced copy had gone up again. This time to $3,536,675.57. And now a pattern was emerging.

On the day we discovered the million dollar prices, the copy offered by bordeebook was1.270589 times the price of the copy offered by profnath. And now the bordeebook copy was 1.270589 times profnath again. So clearly at least one of the sellers was setting their price algorithmically in response to changes in the other’s price. I continued to watch carefully and the full pattern emerged.

Once a day profnath set their price to be 0.9983 times bordeebook’s price. The prices would remain close for several hours, until bordeebook “noticed” profnath’s change and elevated their price to 1.270589 times profnath’s higher price. The pattern continued perfectly for the next week.

But two questions remained. Why were they doing this, and how long would it go on before they noticed? As I amusedly watched the price rise every day, I learned that Amazon retailers are increasingly using algorithmic pricing (something Amazon itself does on a large scale), with a number of companies offering pricing algorithms/services to retailers. Both profnath and bordeebook were clearly using automatic pricing – employing algorithms that didn’t have a built-in sanity check on the prices they produced. But the two retailers were clearly employing different strategies.

The behavior of profnath is easy to deconstruct. They presumably have a new copy of the book, and want to make sure theirs is the lowest priced – but only by a tiny bit ($9.98 compared to $10.00). Why though would bordeebook want to make sure theirs is always more expensive? Since the prices of all the sellers are posted, this would seem to guarantee they would get no sales. But maybe this isn’t right – they have a huge volume of positive feedback – far more than most others. And some buyers might choose to pay a few extra dollars for the level of confidence in the transaction this might impart. Nonetheless this seems like a fairly risky thing to rely on – most people probably don’t behave that way – and meanwhile you’ve got a book sitting on the shelf collecting dust. Unless, of course, you don’t actually have the book….

My preferred explanation for bordeebook’s pricing is that they do not actually possess the book. Rather, they noticed that someone else listed a copy for sale, and so they put it up as well – relying on their better feedback record to attract buyers. But, of course, if someone actually orders the book, they have to get it – so they have to set their price significantly higher – say 1.27059 times higher – than the price they’d have to pay to get the book elsewhere.

What’s fascinating about all this is both the seemingly endless possibilities for both chaos and mischief. It seems impossible that we stumbled onto the only example of this kind of upward pricing spiral – all it took were two sellers adjusting their prices in response to each other by factors whose products were greater than 1. And while it might have been more difficult to deconstruct, one can easily see how even more bizarre things could happen when more than two sellers are in the game. And as soon as it was clear what was going on here, I and the people I talked to about this couldn’t help but start thinking about ways to exploit our ability to predict how others would price their books down to the 5th significant digit – especially when they were clearly not paying careful attention to what their algorithms were doing.

But, alas, somebody ultimately noticed. The price peaked on April 18th, but on April 19th profnath’s price dropped to $106.23, and bordeebook soon followed suit to the predictable $106.23 * 1.27059 = $134.97. But Peter Lawrence can now comfortably boast that one of the biggest and most respected companies on Earth valued his great book at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping).

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Sigil e-book editor moves closer to full-strength ePub 3 editing via new pre-release. Plus, overview of Calibre for editing books

SigilEpubsamplesigilThe people behind Sigil, the multiplatform e-book editor, are making progress toward their goal of adding “ePub3 support without disrupting ePub2 editing.”

They’ve just released Sigil 0.8.900, a major overhaul, on the way to Sigil 0.9.0.  The program’s regular version for download is now 0.8.7. Already, there’s a plug-in to get ePub 3 from ePub files created by Sigil, even if it can be cumbersome to use compared to a future Sigil designed from the start for optional ePub3 creation.

Supported by donations, Sigil is free and open source and runs on Windows and the Mac and also offers limited Linux support.

You can find out more about Sigil’s features here. Also see Wikipedia item.

Elsewhere on the creation front, some fans of the Calibre e-book manager might appreciate a article, Real-Time E-Book Editing with Calibre

Related: Previous TeleRead articles on Sigil.

Note: That’s an old screenshot of Sigil, from Wikipedia.

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