one dead horse, well beaten

Yes, I know that I’ve had my say on this topic, but I still have some questions. I start with the ones that drove me out of Google+, and then move gradually into the realm of metaphysical contemplation. . . .

What circle should I put this person in?

Oh wait, I can put people in more than one circle — so how many circles should I put this person in?

Do I even want this person to be in any of my circles?

How many circles should I have, anyway? This subdividing thing can go too far, can’t it? and what should be the core principles I use to design my circles? Degrees of intimacy? Spheres of interest? An elementary division between Work and Play?

I can’t even use this service unless I create a public profile, so what do I want to reveal on my public profile? How detailed should it be?

I’m ready to post something . . . but should this be a public post? Who would be interested in it? Maybe it should just go to this one circle? Though there are people in other circles who might be interested also . . . but others in that circle who wouldn’t be interested . . . so maybe before I post it I need to rearrange my circles a bit.

Wait . . . if I move that guy out of one circle will be still see the posts and photos he saw when he was in that circle? If not, then do I want to do that to him? What will he think when he figures out that I’ve removed him from a circle (especially if he doesn’t know what my circles are)? Will he be able to see that?

When I signed up I discovered that my two choices were “Link Google+ with Picasa Web” or “Don’t Join Google”? Why can’t I join without linking my Picasa photos to the service?

Google asks me if I want to be notified when someone “shares a post with me directly” — but what if I don’t want people to share posts with me directly at all? Can I keep anyone from doing that? Or by using the service do I make myself vulnerable to anyone and everyone who wants to “share” with me? Is there no refuge from oversharers?

Google also asks me if I want to be notified when someone comments on one of my posts — but what if I don’t want anyone to comment on my posts at all? There appears to be no option for turning off comments — why not?

I believe that if I turn off every single one of these (email or text) notifications I still see a badge numbering everything people have tried to do with me or to me on Google+ at the top of every single Google page when I am logged in. What if I don’t want to see that badge?

Can I prevent someone from starting a Huddle conversation with me? I can, I suppose, just decline to reply, but what if I just don’t want to Huddle at all? What if Huddling kinda grosses me out?

In short, what if I want to start by having minimal social interactions on Google+, interactions over which I have a great deal of control, and I want to have very few and very simple decisions to make about whom I interact with? In that case, I can’t see that Google+ is the service for me.

minus Google plus

When Google asked me why I chose to delete my Google+ service, here’s what I wrote:

First of all, I am not especially attracted to social media. I deactivated my Facebook account years ago, and find that Twitter is all the social I need. 

Second, Google+ gives me too many decisions to make. With Twitter, I say “Let me know if someone replies to me or DMs me, but otherwise leave me alone.” (I don’t even know how many followers I have or who those followers are.) Google+ defaults to sending me an email about everything, but even if I uncheck all those options, I still find new people showing up in my Stream that I didn’t ask to see and that I have to make decisions about. That’s exactly what I hated about Facebook: the constant need to make decisions about how I am going to manage my online relations, especially with people I don’t know well.


Third, I don’t fully trust Google to treat my information responsibly, so I would prefer not to implicate myself further in the company. If Gmail weren’t so far superior to every other implementation of email, I would have already deleted my Google account.

I really do appreciate how easy Google makes it to escape Google+ — they wouldn’t have done it so well a year ago, which shows that they’re learning, as Facebook is not. I completely understand what people like about Google+, but it didn’t take me long to realize that it’s just not my cup of tea at all.

One last word: trying out Google+ has reminded me once again of how much I like, and admire, the radical simplicity of Twitter. So if my Twitter friends start abandoning Twitter for Google+ I’m going to be really sad.

Google good and bad

People who have been using a Mac for a long time can find Google Chrome painful to look at. Some of the reasons for that are outlined in this post by Majd Taby, but there are others. There’s a general lack of fit and finish: for instance, if you have folders in your bookmark bar in Chrome, click on one of them; then do the same in Safari. The drop-down menu in Chrome is as bare-bones as it gets: there’s a general close-enough-for-government-work feel to Chrome’s whole UI.

But beneath the hood? Within a few minutes of reading Taby’s post I read this one by Farhad Manjoo, which explains how Google implemented automatic updating of Chrome in the background. No “Do you want to install this update?” dialogue boxes. It just works. Manjoo writes,

Chrome’s painless update process is the product of a lot of sophisticated software engineering. Rather than reinstalling the whole program, Chrome’s designers have figured out a way to update the ones and zeroes in the program on your computer just where it has changed. This approach dramatically reduces the size of the files they send to your computer during an update. “It is an anathema to us to push out a whole new 10MB update to give you a ten-line security fix,” Stephen Adams, a Chrome software engineer, wrote in 2009. Instead, the update system compares the version of Chrome you have on your computer to the new one sitting on Google’s server, and then it sends you only the key differences in code. A 10-megabyte update can be reduced to a tiny, 78K download. In a recent post praising Chrome’s update system, Coding Horror’s Jeff Atwood argued that Chrome had “transcended” the very notion of “software versioning.” Chrome updates so quickly that its version number might as well be infinity.

This is why I have increasingly been trying to leverage Google’s engineering without having to encounter Google’s butt-ugly user interfaces. And Google has done a lot of work over the past few years to make it possible for me to do this, especially by introducing a (wonky but usable) version of IMAP for Gmail and by employing Microsoft’s Exchange technology with its calendars. I can now use Google without ever having to look at Google. Best of both worlds. At least until I can escape Google’s clutches altogether. . . .

The Whale and the Reactor (7)

The idea that Reagan Ruined Everything seems to dominate, silently, the next chapter, “Decentralization Clarified.” I take this passage from its last paragraph to be its central idea:

In Kropotkin’s of G. D. H. Cole’s time it was still possible to imagine an entire modern social order based upon small-scale, directly democratic, widely dispersed centers of authority. Industrial society had not yet achieved its mature form; it was thinkable that decentralist alternatives might be feasible alternatives on a broad scale. Today, however, ideas of decentralization usually play a much different role, an expression of the faint hope one may still create institutions here and there that allow ordinary folks some small measure of autonomy.

A melancholy statement, and one that is truer now than when Winner wrote it. After all, it was about halfway between the writing of this book and out own moment when Scott McNealy told us, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Which in alternate moments makes me want to give up and makes me want to renew my determination to escape from Google. Ah, my early and innocent determination, how beautiful it was — and how distant it now seems. . . .

getting started with Ngrams

Ben Schmidt writes the smartest thing I’ve yet seen about Google’s Ngram project:

But for now: it’s disconnected from the texts. This severely compromises its usefulness in most humanities applications. I can’t track evolutionary language in any subset of books or any sentence/paragraph context; a literary scholar can’t separate out pulp fiction from literary presses, much less Henry James from Mark Twain. It was created by linguists, and treats texts fundamentally syntactically–as bags of words linked only by very short-term connections–two or three words. The wider network of connections that happen in texts is missing.

Don’t doubt that it’s coming, though. My fear right now is that all of the work is proceeding without the expertise that humanists have developed in understanding how to carefully assess our cultural heritage. The current study casually tosses out pronouncements about the changing nature of ‘fame’ in ‘culture’ without, at a first skim, at least, acknowledging any gap at all between print culture and the Zeitgeist. I know I’ve done the same thing sometimes, but I’m trying to be aware of it, at least. An article in Science promising the “Quantitative Analysis of Culture” is several bridges too far.

So is it possible to a) convince humanists they have something to gain by joining these projects; b) convincing the projects that they’re better off starting within conversations, not treating this as an opportunity to reboot the entire study of culture? I think so. It’s already happening, and the CHNM–Google collaboration is a good chance. I think most scholars see the opportunities in this sort of work as clearly as they see the problems, and this can be a good spur to talk about just what we want to get out of all the new forms of reading coming down the pike. So let’s get started.

Yes, yes, yes. Let the traditional humanists stop sneering; let those on the digital frontier shun the language of “reinvention” and avoid suggesting that they have rendered other approaches to the humanities obsolete. (There aren’t many that arrogant, but there are a few.) Also, this project does not create a new field. Let’s get started is just the right note to strike.

(The article from Science that Schmidt mentions is here.)
UPDATE: If you want to get some thoughts from someone who, unlike yours truly, actually knows what he’s talking about, check out Dan Cohen.

opting out of the monopolies

At the Technology Liberation Front, Adam Thierer has been reviewing, in installments, Tim Wu’s new book The Master Switch, and has received interesting pushback from Wu. One point of debate has been about the definition of “monopoly”: Wu wants an expansive one, according to which a company can have plenty of competition, and consumers multiple alternatives, and yet that company can still be said to have a monopoly. (Thierer responds here.)

I think Wu’s definition is problematic and not, ultimately, sustainable, but I see and sympathize with his major point. I can have alternatives to a particular service/product/company, and yet find it almost impossible to escape it because of what I’ve already invested in it. When I read stories like this, or talk to friends who work for small presses, I tell myself that I should never deal with Amazon again — and yet I do, in part because buying stuff from Amazon is so frictionless, but also because I have a significant number of Kindle books now, and all those annotations that I can access on the website. . . . I don’t want to lose all that. I can feel my principles slipping away, just as they did when I tried to escape the clutches of Google.

Amazon is not, technically speaking, a monopoly, and neither is Google. But they have monopoly-like power over me — at least for now. And I need to figure out just how problematic that is, and whether I should opt out of their services, and (if so) how to opt out of them, and what to replace them with. . . . Man, modern life is complicated. These are going to be some of the major moral issues of the coming decades: ones revolving around how to deal with services that have a monopolistic role in a given person’s life. Philip K. Dick saw it all coming. . . .

ad (non)sense

Micah White is upset:

The vast library that is the internet is flooded with so many advertisements that many people claim not to notice them anymore. Ads line the top and right of the search results page, are displayed next to emails in Gmail, on our favourite blog, and beside reportage of anti-corporate struggles. As evidenced by the tragic reality that most people can’t tell the difference between ads and content any more, this commercial barrage is having a cultural impact.

The danger of allowing an advertising company to control the index of human knowledge is too obvious to ignore. The universal index is the shared heritage of humanity. It ought to be owned by us all. No corporation or nation has the right to privatise the index, commercialise the index, censor what they do not like or auction search ranking to the highest bidder. We have public libraries. We need a public search engine.

Well . . . if advertising is the problem, then “a public search engine” won’t solve the problem, will it? We wouldn’t see ads while searching, but we would see them as soon as we arrived at the pages we were searching for. Moreover, if it’s wrong to have ads next to reportage online, then presumably it’s wrong to have ads in the paper version of the Guardian, in magazines, and on television as well.

What exactly is White asking for? A universal prohibition on internet advertising, brokered by the U.N.? An international tribunal to prosecute Google for unauthorized indexing? Yes, it would have been wonderful, as Robert Darnton has pointed out, if universities and libraries had banded together to do the information-indexing and book-digitizing that Google has done — but they didn’t.

So here we are, with an unprecedented and astonishing amount of information at our fingertips, and we’re going to complain about ads? — the same ads that give us television, newspapers, and magazines? Please. Why not just come right out and say “I want everything and I want it for free”?

Google gives us plenty to complain about; I have deeply mixed feelings about the company myself, as I have often articulated. But the presence of online ads ought to be the least of our worries.
(Update: here’s Darnton on the possibility of creating a national digital library.)

creepy lines (and those who draw them)

Follow-up to this post:

The end of the interview turned to the future of technology. When Bennet asked about the possibility of a Google “implant,” [Google CEO Eric] Schmidt invoked what the company calls the “creepy line.”

“Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line.

At the same time, Schmidt envisions a future where we embrace a larger role for machines and technology. “With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches,” he said. “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Here. Eric Schmidt and I might disagree about where the “creepy line” goes.

dragged back into the maw of the Beast

I think I’m re-Googled. My escape attempt has, I fear, failed.

Mail is the main issue. Fastmail is a fine email service, but I need more email organizational-fu than I can get via their web interface. That means using Apple Mail, tricked out with some plugins . . . but Mail is, frankly, a mess of an application. It has never worked well for me: it’s often unresponsive, and will sometimes spin its wheels for an hour without managing to open a folder, eating crazy amounts of CPU as it does so. Also, I don’t use Microsoft products, and the Mozilla-based alternatives (Thunderbird, Postbox, etc.) aren’t sufficiently integrated into the OS to make them attractive alternatives.
Meanwhile, Gmail is super-fast and has a suite of organizational tools that I have used for years and have fine-tuned to my needs: labels, filters, and Superstars allow me to classify every email I get in useful ways.
So I think I’m going back. Which probably means going back to Google Reader as well, since it’s so much faster than Fever and handles all my feeds flawlessly. (Fever tends to lose some.)
You gotta handle it to those Google people. They make some first-rate products. And they have responded much more appropriately than Facebook to privacy concerns. I think I can control my privacy settings in my Google services sufficiently well to salve my conscience . . . I think . . . I hope . . .