It’s time to use a virtual private network

The Thinker by Rodin

As a tech guy, it’s rare for me to find technology and politics intersecting. Both are my passions. Last week though it did and at the suggestion of my wife (actually her friend) we subscribed to a virtual private network service.

Why? Well, if you live in the United States it’s hard to miss the news that Congress passed and on Monday Trump signed into law a bill that allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to sell your Internet usage data. The law prohibits the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from implementing a rule planned for later this year. That Obama FCC rule would have prohibited ISPs from selling your Internet access information without your explicit consent. With the new law, ISPs don’t need your consent. So in addition to paying companies like Comcast $100 a month for your Internet service they now have government sanction to do whatever they want with your Internet access information and without your consent too. You would think they would at least give you a kickback depending on the value of the information.

Being money grubbing, profit-making corporations of course ISPs will try to sell your information for as much as the market will allow. There are likely to be plenty of buyers because what they have to sell is likely plenty valuable. Think about your Internet life. Perhaps it is quite G-rated, as mine is most of the time. But even if you lead a G-rated life your browser history will still be tracked and analyzed, and sold to companies that will want to sell you stuff. Of course it’s much easier to sell you stuff when they already suspect you have an interest in what they are promoting, which is why it will likely generate a lot of profits for ISPs. In the sales business, this is called prospecting. It used to be done door-to-door and now it’s done electronically and you have no say in the matter because it’s like leaving your front door open for marketers to roam around in at any hour of the day to observe your behavior.

This practice isn’t news. You probably get targeted ads that follow you online, as I do. It’s probably not Comcast (yet) selling this information, although in the past they were not legally prohibited from selling it. (Most of these are site owners sharing information they collect about your access on their site, principally your IP address, to others.) The issue was murky so ISPs appeared to be refraining from doing it. That’s not the case now and really if you complain what are you going to do? Most of us don’t have the option of choosing another ISP. I sure don’t here in Massachusetts where Comcast holds the monopoly. My only choice is to give up the Internet altogether or access it from public libraries. Obviously this is not a viable solution today. Google and Facebook of course make lots of money selling targeted ads. However, you don’t have to use Google or Facebook, and they don’t charge you for the privilege. Using it is a choice.

With no constraints on what ISPs can do with information it collects about you while using its network, pretty much anything about your Internet usage is now available potentially to anyone with the money. ISPs could even give it away for free. Perhaps you don’t mind getting targeted ads so you think, okay, I’m in. If I have to have ads thrown at me online all day, maybe they can at least be relevant. But consider some of the other ways this information could be misused:

  • The government could pay ISPs to collect all this information and store a copy in its own servers. You could even make a case for it. If the NSA is looking for potential terrorists, knowing you keep going to an al Qaeda website sure would be good to know. Of course while they are in there they could also learn that you frequent PornHub.com or regularly contribute to the American Communist Party. If you want to create a police state, this is a pretty efficient way to get one started.
  • Political parties could use it not just to find new voters, but also to target voters they don’t want voting because they suspect you will vote against their interests. This is similar to what the Russian government is accused of doing in our last election through fake news sites and sophisticated web robots that promoted false stories that it believed we were likely to fall for. It’s quite likely that Hillary Clinton lost the election through the promotion of fake news stories about her email server or actions on Benghazi while Secretary of State.
  • It would make it much easier for the Russians to affect future elections. Now they have to hunt to find gullible people. Buying the information up front is so much easier and allows a broader scope. Russia need not be the only state actor. Any nation with the cash (like China) could play.
  • Your spouse can find out that you frequent ashleymadison.com or gay porn sites.
  • Your Googling of medical conditions might suggest to health insurers that you are a bad bet and they might deny you a policy or cancel an existing one.
  • You may have related confidential family information, maybe about your kid’s run in with the law, or a son’s ADHD, or a sister with Alzheimer’s Disease, stuff that is your business, but not some stranger’s business.
  • Political enemies could discover you and target you, perhaps with a brick through your window because you gave to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. (I am guilty of both.)

In short this should be very alarming. In more reasonable places, like most of Europe, laws prohibit this stuff. It doesn’t generate controversy because no one would consider an idea as radical as the bill Trump signed on Monday. Ah, but here in the USA we’re all about extreme capitalism. Those with the money make the rules and that appears to be Republicans since they moved this law, and very quickly too.

What can you do about it? I don’t intend to get into the many ways to safeguard your privacy on the web that have been around for years. In this case though you are being mined and recorded without your consent. Your Internet address is stored, geolocation information too along with a host of other information, like your web browser, the page you were viewing and the page that referred you to the page. It can all be logged and put into vast data warehouses and there is nothing you can do about it.

Okay, there is one thing: use a virtual private network (VPN). It’s hardly a perfect solution but it’s the next step. Unfortunately, a VPN service is rarely free, which means that if you value your privacy like everything else you will probably pay a cost, most likely in money, but perhaps just in your time. A VPN is a secure tunnel that your ISP cannot read, aside from knowing that you are connecting to a VPN site. Your web requests essentially are proxied through the VPN provider you choose.

(A side note: Congress is also considering legislation to do away with “net neutrality”. If passed, ISPs could use this is an excuse to block VPN sites or to charge them extra for the privilege, costs which would trickle down to you. This is just another reason that I think net neutrality is essential.)

We took the plunge last week and bought a year of VPN service from Private Internet Access. It’s a pretty good deal. ($40 a year for up to 5 simultaneous devices, if you pay for a year in advance.) I am not endorsing the company as we have just started using it. Of course you have no idea if the VPN service is reselling your information just like Comcast. You have to trust them. Private Internet Access’s terms of service suggest that if you are doing illegal things they can detect it and might report it. I’m quite confident that if they get a search warrant they can turn on logging easily enough. Of course they would not be in business long if they were engaged in these sorts of activities routinely. Private Internet Access, like most VPNs, says they don’t keep logs of your access. If true, it’s reasonably private.

So if you are shopping for a VPN, by all means shop around. This recent PC World article reviewed a bunch of VPNs so it’s a good place to get unbiased advice. (Private Internet Access is one of their Editor’s Choice winners.) Some, like one built into the Opera browser, are free. Most cost money. As you might expect the quality of the service you get depends principally on how much you are willing to pay. With Private Internet Access so far I have noticed:

  • I could not access Craigslist until I pointed it to use a connection point within the United States
  • I could not use it at the same time with another VPN. Since I teach at a local community college, I use its VPN from time to time. I could not use it until I first turned off the Private Internet Access VPN.
  • Content streaming is not noticeably slower but it is probably slower in general because there is an extra server between me and the content I want

Hopefully in time we’ll get a Congress and president again that will respect our privacy. Like with the Citizens United decision, Americans are overwhelmingly against this law, and that includes Republicans. So it’s likely Republicans will eventually pay a price for this heavy handedness. In the meantime if you value your privacy, you probably need to get a VPN.

Is blogging dying?

The Thinker by Rodin

When I started this blog in late 2002, blogging was an up and coming thing. Fourteen years later, there is plenty of evidence that while blogging is not quite dead it is dying. I can look at my own web statistics to see the trend. While I strongly suspect my web statistics were overstated in the early years due to incorrectly counting robots and search engines, according to the most accurate gauge that I have (Google Analytics), I am getting 18% of the page views in 2015 that the blog got in 2010.

I am not helped because my blog is both very personal and largely themeless. Those blogs that succeed today tend to be rooted around a much more popular website, like a blogger posting on Huffington Post. A successful blog is often extremely specialized (narrowcasting is the term I have heard used). Over the last decade or so, web marketers have learned all sorts of tricks on how to catch eyeballs. Just ask Facebook, Gawker (RIP), Twitter and Tumblr, to name a few. Mobile devices with smaller sized screens just further the trend. People want content in small and succinct bites, which bodes ill for long form blogs like mine.

My monthly foray into the Craigslist Casual Encounters section was due largely to people continually coming to my site for these postings. Making a monthly review of local postings is not so much for my own amusement as it is for yours. My hope is that having satisfied your prurient interest, you might stick around and read my other stuff too. It works somewhat and may explain that while my statistics like most blog sites are declining, I suspect I am doing better than most. You know things are bad when bloggers like Andrew Sullivan give up their blog.

I don’t feel particularly inclined to throw in the towel. This blog has been more about keeping me engaged mentally than anything else. Not that I haven’t considered giving it up. I did once drop out for a couple of weeks after Google mysteriously delisted me. Blogging may not bring in the traffic it used to, but as part of a site it’s definitely useful. If you run a small business on the web, one of the best ways to increase traffic (after convincing other sites to list your site) is to maintain a blog and regularly post relevant content on it. This helps establish that you are serious about your site by demonstrating that are willing to spend time to keep it fresh and topical, as well as offer nuggets useful to the public at large. In my case, this blog is the website. It serves no higher purpose and has not proven a way to make me independently rich.

I have noticed that web traffic is just one piece of my total traffic. A lot of people read me through the site’s feed. This week Feedcat (my blog aggregator) tells me I have 295 readers. If these readers are regular readers, that’s a whole lot more valuable to me than webpage hits. How many singers would be happy if the same 295 people came to hear them sing once a week? So while I don’t fill stadiums, I do fill a small virtual auditorium with generally the same people. I don’t know how much of my post they read, or if they read it at all. Judging from the dearth of comments I receive, most of them probably scan my content or are looking for that one special post, like the monthly Craigslist casual encounters post.

The general trend though is clear. Blogging is not dead, but it is less interesting to people on the web and it is becoming more specialized. Right now it works best as a narrowcast channel for mostly textual content. If your content is video, you are probably better off with a YouTube channel instead. It’s also quite useful for small communities where there are handfuls of content creators. The popular blogging software WordPress serves 26 percent of the content on the web, more than any other software solution. Most of that content is coming from hosted web servers. The beauty of WordPress is that it is both elegant blogging software and an elegant content management system. Obviously I like it as I have been using WordPress for at least eight years. Most likely WordPress is being used for your church’s website, but also to post the minister’s blog on it too. Small businesses find WordPress a no-brainer as well as the entry fee is small (just hosting) but the features available in WordPress and its thousands of plugins make pretty much anything possible and not too hard to do.

So perhaps it’s better to say that blogging is changing. It’s becoming a feature of a site rather than its reason for being. Blogging is probably not a way to riches, unless it is of the non-monetary kind. It does make it simple to get your content on the web and simple for you to control it. It allows you to personalize the content and make it easily available on lots of devices and media. It offers you a level of control that can’t be matched with a Facebook page, or a Tumblr or Twitter account. A blog is not easy to market. It depends mostly on friends or colleagues promoting it for you.

Blogging is still useful but it’s not a way to get lots of page views, at least not without a lot of really popular and unique content. Keep your expectations modest if you are going to blog; make the blog at least interesting to you so you will want to keep at it. This has to be enough or there’s no point in starting.

I’ll keep hanging in there.

Ghostwriter (or the art of tricking Google)

The Thinker by Rodin

All my life I wanted to be a paid writer. Being a writer sounded quite glamorous. You are paid to create and if you were good enough or wrote for just the right mass audience you could be wealthy like Stephen King.

Life didn’t work out that way for me. It’s probably for the best because most writers are starving writers, which means they do it as a hobby and not for much real income. They have other jobs that pay the rent. Moreover most writing is not glamorous, even when it pays well. Most writers dream of writing popular fiction. What most writers actually do is write articles for magazines or trade journals, or the local newspaper. They adhere to editorial guidelines. Their writing is not very creative. It’s about putting a number of facts and quotations on paper or online in a way that may be interesting enough for the reader to make it to the end of the article. These days even publishers don’t care if readers read the entire article or not. They are looking to serve ads. They care about whether your article attracts a lot of ad views. Whether it gets read is not that important, unless they are going for some sort of award.

So if you can find a writing job it is likely to pay poorly and be demoralizing to you and your self-esteem. And if you do manage to get a book published, it’s likely to sell a hundred to a thousand copies, with extras ending up in a discount book bin or just shredded for pulp for the next book. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing does not provide close to a living wage. Most editors will refuse to acknowledge your brilliance.

Recently though I did get paid to write. I was paid to ghostwrite. So in a sense I have become a published writer, although I think the content is going strictly online. Essentially, I’m being paid to influence Google’s search engine. Yes, I am writing for a set of algorithms! I’ve become something of a slave to the computer!

Google of course is the king of search engines. Getting high or higher on its search index is important. For many businesses it’s the difference between life or death. The only question is: how to get ranked higher than your competitors? Google is not telling, although it does give some hints. Needless to say there are plenty of companies out there that claim they can get your company ranked higher.

Most of these outfits are selling snake oil. There are lots of obvious things that can be done which don’t hurt, such as having URLs with meaningful information about your article, providing a sitemap.xml file and removing bad links. In the trade this is called “search engine optimization” or SEO. Everyone with the means to do so is already doing SEO. What you really want is for your company to appear in the top page of Google’s listing, ideally at or near the top for a given search phrase. These are links that people will click on.

One of my clients has made a business of SEO. I’ll call him Dick (not his real name). He’s hired me for odd jobs maintaining his forum, generally because he’s too busy making real money to mess with it. Dick has a reputation in the SEO world of getting results. That’s why Dick sought me out to be a ghostwriter.

Dick’s success has come through building a company’s online reputation. He figured out that Google ranks higher those sites that publish honest articles. I have no idea how Google assigns an honesty rating to an article, but somehow it’s got a built in bullshit detector in its algorithms. If it doesn’t look like bullshit, it’s ranked higher. If it looks authoritative, it’s ranked even higher. If you publish lots of articles that look honest and impartial, over time it will raise the ranking of your company in Google’s search index. This is a long-term strategy and it’s a costly one as well.

So I was hired to write some technical articles in this client’s particular domain. It turns out I have pretty good credentials. First, I do information technology for a living, so I have practical and current experience along with a masters degree in software systems engineering. Second, I write fairly well. Third, I am mostly retired. And fourth, I can write an impartial article. My years in government have actually helped. Government employees develop finely honed bullshit detectors, because we are constantly dealing with vendors trying to get their products and services into our enterprise.

Dick is also kind enough to provide a few sample articles for my topic. I use these as well as my thirty years in the business to crank out these articles. Generally they are no more than 800 words and follow a format. I charge by the hour. Since most of these are survey articles, I don’t have to really do any research. I just start writing. It takes me about three hours to write an article. I bill at $30/hour (my retiree rate). So far I’ve done two articles and earned $180 ghostwriting. There will probably be more, as the client is satisfied with my work.

I have no idea where these articles will be placed, but Dick tries to get them in online publications of authoritative sites. I could probably find them online if I looked. Dick does edit what I send him, so it may appear somewhat altered. But at least I am a published writer. Some people may find my articles interesting, but the only “person” of real interest is Google’s search engine. We are basically trying to fake it out. Dick’s client is essentially renting my experience for potential future customers and an improved reputation.

I’ll probably never know how this will all pan out. Some part of me thinks I am being dishonest. I am writing honest articles, but I am doing it on behalf of a company that doesn’t have the in-house skills or the time to do it. They are essentially renting my reputation, such as it is, to add to their reputation.

But hey, at least I am a published writer now! My pseudonym? Call me Anonymous.

Changes to subscription services

The Thinker by Rodin

Sorry if this is a somewhat geeky post.

I am using the Feedburner feed service. It allows many of you to acquire this blog through various mechanisms that don’t actually require that you to come to the site, a great way to read the blog if you are busy and/or lazy. It either emails my posts to you or by caching it on the Feedburner site makes it highly available in your feed reader.

Feedburner was the first to succeed in this market. It hadn’t been in operation too many years before it was acquired and Google and stuffed into its vast holdings. There it has been languishing, still working, but ignored. I can tell it is not being maintained because Google turned off the Feedburner API. In addition, it can’t even bother to maintain the documentation on the site. For example, it references Google Reader and iGoogle, which it retired a year or so back. This means that Feedburner is becoming untrustworthy. Google will probably get rid of it at some point.

Syndication is an important way for me to distribute my blog posts. Feedburner says I had 118 subscribers on average over the last week. This includes 22 active email subscribers. Given Feedburner’s problematic and untrustworthy status, I need to take some actions.

Those of you who subscribe via email will start receiving posts from my blog instead. Mail will come from mark@occams-razor.info. It’s possible your email program will move this into spam or trash. You may need to create a rule or filter to put these in your inbox. Each email should contain a link allowing you to unsubscribe.

Those of you that subscribe via news aggregators like feedly.com may need to change the feed URL. Rather than get it from Feedburner, you need to get it directly from my site. This generic feed URL should work fine: https://www.occams-razor.info/feed/.

You can also choose feeds for a specific feed protocol:

Thank you and thanks for reading the blog.

The feminization of Yahoo News

The Thinker by Rodin

I have nothing against females as CEOs. It’s clear that females make up a tiny minority of corporate CEOs and members of corporate boards. Recent news reports suggest that progress on this front has stalled. But there are a few of them. Few have been more prominent in the news lately than Marissa Mayer, the relatively new 38-year-old CEO of Yahoo. She has been making a splash for herself, not just for leaving a job at Google to take on the troubled Yahoo, but also for her many changes to the relatively staid and unprofitable Yahoo, Inc., something of a great grandfather on the World Wide Web.  These included bringing a nursery into the office for her now year old son and requiring her employees to actually come into the office instead of telecommute.

Mayer though has a track record of success with Google and she’s proving adept so far at changing the dynamics at Yahoo. Her old employer Google must really miss her because she successfully led a number of divisions at Google, including some of its principle products: its search engine and GMail. Yahoo had been losing revenue and market share, but things are quickly turning around with Mayer in charge. Yahoo now gets more web traffic than Google again, no small feat and while not quite profitable again, it is making strides toward profitability. She has purchased the blogging site Tumblr and Yahoo’s stock price is rebounding. It has more than doubled during her brief tenure as CEO.

So she is doing good for stockholders and with her reputation she can probably turn around Yahoo, which is good because a World Wide Web mostly overseen by the benevolent Google overlord is not a healthy dynamic. She is getting more eyeballs and more interest from advertisers. Yahoo stockholders should be happy with her performance to date, and hope that they can keep her around.

I was a Yahoo fan from early on. At one time it was the only destination worth going to on the web. It was my home page for many years. It attempted to index the Internet, and actual humans were categorizing content. I’m old enough to remember what Yahoo really stands for (Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle). It was the first web site to do a really good job, in a 1995 kind of way, of helping us find stuff on this new medium called the Internet. For many years I had a Yahoo email account. But Yahoo proved not very agile as it aged, and various ineffective CEOs tended to make things worse.

I don’t go to Yahoo more often than I used to and use Google and its services even more than I used to, although I often feel guilty about it. But I do keep Yahoo News as my principle news page, or did until recently. It was a habit hard to break. The page was edited by actual human beings, rather than Google News, which is edited by a human-programmed computer algorithm. Considering Mayer also ran Google News, I expected Yahoo News might look a lot more like Google News. It is taking on some of its characteristics, including more personalization options. It is also, I am sorry to say, loading up the news site with a lot of fluff. This is making me very unhappy.

Stockholders are probably applauding this move to add these “human interest” stories. If you go to Yahoo News, you can’t possibly miss them, as they comprise about one of every three stories on its main page. It’s not quite National Enquirer stuff, but it’s a lot of Good Morning America-like stuff. In fact, Good Morning America (ABC) is one of their featured content providers. What do I mean by fluff? Well, there was the recent live broadcast of The Sound of Music on TV, and Yahoo News was all over it (it was mostly dissed by the critics). Is this really news? It probably gets a lot of clicks so it surely must be interesting to a lot of people. But no, this is not really news, except possibly in the category of entertainment news. It would be fodder for Variety’s web site. It’s not news in my book.

Perhaps it is just me. News to me is a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal or the Los Angeles Times. I expect to learn, not just what is happening right now that could affect my locality, my country, the world and me. I expect some in-depth reporting on an issue so I can understand the dynamics of the many pressing issues of the day. In short, I read news not to be entertained, but to gain knowledge. I need lots of facts and I need unbiased, in-depth understanding of these facts by reporters who sift through these issues and talk with leading authorities. I seek knowledge because to change the world I must understand not just how it behaves but why it behaves the way it does. News should have its pulse on the planet and should tell citizens like me who are reasonably informed more of what we need to know to stay informed.

I’m not getting much of this on Yahoo News anymore, and I hold Marissa Mayer to blame. I get lots of popcorn articles like this Sound of Music piffle, which today includes an ancillary story about the von Trapp’s mountain lodge in Stowe, Vermont. I get Dear Abby, now available only online at Yahoo but linked daily through its “news” page. I get stories about the lottery. And when I do deign to read an article that looks like real news, it is often short when I want depth. Worse, I get articles that aren’t articles at all, but you don’t know that until you click on it. Instead, it’s video that starts loading even if you don’t want it to load, and for which you have to “pay the freight” of an annoying commercial first. Expect more of the same because one of Marissa Mayer’s recent ideas is to hire Katie Couric as its “global anchor”. I expect lots of little fluff pieces like this and “lite-news” interwoven into its news site during the course of the day. It’s all part of the Yahoo experience, or something that Mayer is planning.

It may be successful for Yahoo and Mayer, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a news site because most of this is not really news. It’s marketing designed to attract eyeballs, perhaps making it a somewhat toned down version of Huffington Post, another site designed by a female overlord full of sauce but little relevant news.

I don’t like where this is leading. It will probably lead to profitability for Yahoo, but as far as leaving us citizens better informed, it’s a poor effort at best. There are plenty of other news sites out there including CNN and all the major networks, but most of these are becoming less newsworthy and saucier as well. Which leaves me looking for a real news site. There is the reliable and local washingtonpost.com site, but I get most of that content from my newspaper subscription. Ironically, I find myself getting most of my news from one of Mayer’s old projects: Google News. For the most part, unless you choose to delve into an area like Entertainment, its news is topical, relevant and in-depth articles tend to get priority. I find I like the algorithmic approach better than Mayer’s approach on Yahoo. I’m just hoping Google doesn’t try to sauce up its news algorithms.

Marissa, consider that public service may be part of Yahoo’s mission as well as enriching shareholders. How about a version of Yahoo News that is just news, instead of so much fluff, like maybe real.news.yahoo.com? And while I am making suggestions, please get rid of the cutesy Yahoo News animated image in the top left corner of the site. And surely you have noticed that since your top menu bar is stuck on the top and you can’t avoid it, when you page down it hides some content, which means you have to cursor up or drag the window up a bit to read it. And you often have the same article, or a variation of it, on the same page. Can’t these be cleaned up?

It seems moot to me. I like your old product better, so I’m hanging out now on Google News.

Ditch Google Glass and give us Google Car!

The Thinker by Rodin

Google Glass, its internet-friendly eyeware, has been making news lately. It’s the creepy device that looks sort of like glasses (for one eye) that some nerds with close ties to Google are wearing that keeps them continuously connected to the Internet. It projects information from the Internet onto the inside of the glass so they can both walk around and see internet content at the same time. It also offers voice recognition capabilities so you can interact with the Internet. The truly creepy thing is that Google Glass can also record what you see in real-time, both audio and visual.

It used to be that if you used a camera its use was overt. A camera is pretty hard to hide. With Google Glass, it couId be on all the time but because it is like wearing glasses, we may not react to it like a camera. Yes, it could be recording everything it sees and hears, and perhaps storing it to your Google cloud permanently, and possibly the NSA’s cloud as well. The City of London, where there are cameras on every street corner and most places in between, might actually want people to use Google Glass: it could be one more tool at their disposal to keep an eye on crime. Here in the United States, the whole thing sounds ultra-Big-Brotherish, kind of like the NSA on steroids. It’s not that the NSA is necessarily able to tap into Google Glass content, at least not yet. Give them time and who knows? Whether or not the NSA can tap into Google Glass feeds, the whole idea is creepy at best and repugnant at worst. I don’t like the idea of anyone having a constant video stream from Google Glass in their cloud. I am imaging its use by perverts, voyeurs, estranged lovers and criminals, among others.

Google Glass strikes me as a tool that will make our already disappearing privacy shrink even further, maybe to the point where it can no longer be found, or is simply meaningless. I don’t want dozens of people recording me walking down the street! Moreover, their eyeware is also not in the least bit cute although they are working with eyeware manufacturers to sex them up. When people wear Google Glass, I think of the Borg, the evil villains, cyborgs really, half men, half machine, introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s one thing to become part of the collective. It’s another thing to become part of it so unconsciously. It’s an Orwellian sort of technology. We’re not that good at getting rid of technology that has some uses once it is commercially available. So I am putting my hopes in the power of shame. I am hoping we will reflexively tell people sporting Google Glass: “Your eyeware is creepy. I wish you would never wear it or use it. And it upsets me that you would use it at all, knowing that it can continuously record what you are seeing!” Shame might work, or be powerful enough where it is used so rarely that it has no appreciable impact. Its true impact happens when its use becomes commonplace and accepted.

Google though racks up enormous profits, so I am not too surprised that they have a research arm looking into technologies like this. A lot of their technologies do not get out beyond the labs. That may well be the case with Google Glass. On the other hand, sometimes you can see a technology that they are working on and think, “I got to have that! Can I have it now?”

I want a Google Car.

A Google Car is completely cool and extremely useful. The Google Car, right now a dozen or so specially configured Toyota Priuses, an Audi TT and some Lexus RX450h, are driverless cars. You leave the driving to the car and it delivers you to your destination safely. Right now it is being tested in Las Vegas. The state of Nevada has actually issued a license, to a car, not a person, for its use within Nevada. With its computers, internet access and sensors, it takes you where you need to go in complete safety. Granted, there are not a whole lot of Google Cars working today, and they can be categorized as experimental. But right now they have an accident rate that would delight insurance actuaries everywhere: zero. That’s right; at least so far Google Car has proven to be completely flawless, if you measure it by its ability to cause an accident. With its radars it is always aware of traffic around you, not to mention curbs, speed bumps, potholes, traffic congestion and how to mitigate it. With reflexes far better and more accurate that the best trained racing driver, it can keep you safe getting you from Point A to Point B. Can it avoid every accident? Possibly not as it has been involved in some accidents caused when in manual mode or when it was hit by other cars. It is possible that some crazy driver will come out of left field so quickly that it cannot react quickly enough, and the driver will hit you. But (knock on wood, recalling issues with Boeing’s 787 fleet) so far at least it has not caused any accidents.

Senior citizens in particular should be rooting for Google Car, and demanding the right to buy one as soon as possible. For eventually senior citizens loose cognitive and muscular controls as they age, and this often means they lose the ability to drive safely, and the loss of freedom that comes from a loss of mobility. Yet to stay alive, they must meet with lots of physicians and need a way to get there. Maybe they can take a bus, but it’s a hassle. Maybe they can take a taxi, but it’s expensive. Get in a Google Car, and by using Google’s voice recognition system it will deliver them safely to their doctor. Safely means getting them into the parking lot and into a parking space all by itself. That’s cool technology; it’s mind-boggling stuff when you think about it.

Actuarial statistics don’t lie: if some accident is going to kill you, it is almost surely going to be when you are moving in a car. That’s because human beings drive cars, and we are obviously not perfect creatures. The only amazing thing about humans driving cars is that there are not more accidents. But, particularly if we reach the point where all vehicular driving is automated, death or injury from auto accidents may become a thing of the past, something that simply doesn’t happen except in very rare cases, like an unexpected and sudden bridge collapse.

There is another more selfish reason why I want a Google Car. I don’t like to drive. I drive out of necessity but I don’t enjoy it. I never have. It requires sustained concentration. It requires constantly juggling lots of real-time inputs by my already overtaxed brain which, even while I am driving is also sifting with lots of stuff, including issues at work, various erotic fantasies that have no chance of actualization, issues in computer science which for some reason my brain prioritizes, and my desire to have a constant source of chocolate. I’d much rather leave the driving to Google Car and concentrate on this other stuff. Or maybe I’d prefer to lie down in the back seat (in a special restraint just in case of accident) and sleep. It will be a better use of my time than the tedium of driving.

So Google, give Glass the heave ho and focus on Car instead. It’s not just what we want, but don’t know it yet, but it’s what we need. And it will save millions of lives. I’ll be first in line to buy one.

Google, please don’t kill Reader!

The Thinker by Rodin

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

Google, the benevolent overlord of the Internet, last week bared its teeth and bit us. Oh maybe not you personally, but certainly those of us who depend on Google Reader. Reader is not the only product that Google announced that it is pulling. It is also pulling its user portal, iGoogle.

Unsurprisingly, I first learned about this in Google Reader, which is where I spend a good part of my day. First there was the announcement in Reader itself saying it was going away July 1, and providing a convenient link so that you can download your list of sites to import into a different newsreader. But also, my Google Reader soon became full of articles about Reader’s demise. Indeed, I used Google Reader to learn about an online petition on change.org to try to persuade Google to keep Reader. I immediately signed it, of course, as have more than 120,000 others, but the mighty overlord is likely to be tone deaf to our requests.

Secretly, I think that Google suffers from passive aggressive behavior. That’s because it now wants me to do everything in Google +, its latest social network, because it has a serious problem with Facebook envy. It has been aggressively pushing me to use G+. I believe that Reader’s demise is at least in part because people continue to doggedly use it rather than G+. It’s pretty obvious why we are still using Reader: it is a really elegant solution to reading lots of content that we care about.

Still, it is not popular like GMail. It is one of their niche products, something they threw together as newsfeeds began to take off. Newsfeeds are still all over the place. Most sites wanting to attract traffic wouldn’t be caught dead without a newsfeed, along with their Twitter account and Facebook page. It’s all part of building, promoting and sustaining a brand on the web.

With Reader, I don’t usually have to visit a web site to read its content. I simply grab its feed, which it usually advertises either explicitly with a link on its page or implicitly with HTML markup that my browser recognizes. With a couple of clicks the site’s news will be forever tucked inside Google Reader. Now I can go to one place, Google Reader, to read content for all my favorite sites and favorite bloggers. I don’t necessarily have to visit the site again, unless the publisher chooses to publish only teaser text and I choose to read more on the site. Infoword.com, one of the many sites I have in Reader, uses this approach. I can’t imagine trying to keep up with tech news without these site’s newsfeeds.

Reader saves so much time by keeping me from needlessly going to sites of interest. It’s like my own personal newspaper of the web, always topical, and always with stuff I am likely to care about. Okay, maybe 80% of it I don’t care all that much about. Most of what I read amounts to scanning headlines and then digging deeper if I find the content of more interest. I do the same thing with a newspaper. I scan the headlines but except for the front page rarely make it beyond the first couple of paragraphs of an article. That’s the whole point of a newsreader like Google Reader: to allow you to efficiently browse news and content. A good newspaper contains all sorts of divergent topical areas: national news, international news, sports, style, arts, local news, business, etc. Reader does this for the web except it customizes it based on your interests. It will even suggest feeds you might like based on what you are reading. It’s like getting the Washington Post without the sports section, which I never read, but with a bonus tech section stuffed with content it knows that I will want to read. In short, it’s brilliant!

Google Reader is certainly not the only newsreader out there; it’s just the first I found that made reading newsfeeds elegant, simple, intuitive and fast. I had tried other newsreaders before Google Reader came out and they all sucked pretty badly. For one thing, Google Reader was web-based whereas most newsreaders were client programs. So you would see stuff at home you already read at work. Reader also has intelligent search algorithms, prefetching your content. Boom! It’s there. If you see something of interest that you want to read later, you just “star” it and it keeps your list of starred items indefinitely.

Clearly Reader is not for everyone since you have to be a bit geeky to get it. A little education on the business of “feeds” is in order. It helps to know what a newsfeed is, how to subscribe to it and why Atom formatted feeds may be better than RSS 2.0 feeds. (Actually, there’s a bit of a holy war about this.) Once you “get” it, and it’s generally the geeks that quickly grasp the enormous potential of a newsfeed, then the only question is “which newsreader?” After you try a half dozen and you try Google Reader, you don’t want to use anything else but Reader, even if it is boring black type on white pages.

The argument against newsfeeds is that you can get the same stuff by other means. Everyone is publishing to Twitter now, so follow the site on Twitter. And maybe that’s okay if you live your life on Twitter and find the most elegant Twitter client to organize it for you. But not everyone publishes to Twitter and there are only 120 characters there per tweet. Typically a tweet is full of annoying hashtags and @ symbols to parse. It comes across like Spanglish. Facebook is another sort of alternative. Often a site’s Facebook page will have similar content, or not, but again you have to be a Facebook aficionado and read your Facebook newsfeed, which likely includes tons of stuff from friends and family to throw you off stride. The whole point of newsfeeds though is that they are independent of proprietary delivery mechanisms. They are about liberating content on the web. One of its chief evangelists and founder of reddit.com Aaron Swartz recently committed suicide, arguably because he was pushing too hard for the idea that information should be free.

This stuff matters. Newsfeeds matter. No, I’m not kidding. They really matter, big time! In my case it matters because it is an incredibly efficient way to read or at least scan lots of relevant content. Newsfeeds are like Cliff Notes for recent content on the web that you care about. It may be geeky and unsexy but it matters. Most likely the people you read the most on the web also depend on newsfeeds and are probably spending most of their days in Google Reader. That’s how they maintain their edge. If in part I manage at all the project an erudite manner on this blog it comes across because I read a lot, I read it fast, and I read it efficiently in Google Reader.

But it will soon be gone! Which means that while newsfeeds will still be around that I must find another way to get my news. I am experimenting with alternatives, and the Feedly browser extension looks promising, but it’s still not Reader. I was used to Reader. It offered zero latency, i.e. I just didn’t have to think about it. Feedly looks gorgeous but I want to be absorbed in the content, not the window dressing.

I wish the mighty Google would rethink this decision. The intellectual brainpower of the Internet is going to decline sharply when they pull the plug on the unsexy but remarkable Google Reader.

The virtues of an email client with GMail

The Thinker by Rodin

There is plenty of upheaval in my office. We are completing a painful (and I do mean painful) transition moving from one email system to another. In this case, we are moving from Lotus Notes to Google Mail. Lotus Notes meant lots of expensive email servers inside our firewall closely watched over by a crew of technicians who, like grease monkeys, spent their days (and nights) constantly oiling Lotus’s gears. GMail of course is “in the cloud”. A Google enterprise team manages it for us. It’s all sort of magic and at least so far seems to mostly work.

Switching email systems in a large enterprise of 70,000 people is quite a trick. It is roughly like switching out your car’s engine while driving down the street. It can be done. Essentially you have to have two email engines running at the same time processing the same incoming email. Eventually all the email accounts are successfully migrated from one email system to the other and you pull the plug on the old email system. But of course there are thousands of gotchas. You also have to migrate calendars, contacts and to dos. All sorts of applications and systems are tied into the email system. Each of these individually has to be taught to use the new email system. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is hard.

Now that our office is all GMail all the time the office has ditched the dependable email client in favor of using GMail inside the Chrome browser. I like GMail at home and on the road and use it all the time. However, the experience of using GMail on the web casually versus using it all the time is quite a bit different. When sixty percent of your day is spent reading and replying to email, productivity is important. While GMail has lots of nifty features (like its swift search engine to find emails) it also has some significant drawbacks. Specifically you have all the limitations and annoyances of working in a browser. GMail does its best to minimize these drawbacks, but when you are reading and replying to hundreds of emails a day and using a browser for an email client the experience becomes very irritating.

Take, for example, simply navigating between emails. Typically you want to just go to the next or last email. When using a browser and a desktop computer, you must use a mouse. This means you have to reach for the mouse, point to the email you want to read and then click on it. It takes three actions to do something that previously required simply pressing your up and down arrow keys. You don’t notice this at home, but at work I find it is more than irritating. It makes reading and replying to email an annoying hassle.

We don’t have a lot of options. Our service desk supports Microsoft Outlook as an option if you whine about wanting an email client, but as Outlook users know it really prefers that you are using Microsoft Exchange on the backend. Plus it’s a Microsoft product, which means it will have the usual mixture of brilliant, quirky and downright annoying features. Most importantly, it has feature bloat. Ninety percent of the time you need to either delete or quickly file an email. The other ten percent of the time you just need to reply or forward it. You probably don’t need to turn your email client into a newsreader, or to have it transparently integrate multiple email accounts or create multiple personalities. You just want to get through the couple of hundred emails in your email box as efficiently and as quickly as possible, with minimal fuss and keystrokes.

In short, you need Mozilla Thunderbird. The open source email client is not dead, and thankfully Mozilla Thunderbird keeps refining its product, in spite of the fact that its big brother browser (Firefox) gets almost all of the attention. Arguably if you really feel you need an email client with GMail, you should ditch all of the other ones and just standardize on Thunderbird. This is because it works across all the operating systems pretty much identically and it is elegantly simple. And should you feel the need to dress it up with themes or add-ons, it’s easy enough to do. Outlook users can even install a theme that sort of makes it look like Outlook.

It’s possible to use Thunderbird with GMail but it is not intuitive. After installing it, you need to go into your web-based GMail and select “Generate Application Password” (click on the More link near the top). It will create a long string of impossible to guess characters, numbers and symbols and you have to use to authenticate Thunderbird with GMail’s mail servers. Then in Thunderbird you have to find its account settings (Tools > Account Settings) and know the names of Google’s email servers (smtp.google.com for outgoing email and imap.google.com for incoming email). When asked for a password, use the applications password. You may need to tell it to use port 993 and SSL/TSL for connection security. You probably want IMAP instead of POP (Post Office Protocol) because IMAP allows you to keep your email in the cloud, instead of moving it to your computer. This is generally preferred since you never can lose it this way. It’s worth the hassle to make Thunderbird and GMail talk to each other because you sure will get sick of using GMail through a browser if you have to do most of your business day.

Certainly there are some features of the web-based GMail that are occasionally desirable. You can assign multiple tags to more than one email rather than just throw it into a folder. You can do sophisticated searching using a host of qualifiers. The nice thing is that the one percent of the time you might need these features, you can just bring up GMail and peck away. Most of the time you will prefer the speed and efficiency of Mozilla Thunderbird.

Curiously, Thunderbird excels as a purely email client. Maintaining a calendar is very much a part time activity, and GMail’s calendar is slick, easy to use and attractive. You can install an add-on to Thunderbird that will integrate a calendar, but it is relatively ugly. Google Calendar allows you to easily see other’s calendars, once they give you access to their calendar, and you can even see calendars outside of your office network. So if I need my calendar, I go into my browser.

GMail comes with Google Talk for instant messaging. Instant messaging is almost as important as email in the enterprise. With the right program placed in your task bar, you can be notified of instant messages even if you are not focused in your browser. Or you may prefer to install an instant messenger that works with Google Talk. If so make sure you keep that application password because you will need it. Warning: if you generate a new application password, you will need to replace the passwords in other applications you may have connected to Google’s infrastructure. Currently I am using Pidgin, which works well. However you really need to select the XMPP protocol instead of Google Talk protocol. Connect to talk.google.com and use port 5222. Also make sure encryption is enabled.

Perhaps one of these days Google will get GMail browser to work more simply and speedily. Right now they seemed more enamored with adding features you are unlikely to use, like conversation view, than in making it more keyboard friendly. In addition, all the logic is executed through Javascript, which is relatively slow. You notice the time it takes to read an email once you select it. This is less noticeable in an email client. Once you see how comfortable it is to use Thunderbird with GMail, you will likely see no reason to use browser-based GMail at all if you have the option.

Beware of buying Facebook stock

The Thinker by Rodin

Facebook finally made its stock market debut on Friday. The stock, initially available to select investors at $38 a share, closed at slightly above that price at $38.23 a share. Time will tell how investors really assess the stock. Most are probably waiting on the sidelines to see which way the wind blows.

Facebook won’t have to worry about me buying its stock. I strongly suspect the company is already massively overvalued at $38 a share. More importantly, I am not convinced that Facebook will be around in five or ten years. If the Internet has demonstrated anything, it is that web sites tend to be ephemeral. MySpace, which Facebook largely replaced, is a good example. Moreover, the web phenomenon of the moment is not Facebook, but Pinterest. You have to look hard to find web sites that have endured and remain profitable. Fifteen years ago Yahoo was phenomenal. Now it is hanging on, losing money, shedding employees and moving through CEOs at an alarming pace.

Facebook does have huge market share in part because it has figured out (it thinks) what people want in the way of a social networking site. It is already clear that it will never get everyone on the web. So many of its users are not active users. They have created accounts and then largely abandoned them, or check them out irregularly.  Of my 54 Facebook friends, on a weekly basis I see about 15 of them post or comment. Only three of them post regularly (every day or more). As I mentioned some time back, its user interface is confusing, although less so now than it was when I griped about it. Its privacy policies feel whimsical, giving you little confidence that your settings today will be there tomorrow or that your privacy policies will actually be handled correctly. Of course, Facebook is really about making money, so they keep trying new advertising strategies. The general thrust is to send you more ads and to make them more highly targeted. More and more, time on Facebook feels more like having a salesman regularly interrupt you while you are interacting with friends.

Its tepid IPO suggests stock analysts are right. To justify its price, it has to keep growing and more importantly it needs to convince advertisers that it can tie social networking and advertising together in a way that provides a unique advantage. General Motors gave it a try, and decided they just were not getting the return they wanted from advertising on Facebook, so they stopped using it.

Just how influential are your friends in convincing you to buy stuff anyhow? I like my friends just fine. I might see their dentist if they rave about him or her, because a personal recommendation makes choosing a dentist much simpler. But particularly with “friends” I rarely see in person, particularly those nebulous friends and friends of friends I have never actually met, and whose posts I mostly ignore, I doubt any attempt by Facebook to sell me stuff because my “friend” liked it will have any influence on me.

Facebook is also trying to make itself the center of your web experience. It is doing things like adding email (“messages”). Ideally, they hope you would never go anywhere on the web but Facebook. This of course defeats the whole purpose of the web, whose open nature is its key selling point. AOL tried this and failed spectacularly. Yet this is exactly the direction Facebook seems to be heading. Rather than be a utility on the web, it wants to largely replace the web by framing everything within a social context. However, the web is so much more than a social frame. It’s most about the ability to get information of interest.

I see Facebook as ultimately a limited business model simply because the premises on which it went IPO cannot be indefinitely sustained and population growth will limit its market. It’s bound to hit a brick wall eventually, and that time is likely to come sooner rather than later. Moreover, Facebook is no longer sexy. It has become ubiquitous and tired.

This is not to suggest that Facebook has no value. Obviously it knows a huge amount about its users based on what they choose to disclose and by analyzing what they do within Facebook, but this value diminishes quickly once it loses users. Its true value may be not in what it knows or can predict about your buying preferences, but by mining data among its users to determine trends. In particular, it should focus on thought leaders: those who set trends and convince others to follow them. Knowing what they and their friends care about is very valuable.

I suspect if Facebook is to grow that this is where it should be concentrating its resources. Operating as if users will not drift elsewhere as interest and whim takes them is delusional. Operating as if social relationships were all that mattered is also delusional. The history of the web suggests that users will move to another web site on a dime, which is why Pinterest is now a phenomenon, particularly among women. Pinterest clearly satisfied an itch for sharing information that Facebook simply had not thought through sufficiently.

To the extent that things endure on the web, it is because sites present tools that add value about the web as a whole. Particularly valuable is “meta” information: information about information. Google’s value is probably not inflated. This is because it can organize and present the Internet’s information in a coherent way that we need. Facebook does make it easier to keep and maintain social connections, but this is an ancillary feature of the web, not its heart. Information is its center.

As part of a balanced portfolio, perhaps owning some Facebook stock makes sense. As a strategy for acquiring great wealth, being heavily vested in it is likely to subtract from your wealth instead of add to it.