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James Stanley, Founder of SMS Privacy, on How Books Can Change the Way We Think

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James Stanley is a self-employed software developer living in England. He’s currently running SMS Privacy – a service that offers online SMS-capable phone number, with completely anonymous signup and payment in Bitcoin.

When he’s not working, James is usually busy making things in his garage, riding his motorcycle, or travelling across Europe in his van.

In the summer of 2014, he did the Mongol Rally together with a friend. That’s an 18,000 miles (or 29,000 km) trip from London to Mongolia and back, through deserts and mountains! And they did it in a 1992 Nissan Micra, with an engine of 1 litre.

From our interview you’ll find out more about:
– the books that left a mark on him
– what resources he recommends to those who want to start their own online business
– why having so much of the world’s communication under the control of a single company is bad
– the main challenges of blockchain technology

…and many more interesting topics, so keep on reading!

Estimated reading time for this interview is 11 minutes. If you'd rather listen to it, you can do it on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

Favourite business-related book is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. When I got my first internship the boss recommended it to me, and I didn’t read it for ages because the title sounded a bit manipulative. But the content is not about manipulating people at all, it’s about how to be a better person. Lots of good advice, although I don’t apply it as well as I should. I get lots out of it each time I re-read it.

Favourite non-business book is “The Sovereign Individual” by James Dale Davision and William Rees-Mogg. Written in 1996, there’s a page in it that predicts the rise of what they call “cybermoney” (but what we now know as “cryptocurrency”) in affording individuals freedom over their money without being subject to coercion or surveillance by banks, governments, etc. Apart from that, there are lots of very astute observations and predictions throughout the book. Its either utopian or dystopian depending on your politics. 🙂

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

I’d say the benefit I’ve got out of books has mostly come holistically, from the thoughts that the books provoke, rather than from the books themselves. I can’t actually recall any specific instance where I directly applied something I read in a book (outside the context of textbooks and education, of course), but some of the books I’ve read have certainly changed my way of thinking. To some extent, I suppose *everything* has been partly attributable to things I’ve read in books.

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What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

Before I went to university (which, incidentally, I found to be an almost-complete waste of time – I wish I’d dropped out after the first year), I went to an open day at another university, and one of the professors recommended “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. I read it a few years later and found it to be a profoundly interesting book. I ride and maintain motorcycles myself, and the book was spot on about motorcycle maintenance.

The book follows a motorcycle journey taken by Pirsig and his son, and talks about philosophy interspersed with anecdotes from the trip. It talks about how, on its surface, any motorcycle maintenance task is just a series of defined steps that must be carried out in order, but when you actually get down to it, you can do any of the individual steps well or not well depending on how good you are or how hard you’re trying, etc. There’s a lot of thinking about the concept of “Quality” and how doing a Quality job of something is satisfying and admirable in its own right, and how this can be applied to every aspect of life. Gets a bit weird towards the end, but I got a lot out of thinking about that concept of Quality.

Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow is a dystopian science fiction story about a teenager who ends up on the wrong side of an authoritarian state. I read it while I was a teenager, and it’s the first thing that made me realise that authoritarianism isn’t just something that happens in the past. It can happen in the future too. Looking back on it now, the writing is certainly aimed at a younger audience, but I enjoyed it very much at the time.

What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)

I very much enjoyed reading “Programming Pearls” by John Bentley. Most of the software we write is trying to solve fairly large and ill-defined problems in a way that minimises development cost, but Programming Pearls presents a lot of small, well-defined problems, and talks through their solutions in ways that minimise machine resource usage. There are lots of good “a-ha” moments when reading it, and working through ways to think about the problems that knock asymptotic orders off the computational complexity.

The Cuckoo’s Egg” by Clifford Stoll is another great book. I believe it’s the first documented account of a computer being misused by a remote attacker. It talks about how Clifford attached physical teleprinters to the incoming phone lines so that he could see what the attacker was actually doing on the computer, and how he traced the attacker across several countries. Clifford is a super interesting and eccentric guy, and features in some good YouTube videos, I particularly enjoyed this one.

I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?

Most of what I read these days is blog posts that I stumble across on Hacker News. I’ve only read 1 book in the last 12 months. Like so many of us, I keep thinking I need to take more time to read books, but never seem to get around to it.

For anyone who wants to start their own online business: what are some must-read / follow resources or people? (these can be blogs, Twitter accounts, TED talks, YouTube videos, subreddits, anything – I’m asking this because you mentioned Patrick McKenzie in the IndieHackers interview).

Yes, there is some fantastic material on Patrick McKenzie’s blog. That’s probably one of the first places that revealed to me the possibility of making money through software while working alone. I had previously thought that to make money with software you had to have lots of swanky business partners, wear nice suits, go to fancy dinners, and negotiate million-dollar contracts. Patrick presents a much more appealing path. It’s certainly worth reading a handful of posts from his “Greatest Hits” page.

I also enjoy reading W. Ben Hunt’s blog “Epsilon Theory” – it’s about analysing markets through the lenses of game theory. It’s not too applicable to anything I do (other than the slight anti-establishment bent), but it’s a refreshing take on financial markets that acknowledges the important role of large institutions, while also acknowledging that they’re working only in their own best interest.

There are lots of contradictory opinions regarding cryptocurrency. What are some of the biggest aspects that people can’t seem to understand on this topic?

The main part of it is probably that most people don’t see the value in a system of money that works across long distances without trusting any intermediary not to run away with the money, and without requiring any intermediary not to block the transaction. I don’t think that’s a problem for the long term though. Before the internet, most people probably didn’t see much value in a system of communication that works long distances and is open to all, but that didn’t stop the internet from slowly eating everything.

I think all of the drama about block sizes, transaction fees, scaling, merchant adoption, etc. is just growing pains. The core innovation of it is as a system of money that puts the owner of the money in total control of the money, and the rest is just a matter of iterative engineering improvements.

Last question. In my social “bubble”, many people are trying to get some sort of control over their digital life by closing social media accounts. Is privacy just an illusion in our times or can we still achieve it?

I’m very disappointed with the way social media works. Email is great because email allows anybody to buy a domain name, download some open source software, and set up an email server that they’re in complete control of. Most people don’t bother, of course. Most people use GMail. But you don’t *have* to use GMail. If you run your own email server, there’s no risk of Google reading all of your emails to mine for advertising data, or giving your list of correspondents to the government, or censoring your messages.

But with social media that’s completely different. Facebook has complete and total authority over what happens on Facebook. They can (and do) censor content that they consider objectionable, and they can (and do) mine everything that everybody posts to get whatever advertising data they can find. In the case of email, if you use GMail and I don’t use GMail, we can still communicate. OK, GMail gets to see the content of messages that I send to *you*, but that’s your choice. With Facebook, you’ve got absolutely no choice. If you want to communicate with a Facebook account, you must use Facebook, and your entire account is subject to surveillance and censorship by Facebook. That’s a massive step backwards in my opinion.

Having so much of the world’s communication under the control of Facebook is pretty bad. The other lack of privacy I don’t like is “physical world” stuff. You can’t drive your car anywhere without your number plate getting seen and the location being stored.. You can’t walk anywhere without your phone authenticating with a tower and your phone’s location being stored. You can’t fly without giving your passport number, which then gets stored. Apart from that, ultrasound beacons can track you across devices, in shops, etc. Technology is rapidly being developed (and, I suspect, deployed) that can very accurately detect faces in CCTV feeds so that you can be tracked in public even if you’re not carrying a phone, driving a car, or going on a flight. It all gets very depressing if you spend too much time thinking about it…

Links where you can follow James Stanley or find out more about his projects:

All books mentioned by James in this interview:

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