Slack’s Most Requested Feature is Bad for Business

This article is also available on Medium.

Slack needs no introduction. It’s the new generation’s IRC, but private, and user friendly. And perfect for business! (and more.. fun fact: our group of friends became closer again thanks to Slack).

It allows you to customize it through multiple add-ons, such as the essential tableflip add-on, or the roll bot.

It also flips words, not just tables

There is one feature that sounds so standard you’d assume it’s probably hidden in a menu somewhere but you never bothered to look for it: “Read receipts”.

But a lot of people did search for it. And the reason I’m writing this post is that I’m indirectly involved in this 5 year discussion that started with this tweet in 2014:

Which resulted in this reply:

Which was quickly followed up by Slack:

Notice the small hint in their tweet? Also notice how 100+ people are talking about this, and this is just one thread?

Anyway, Slack replied multiple times with the perfect solution:

But people weren’t happy. It’s not a proper read receipt. And they’ve been on about it on Twitter for years.

Read Receipt Troubles

Apple introduced this feature to iMessages back in 2011. Wonderful. You actually know if the person’s read your message. But then what?

Suddenly you have an expectation. An obligation and responsibility is put with the other party. Go on then, reply!

If you see someone’s read your message but hasn’t replied, I’m pretty sure you assume this person is ignoring you. But are they though? Might they not have glanced at the message, in order to reply later? Maybe they were driving, cycling, in the middle of a conversation? We tend to forget the person has stuff going on that does not involve us. This “always online” way of life has made us very impatient.

This puts stress on the receiving end as well. I saw the message. I should not forget the message (why do not more apps have a “set to unread feature”). I should reply ASAP. Suddenly that casual conversation the person is having, or that trip in the car, becomes stressful. You’re taken out of the moment (the problem with notifications is a whole other story of course). Your mind cannot let go.

I. Have. To. Reply!

Now, some of us are stronger, and some of us are weaker when it comes to fighting these urges or feelings. It’s all easier said than done. And sure, we shouldn’t put stress on our friends and partners like that. I think we can agree on that. But … this is a personal issue.

(By the way, Apple allowed users to disable it in 2015, in case you’re still stuck in the obligatory receipt reply cycle).

But what about business?

Remember when I said:

If you see someone’s read your message but hasn’t replied, … Maybe they were driving, cycling, in the middle of a conversation?

That’s a big no-no at work, right? Suddenly when you’re not replying to a message, well… the only logical thing to assume is that person is not working! Hell, maybe they’re not even at their desk! (this becomes a bigger issue if the person is … working from home!)

Hence, the read receipts! A subtle but effective way of checking up on your people.

First of all, if your boss has no trust in what you do (at work or remote), it’s time to look elsewhere. But you can’t blame your boss on “logical” conclusions, such as: if it takes you hours to see the message, what are they actually up to? They can’t be working! (Assuming your work mostly consists of reading Slack messages and not doing any actual work…)

But privacy is an important thing. Even in work environments. And so is trust! If you cannot trust your team members, maybe you have hired the wrong people. Or maybe you should reevaluate your perception of people. Yes, look inward.. You’re also causing unnecessary stress on your employees. Which in turn can lead to burn-out, depression.. (Ok I’m jumping ahead but still).

I can’t but think Slack is partially considering the problem from this perspective. Automating activities on behalf of the user without user control can create these situations in which people start expecting specific user behavior. It’s already hard not to misinterpret people’s messages (and feelings) through text channels, it might be best not to give people another method of reading online behaviors wrong. (Also, just pick up the phone if it’s THAT important).

(if you totally disagree, and if you really must, there is a read receipt solution:

Did you get that?

But there remains the problem that pretty much every Slack team I’ve seen consists of multiple channels. Multiple channels with walls of text. Some more important than others. And messages do get lost. How does one keep track of it all?

Sure, Slack could introduce read receipts. Maybe at a Slack team owner’s level, enforcing it on all their employees. Or at a user specific level. But good luck explaining to your boss why you chose to turn it off.

Slack has multiple solutions though: you can star messages, pin them to the channel, or even easily set reminders! Need to know if someone read a message? Ask them to add an emoji reaction!

This solution is ideal. It puts the responsibility with the receiver. It doesn’t automate the process, so something “read” is really “read” and “processed”. (and if it wasn’t, at least now you have proof the person is.. slacking, pun intended)

Confirmation of a message received should be part of the conversation. Just like I need to ask my five year old daughter several times to confirm she heard what I said. Nope, I cannot assume she heard me, no matter how much she nods…

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

Wait. Invoicing has language requirements?

Photo by Conor Luddy

This story is also available on Medium

As a freelancer, you kind of have to do and think of everything. My accountant is a great help, but it’s not always easy to ask the right questions. Certainly not when you’ve just made the jump into the world of freelancing (like me).

Invoicing scared me a little. The laws around it are quite strict, invoices MUST contain specific fields and words or they’re just not valid. Sure, if your customer still pays you, that’s great. But the tax man can issue fines if specific information is missing or incorrect.

As paranoid as I am, and wanting to make sure I didn’t make any huge mistakes during my first few months of freelancing, I checked and double checked all the requirements. And as I have both local and foreign customers, I ran into this annoying rule:

Your invoice must be written in the language of the area where your business resides.

However, for customers abroad, laws have recently changed, and English is acceptable (disclaimer: check your government website for the correct rules).

An example

When I am sending an invoice to Germany, I can use English. Great. But in Belgium (where I live and my business resides) we speak 3 languages: Dutch, French, and German. You’d be tempted to send an invoice in English to your customers in the French and German speaking parts, right? Well, no, to make sure your invoice is legal, it must be in Dutch. Sure, you can add a French copy, but the Dutch one is valid, the French isn’t.

Are you a British freelancer with a legal address in France
(or any other country, but do check local laws), doing business locally? . Make sure those invoices are in the local language, and not in English.

Invoicing apps

There are plenty of apps out there that take care of your invoicing. But with all these legal limitations, I decided I’d need a locally developed tool, as that would most likely guarantee the legal correctness of my invoices.

Teamleader looked promising, with lots of functionality, multi-language invoices, and even built-in support for correct taxing and phrasing (regarding VAT). But at 50 Euro per month (to get the invoicing, and a bunch of tools I would not use) I decided to look elsewhere (for now).

My accountant uses Yuki. It seems to be a pretty standard tool that everyone uses (in Belgium and Netherlands?), although I can’t say I’m a huge fan. Its visual and user experience design give me headaches (it’s been a while since I got vocally angry at an application). But it’s amazing feature-wise and does pretty much everything you need. Yep, also invoicing.

But what it generates… well. Your clients’ first reaction will be that an invoice from the 90s got lost and decades later reached their inbox.

My current love: Harvest

No feature bloat. Just time tracking and invoicing. Good looking invoices even! I first ignored Harvest due to its language limitations. Sure, it has a translation option that allows you to translate/rename every single label on your invoice, but there is no way to switch back and forth without needing to refill the complete Translations page on the Harvest website every time you need to switch languages.

But I found a way around that: this free Chrome plugin I threw together to solve my problems. Fill in your custom labels, save it. And repeat. As many versions of the labels as you like. It’s still not perfect. Between every invoice you send out you need to head back to the settings, load the labels you want, save, head back to invoices. But it beats having to type it all in again. And the biggest bonus: I can use Harvest for all my time tracking and invoicing needs <3

Yes, I’m aware other solutions exist. I sometimes just like to create things. The bonus of this plugin is that it’s not limited to specific languages, gives you more control, and different wording can even be used across languages.

It’s a temporary solution. I’ve already asked Harvest about this and they’ve jotted my feedback down. Fingers crossed! But in the mean time, if you’re a Harvest user, feel free to use the plugin.

Hope this information helps some of you out there. Do share your invoicing woes in the comments below! And .. happy invoicing!

Why Deepfakes are a good thing

[Also on Medium]

If you should believe the media, Deepfakes equals the end of days. Fake news, fake evidence, this technology will create a world of disbelief, blackmail,… trust goes out the window, we’re all doomed. Period.

The media likes to scare us, as, well, scary stories sell. And for once, it might actually help get the positive message across.There’s a way to use Deepfakes for good, and I’m not just talking about my wife on the Tonight show.

We believe everything

Whether it’s the news, a magazine, a book, gossip, it’s all just words, spread around, by friends or “reliable” sources. And we (should) all know to take everything we hear and read with a grain of salt. Yet, we let them lead our thoughts and our beliefs, which influence important life choices such as who we vote for, who we love, who we hate. Words are the most easily manipulated form of message (why not buy a book on how to manipulate people). And still, millions of people live by words that cannot be proven to be true, on a daily basis, and would even give their lives for them.

Roswell’s Flying Saucer 1947

We used to consider photographs real. Then Photoshop happened.

Trump & Saruman

Video is real. Even though we know 90% of what we see in Hollywood movies is fake, every other video is real right?

We must become more aware

Fake news is a big topic. While we know in our hearts never to trust politicians and news outlets, we still do, we still believe every word they say but go crazy when we finally find out it’s all lies. We don’ blame ourselves, though.

Deepfakes just added another level of worries. Video can be faked?.. Is anything we see and hear real anymore?

No. Nothing is. Just as you shouldn’t believe every single word on tv, in the newspaper or [insert your favorite religious book here], video is just another medium ready to be manipulated.

But don’t blame Deepfakes. Don’t demonise the technology. Thank Deepfakes!

Think about this: If someone was able to create this technology in their bedroom throwing together a bunch of existing tools, someone with a bigger budget must have pulled it off a long time ago. There’s no doubt large organisations with massive resources haven’t explored these techniques. Who knows, maybe we’ve seen some of their work, on the news, without knowing it.

So thank Deepfakes, for making us aware of this, making us realise once again that we can’t take everything we see and hear for granted. For creating a problem for us to solve, early on, before it becomes so big, and has influenced so many of us incorrectly, that it’s too late.

It will take time. A new skill we must all learn. So doubt that next video you see on the Internet. Hell, doubt everything you see, read, or hear. Be more critical! Think for yourself.

Family fun with deepfakes. Or how I got my wife onto the Tonight Show

[Also on Medium]

[ Update 3 Feb 2018: added two new creations at the bottom of this post. Last one turned out really well ]

I’ve first heard of deepfakes a good week ago. Thanks Twitter. Thanks Tim Soret.

Yes, it’s pretty damn cyberpunk. But from a superficial point of view, /r/deepfakes (extremely NSFW! You have been warned) consists of people using an app created by user “deepfakes” to create fake celebrity porn.

This has caused a shitstorm on the Internet, media discussing the legality of it all, websites taking down the deepfake creations, and people panicking as they realise AI is going to screw us all up (newsflash: it’s already been happening in much less obvious ways). And meanwhile, Nicolas Cage is taking over Hollywood.

While everyone’s debating whether this is good or bad, I just had to find out more. First thing that came into my mind? How can I apply this to everyone I know (in a non-porn way, in case you wondered).

How does it work?

The deepfakes app is a deep learning algorithm that learns how to reconstruct faces. Give it a bunch of pictures, let it run a few hours, and it spits out fuzzy copies of those images. Do note, it doesn’t create a copy. It learns what a face looks like, in different expressions, and is able to output that face solely based on that. There’s a detailed explanation on Reddit but let me try and dumb it down.

Think of it like this: imagine if you could stare at someone for 12 hours straight, observing all their expressions and absorbing that into your brain. Then that person asks you to sketch his face on paper, smiling, crying, any expression you’ve observed. What do you do? You immediately generate a photographic quality sketch on paper, from the mind! (using a pencil)

It’s insane!

While that’s pretty cool, it only gets better. See that “encoder” part? The FakeApp uses one encoder for all faces. It’s the decoder that’s kept face specific. And here comes the really cool part. Let it learn two faces, and things become more interesting.

Right, now see how this works. The encoder takes an image of a face, let’s it run through its “brain”, and the decoder spits it out again. In the example above, it can do so with faces of Anne Hathaway, and Elke, my wife. Ok, so far so good. But now let’s feed it a picture of Anne, but use the decoder that generates Elke’s face!

You just created a new photo of Elke. A photo that never existed, in the same angle, the same expression, as Anne! Amazing!

Family fun

Sure, putting celebrities’ faces on your favorite porn stars is an interesting use case. But we can leverage these celebrities for other things, such as inserting your friends and family into blockbuster movies and shows!

For the best result, you must first find an actor/actress that has a similar head shape as the person you wish to insert. In case of Elke (my wife) I accidentally noticed, while watching the Dark Knight Rises, that Anne Hathaway might be a good fit. I guess you know Anne, so here’s Elke:

All I needed was about 850 photos of Elke, a few 1000 of Anne, a lot of computing time, et voila: Elke’s on the Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon.

Bonus effect: now we know what Elke looks like with short hair :D

Here’s a little comparison gif:

I personally think it’s fun, can be innocent, and even makes for a nice surprise/gift. Remember, any tool can be used for evil. And as long as we’re not banning guns, this should not be a high priority, amirite?

There’s so much you can do with this technology. You know those dumb emails people send around where they replaced dancing elves heads with their own, or even worse, yours? Well, now you can put your best friend into his favourite movie: have her dance with Patrick Swayze and have the time of her life, or have an alien burst out of his stomach. It’s all within your reach now!

Beyond just pure fun, I can only imagine how people will start turning this tech into business ideas. Fashion will be huge (what would I look like with this kind of hair, this kind of dress…), fitness could be interesting (do I look good with muscles, will I really look better skinny), travel (this is you standing on a beach is going to be quite convincing). It’ll bring advertising to a whole new level. No need to imagine what if, they’ll tell you what your “better” life will look like! And it’ll be hard to get that picture out of your head…

Update: in the mean time, I’ve created two more. Elke’s a huge fan of Steve Carell, and I suddenly realized Anne Hathaway co-starts with him in Get Smart. First attempt was okay:

Then I wanted to try this one (original video):

And I think it turned out great:


My PhD Acknowledgements <3

Four point five years. Summarised in 131 pages and 18 scientific publications. That and a new title.

While the new title does sound cool (how else can one be taken seriously when announcing world domination), the biggest result is the little book: the dissertation, in my case, on Learning Dashboards. But while I hope the pages reach the intended audience (the Learning Analytics community), I wonder if anyone beyond that will read it.

Probably not. And that’s fine.

But more than just research and writing went into this achievement. A lot of people, friends, family, and colleagues, were part of the process. Pulling and pushing me along the path that led me here. So even if the main contribution doesn’t reach a large audience, I hope the acknowledgements in my book do. Without these people, I would not be where I am today, nor would this small advancement in Learning Analytics research.

So I could be ignorant and assume you’ll download and read the book ;) But I’ll just leave you with the first few pages, the important ones about.. the important ones.

Here we go…

Twenty years ago, I figured, let’s do Physics. I loved all things space and dinosaur related, and had an awesome Physics teacher. However, that same teacher told me studying Physics would most likely land me in Finance. So, I followed my other passion, Computer Science.


But after completing my degree and spending years in the private sector, I wondered if I had made the right decision. While I had a passion for programming, the lack of creativity that comes with a software engineering job (beyond the code) was killing me. Moving to Nottingham to pursue a career in games did not improve the situation either: a developer just develops, it seems. Side projects (indie game development and art academy) were an attempt to bring some creativity back into my life, but I needed a serious change where I spent most of my time: the day job.


The PhD was an unexpected opportunity that presented itself in my mailbox. Two weeks it sat there until I finally decided to reply. What followed was life changing. Research meant I could explore the unknown, build things no one had before, and join the user in their experience with our new creations. I got paid to create visualisations, play with new technology, and spend time thinking of all the crazy things we could accomplish with it. Both the nerd and the artist in me were satisfied. This might just be where I belong. It only took me 36 years to figure it out…


Thirty-six years is a long time. I owe where I am today to a lot of amazing people: for the opportunities, the support, the patience, and the listening.


I would like to thank Erik. In 2013, I somehow convinced him I would be the right guy for the job. When times got tough, he would keep convincing me I was. “I wasn’t that smart either and look where I am now”, a pep talk I will never forget. From all the “bosses” I’ve had, he was one of the few who genuinely cared about his people, at a personal, family, and career level. Thanks for letting me get to know you and your amazing family. Your awesome ideas will live on in our work, we will all make sure of that.


If it wasn’t for Bert, I would have never even considered a PhD. But it was his better half, Katrien, who got me in the room with Erik. I owe a lot to her. She stepped in just as I was close to jumping ship. She was the motivating force I needed, and pushed me across the finish line. Thanks to both Katrien and Tinne, this last year and a half of the PhD has been amazing. We’ve published great papers, made a name in the community, and put our stamp on student advice at the university.


Joris. What was it Jose said, thanks for the coffee? I’ll do one better: bourbon at Harvard, such an amazing trip! He never once doubted me, and I will never forget his endless “het komt goed” (it will be all right). And who’d have thought, it did! (I guess this calls for another round of drinks in Boston!).


I would also like to thank Andrew, Bieke, Yolande, and Martin, for taking the time to read my dissertation, providing valuable feedback, and a memorable private defence.


But my biggest thanks goes to Elke. I could not have achieved this without the love of my life (15 years this year, 10 as my gorgeous wife). Always supporting my crazy decisions. She quit a promising career to follow me abroad and let me pursue my game developer dream back in 2008. And in 2013 she supported me again in my biggest career change, when I gave up a well-paid, secure job to become a student once again. We were not expecting the PhD to be such a roller-coaster. I experienced moments of joy and despair, feelings that would affect her as much as it did me. But she always had my back, endured the after-work rants, and supported me in every way possible. Without her, I would never have managed.


Hazel joined us (in the womb) at the start of the PhD. Kids do not make things easier. But they do give you a reason to keep going. During dark periods of the PhD, she was always there to put a smile on my face (or add to the misery with sleepless nights. She’s a little monster like that). Hazel, if you read this when you are older, we love you and we will make sure you get to follow your dreams just as we could.


My parents, Marinette and Guy: they have always been there for me, supported me, and believed in me (and also provided me with all the nerdy hardware a kid needs to keep his technology interest going). And my grandparents, Meke, Vake, Peter Wieke, and Bobonne. Meke is not here to see this, but if someone believed I could pull this off, it was her.


My parents-in-law, Monique and Daniel, and the “Moekes”, for treating me like one of their own. Monique, the things you have missed out on, it is not fair. We miss you, words cannot describe.


Kurt, thanks for showing up at the defence (if you didn’t, this is going to be awkward). You’ve been that one true best friend. Always there in time of needs. And always making me look good at the board game table.


Franky, the bastard who pulled me out of the Flemish, secure mindset, and lured me to England. I ended up working long unpaid hours in Nottingham and lived amongst criminals and drunks. But I regret nothing!


José, for his unique perspectives on things, telling it like it is, and your attempt at keeping me sane through the PhD (it did not work).


Thomas for the babysitting and being Hazel’s coolest uncle. And “Tantan”, for taking care of Hazel all those Mondays, and for all the things you have done for Elke.


Kris, for bringing that new addiction into my life. The Nets won’t run themselves! Lies, for being Hazel’s awesome godmother. Jim, thanks for letting me win sometimes. Wait, no.


Sean, Jenna, Greg, and Johnny. One day Rad Lab Games will rise again!


François and Denis, we will make that dinner happen and bathe in Brasschaat’s sushi! Until then we will just shoot people online.


NorthgateArinso: Fred, Schtroumpf, Maarten, Karo, and Tom. My first and fourth job (thanks Samir), and also my last job before I ran off to academia (I am not implying anything!).


Everyone at Monumental Games and iChoosr, even though the stops were short, they were life changing.


My current, former, and visiting colleagues at the coolest lab of the Computer Science department: Yucheng, Karsten, Francisco, Gonzalo, Robin, Tom, Sam, Bruno, Victor, Gayane, Chen, Sten, Till, Frans, Samara, and Oana. And all the amazing people of the weSPOT, eCloud, and ABLE projects.


The Blade Runner soundtrack, for getting me through numerous paper deadlines.


And Bert. For getting me into this mess in the first place.


Dude, sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.

– Jake the Dog, Adventure Time

I love you, Pumpkin.

– Honey Bunny, Pulp Fiction