Going Google-less – A Week Without Google

A week ago on my blog, I posted my pledge to go one week without Google.  It was inspired, in part, by the Google/Verizon proposal for the future of high speed and wireless internet that was devised in closed-door meetings, in secret, while the same discussions were being had with the FCC and other major players that Google and Verizon were also a part of.  This sort of self-serving duplicity, as well as serious concerns about the end result for consumers this proposal would have if enacted, put a serious damper on my ongoing Google-love.  How dependent on Google, specifically, was I really, and could I actually live without using a single Google service?  As more and more concern about Google and their agreement with Verizon poured in, I wanted to find out.

I actually started early in my week without Google.  Friday night, after deciding to do this experiment, I set out right away to converting the stuff I use on a day-to-day basis to be without Google.  The first step was Gmail/Google Apps.

I use Google Apps for my primary email address.  While I have a Gmail account, I haven’t used it since getting my own domain name for my blog at jazzsequence.com, and I just forward everything sent to my Gmail address to my jazzsequence address.  (While, technically this could be considered still using Google, I’m not considering forwarded email from an unused email address to be really “using” Google services).  The process of switching my email away from Google Apps was pretty easy, so I had to go one step further to make it more complicated.

I’ve also played with the idea of migrating away from Microsoft Office products in favor of open source projects that support collaboration and open standards.  Switching to OpenOffice is easy (although I am skeptical now that Sun (and, in turn, OpenOffice) was acquired by Oracle).  In fact, last time I had to reformat my computer, I tried to install Thunderbird and use that for email but for some reason I couldn’t get it to play nice with my Google Apps email.  I didn’t have the patience for it and Outlook picked up the right settings right away, so I just gave up reluctantly and have been using Office ever since.  This time I stuck it out, since the Gmail/Google Apps problem wouldn’t be an issue and managed to get Thunderbird to play nice.

The other reason I’ve avoided moving away from Outlook is because I’m hopelessly dependent on the Calendar and Tasks features.  We use these internally at Arcane Palette to send each other projects or tasks for projects to work on and manage our workflow that way.  We’ve tried other project management applications, but using the one built right into Outlook it so much easier than having to log into a third-party application, especially when said application doesn’t necessarily send said emails.  Thankfully, Thunderbird has Lightning, the new Calendar and Task extension by Mozilla.  That’s two down, and that takes care of my email.

Next was switching from Chrome to Firefox.  I’ve been using Chrome since the late beta period, and have grown so accustomed to it that it’s second nature.  The web developer tools have become an invaluable resource when I’m working on a website, and I’ve foregone heaps of integrated functionality in favor of bookmarklets, plastering them all over my bookmark bar.  However, migrating to Firefox was relatively painless as well.  I just needed to export my bookmarks as an .html file and was able to import said .html file directly into Firefox and then move all my bookmarklets to Firefox’s bookmark bar.  I then focused on making Firefox more lightweight by uninstalling some plugins I wasn’t using and installing a couple plugins that would add some of the Chrome functionality I had grown used to, in particular, Taberwocky, which I use primarily to be able to duplicate tabs.  Since I’ve been using Glue, I finally got to install the Glue plugin and experience the web the way Glue wants you to, and I installed Firefox’s personas just for fun (which is Firefox’s version of Chrome’s visual styles).  I use Hootsuite for Twitter, and with Chrome, I was doing this by creating an application window for it, so it runs as its own standalone app.  Mozilla has this, too, in a project called Prism, and I actually like Prism more because it allows you to customize the icon, which Chrome’s application shortcuts don’t do.

I also switched search engines.  This was harder than it sounded.  You don’t realize how used to typing google.com into an address bar you are until you try to do something else.  I also realized I’ve become dependent on Chrome’s auto-fill technique of allowing you to search a site by typing the domain and hitting TAB.  I’ve yet to find something like that in Firefox.  On the other hand, Firefox has Search Engine add-ons for a variety of sites (including Wikipedia, which, along with YouTube and Amazon – both of which have Search Engine Add-Ons – was what I was using most frequently), which made it easy (easier, anyway) to switch over to Bing as my primary search engine.

The setup took me through the weekend, so by Monday I was ready to start my work week without Google.

YouTube was difficult to avoid.  It’s so ubiquitous for video sharing that you can choose to not watch viral videos, or you can suck it up and watch things on YouTube.  YouTube was acquired in 2006 by Google for $1.65billion from a couple of ecstatic developers who built it, and since then, Google has both added advertising to videos and started doing video ads with their AdSense service.  This was one thing I cheated on my Google-less week for, although that’s more a result of the decision of content creators to use YouTube rather than another service like Vimeo.

On Tuesday, I needed to send an invoice to a client.  I paused and thought hard.  PayPal has a higher processing fee, plus I have a bias against them since they screwed me once.  That said, in a lesser-of-two-evils decision, PayPal, at least, isn’t trying to take over the world (or, if not the world, gain more control over the future of the Internet than the government organizations assigned to regulate it and keep it free from corporate interests).  So I put my boycott on PayPal aside and sent out an invoice with a PayPal-linked button rather than a Google Checkout-linked button.  This was probably the hardest switch to make not because PayPal is inherently more difficult but because both companies, in my opinion, are crooked.

I suppose it should be said that I’m addicted to the web developer tools built into WebKit (and therefore Google Chrome), in particular the Inspect Element context menu.  I use it every day and I knew going into this experiment that this would be something I was missing.  I’ve become so accustomed to using Inspect Element that I’d completely forgotten how to use the much more elaborate Web Developer Tools plugin for Firefox (though I still had that installed).  In the end, for web development, I used Safari so I could get the benefit of the Inspect Element option.  To be honest, there was no specific reason for choosing Firefox over Safari as the browser of choice and by Wednesday I started considering just switching.  Most likely it was simply ubiquity and the fact that Firefox was what I was using before switching to Chrome, though, in retrospect, Safari is just as solid.

On Thursday, I realized that the database backups I schedule to automatically send every week to a specific email address weren’t coming.  After a second, I realized why; I never set up the email address when I was moving my mail over to my webhost.  While it’s just as easy to set up mail through your host as it is to set up Google Apps to handle your mail, it’s worth remembering that if you do decide to switch back (or switch any host or email provider), any email addresses you have set up will need to be recreated on the new host.  It’s a simple enough task, but just as easy to forget, especially if you have forward-only addresses like I do.

Another thing you forget about Gmail is how good the junk mail filter really is.  It’s been years since I really thought very much about junk mail.  I get so little of it, that I don’t even notice the problem.  Only after moving my email away from Gmail did I start to notice the junk come in, many times it was the same piece of junk mail.  Outlook has some built-in controls for that (which, of course, I’d forgone in favor of Thunderbird), and Thunderbird does as well, although, for the most part, it relies on you to mark things as spam to learn what to filter and what not to.  Thankfully, many webhosts have server-side spam filtering (using SpamAssassin or something similar), which I was happy to find on my host when I realized that was what was going on and looked for the possibility of a server-side spam filter (note: it wasn’t turned on by default, as they often are not, so if you find yourself inundated by spam, it’s a good idea to see if your webhost has the option and turn it on, if necessary).

The point of this experiment was not to take my one-man boycott and stick it to The Man.  I knew I relied heavily on Google services, and wanted to see how deep the ties were and how difficult it would be to avoid them.  Most people use Google by default, without thinking.  Are we wrong to do this?  Google has not made a secret of taking our information and using it to supercharge their other apps, like AdSense and search.  Facebook does this too.  But the difference between Facebook and Google is that Google is also asking you to host all your documents with them, to use their phones (bundled with their services) with your mobile service, to take control of your calls with their VOIP service, to own your conversations with their messaging service.  Does this mean that behind every corner, with everything you do online, you have a Google bot reading your messages, your emails, your documents, and assimilating that information into their vast grid for future use?  Are we okay with that?

Even putting Google and Verizon’s recent bid to determine the future of broadband and wireless internet aside for a minute, it can’t go without noting that Google is a huge corporation.  They may have started out as two guys in a garage, but those days are long gone.  Have we forgotten that Apple and Microsoft had similar beginnings?  Google isn’t the underdog anymore, they are the behemoth, and they want your data.  Internet pioneer, Richard Stallman, has some choice words on the sorts of cloud computing technology Google has led us toward with Gmail and Apps.

The real meaning of ‘cloud computing’ is to suggest a devil-may-care approach towards your computing. It says, ‘Don’t ask questions, just trust every business without hesitation. Don’t worry about who controls your computing or who holds your data. Don’t check for a hook hidden inside our service before you swallow it.’ In other words, ‘Think like a sucker.’

We can choose to not be a sucker.  We can look for a hook.  There was a time when people distrusted large businesses simply because they were large.  In this economy, where many of the little and smaller companies have crumbled, we should be even more wary of those left standing, not less.  When a company starts making rules for the government, that’s when I start tuning out.

The answer to the main question of the experiment, can you survive without Google, is: yes, of course you can.  Gmail is great, but by no means is it the be-all end-all email solution, and by no means is Gmail’s junk filtering the only answer, either.  Other cloud computing apps should make you wary at the very least – if the world ended tomorrow and those servers went down, would you be okay with loosing that data?  Neil Gaiman mentioned that some documents from 2007 stored in Google Docs were missing and that he may have lost a story.  I find this, for a writer – a bestselling one, at that – to be absolutely unacceptable, and proof that your data is not guaranteed.  And the only way to truly secure your data is to don your tinfoil hat and start keeping hard copies.

We’re so reliant on the web we don’t even think about it.  I don’t retain a printed copy of my tax return unless I absolutely need it.  Why should I?  Printer companies gouge consumers on ink refills for cheap printers enough that I no longer own a printer.  I have a pdf copy and I file electronically.  Personally, I retain all important data on a home server that maintains weekly backups on an external NAS server, but most people don’t.  The point is, we’ve become so used to going paperless that the idea of going back makes us sound like some relic from the 1950s (no offense to relics from the 50s).  Likewise, distrusting cloud computing, Google, Facebook, any company that hordes our data, makes us sound paranoid.

The answer to the followup question to the experiment, will I continue to live without Google services is: probably.  I was dissatisfied with using Firefox for all my browsing, and enjoyed using the Glue extension for Firefox that I was never able to use in Chrome, but as an experiment, I went to Glue in Safari and found an extension there as well.  Which implies there may be other extensions available for Safari that I didn’t know about (although, really, there weren’t many I use daily in Chrome, and one of them is a Google Voice extension).  Moving forward, I plan on switching over to Safari for my browsing as a replacement for Chrome rather than Firefox.

My email is already switched and I have no intention of switching back.  I’m now using free software (free as in freedom as well as free as in beer) to manage my email via Thunderbird, and I’m quite happy with it.  I was already growing apart from Google after my new mobile carrier (Sprint/Nextel, via CREDOMobile) doesn’t support Google Voice entirely, and text messages sent to my Google Voice number forward to my phone even when the setting is disabled to forward texts (as a way to save on individual text messaging charges).  Bing is not as good for search as Google, but it’s passable, and in many cases where I was looking for something specific, a site search gave me the result I wanted.

When I started this experiment, Nico, from Ten Times One, commented on my blog, saying, “Google is good for business.”  As a small business owner, sure, Google helps, but the only Google service I was using as a business was Checkout.  We experimented with AdWords only to find that it was a lot of money for no real result.  I haven’t used up the rest of my $100 credit, and we currently advertise via BuySellAds.  Google will always color how we think about search engine optimization, but Google is trying to enter an enterprise market with Apps where Microsoft has dominated for more than a decade and those types of markets aren’t often subject to radical change.  It will be a steep hill for them to climb to try to sell their wares to corporate businesses.  Even for business, Google is not the only answer, nor, in many cases, the best answer.  And increasingly, their dominance over the advertising market will decrease as Apple, Yahoo, and Facebook become more relevant players.

The first step in changing the world is to change yourself.  I’m not trying to change the world, but it’s also terrifying to me that we let ourselves be subjugated by corporate interests without being aware of it.  So, I encourage you to think about the online services you use, whether they’re Google, Facebook or other, and think about the data you’re giving them.  Could you live without that data?  Could you live without that service?  Could that data be used against you?  Do you trust a multi-billion dollar multi-national corporation with that data, whether it’s a search query or sensitive medical documents?  Does it make any sense at all for a multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporation to truly have your interests at heart?

___________________

Chris Reynolds is one half of the design team at Arcane Palette Creative Design. He writes in his personal blog, jazzsequence, on subjects like music, technology and social media and shares links, videos, and posts various personal music and writing projects. You can also follow him on Twitter.

iTunes Security: Worse than you thought?

On December 1, 2008, I woke up to find a series of disturbing emails in my inbox.  They were a pair of PayPal receipts and the corresponding iTunes store receipts for 2 purchases of $200 gift cards sent to anonymous Hotmail and Yahoo email addresses.  The problem was, I didn’t make the purchases.

The transactions took place around 5:30am while my wife, myself, and our son were in bed.  Seeing as how I couldn’t possibly have made the purchases, and how they were suspiciously paired one after another and sent to random and easy-to-obtain email addresses combined with the fact that, though I had linked my PayPal account to my iTunes account “just in case”, I had never actually made a purchase previously, it seemed obvious that I had been the victim of a scam and I could easily get the transaction reversed.

Not so.  Thus began one of the most frustrating and infuriating experiences of my life, leaving me with a foul taste for both PayPal and iTunes.

Contacting Apple yielded no help.

I understand you are concerned about purchases that were made with your iTunes Store account without your permission or knowledge.

I urge you to contact your financial institution as soon as possible to inquire about canceling the card or account and removing the unauthorized transactions. You should also ask them to launch an investigation into the security of your account. As part of the investigation, their fraud department will contact the iTunes Store directly to resolve this issue.

They also recommended I change my password, something I did the second I discovered my account had been hacked.

Unfortunately, my financial institution wasn’t a financial institution at all.  It was PayPal.  And there’s a difference — although I was blind to it at the time.  In a normal scenario, you could contact your bank, your bank would put a stop payment on the transaction, launch an investigation, and if anything seemed out of place at all you’d get your money back.  PayPal doesn’t work that way.  They aren’t a bank and don’t operate by the same rules as banks do.  Their only concern and primary objective is transferring money from one bank to another and, in that sense, their job was done.  It, apparently, didn’t matter to them my (presumably valid) claim that it was someone else who authorized the money transfer from PayPal to iTunes.  I had linked my PayPal account to iTunes and that stated intent (despite having gone unused), and made me liable for any transactions, including fraudulent ones.

I fought the issue for a week.  I had had just under $200 in my PayPal balance.  The remainder pulled from my bank account which I was able to get refunded easily (without even having to talk to anyone) from my bank.  (PayPal held firm even after I pointed out that the investigation my bank had done saw enough reason to refund the money.)  I called a hotshot New York criminal defense lawyer associate for advice. (File a police report, take it up in small claims court if I want to pursue it. I didn’t.)  Ultimately defeated, I let it drop.  If I wanted to take PayPal to court, I could force them to hand over the documents claiming to prove that it was me (or at least my IP address) that had initiated the transaction.  I had already lost enough sleep over the issue, I succeeded in getting the cash that was taken from our bank back, the rest, I felt, was the cost of two important lessons learned:

1) PayPal is not a bank.  As benign as they appear, they are a business.  A large, thriving business that makes money from you on every transaction you make through them.  That gives them huge capital without a large overhead since their costs of operating are minimal.

2) PayPal will, almost invariably, side with the seller as the default rule.  Even in the case of an eBay dispute, they will start by assuming the seller is correct and the burden of proof is on the buyer and potential victim in the scenario.

But one important lesson still went missed, even as I was removing my PayPal linkage from everything I could find, changing the password and email address on everything that matched what I had entered into my profile on iTunes, and finding alternative checkout systems to PayPal for my design business (we primarily use Google Checkout now).  That was: how secure is iTunes, anyway?  I had assumed my experience was an isolated incident, that I was just some poor victim most likely in a series of attacks that occurred that morning across multiple accounts.

According to this article, I was wrong.

It turns out, there have been a lot of people swindled on iTunes.  The most recent security breech artificially bumped up several Vietnamese books into the top 10 list by what looks to be authorizing the purchase without the buyer’s knowledge (or consent).  But this is only the latest scam.  Both the Mashable article and the comments on the article itself reveal countless others who have been swindled in similar ways — mysterious transactions that took place without their knowledge.  How is it that arguably the largest retailer for digital downloads has such shoddy security that accounts are routinely infiltrated and exploited for profit?  I was surprised to learn that, not only was I not alone in having my iTunes account hacked into (something I blamed myself for — my password wasn’t altogether secure and was the same one I’d been using for years, a combination of numbers and letters that was a combination of the AOL profile my dad had made me and the numeric code at the end of my username from the old telnet BBS systems I frequented back in the early days), but my $400 wasn’t the most that had been robbed (the first comment I saw on the Mashable post was from someone who lost over $550).

The most sound advice was given by another commenter: don’t use your debit card, don’t enter financial information at all, in fact; use only prepaid cards and remove them when you’re done.  It seems paranoid, but if it’s that easy to get into user’s account, wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?  From that perspective, it’s easy to imagine legions of opportunistic wanna-be hackers trying to infiltrate the mighty iTunes fortress and the treasures of nubile user accounts with endless caches of funds in the form of credit card info and PayPal accounts just waiting to be plundered.  The question is not is my information safe but rather how long until my information is comprimised?  With so little help from Apple and PayPal, it doesn’t hurt to be paranoid when your money is at stake.

____________________________________

Chris Reynolds is one half of the design team at Arcane Palette Creative Design. He writes in his personal blog, jazzsequence, on subjects like music, technology and social media and shares links, videos, and posts various personal music and writing projects. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Take action for change…with your mobile carrier

This is guest post by Chris Reynolds, one half of the design team at Arcane Palette Creative Design. If you’d like to guest post on 10 Times One, click here.

https://pastatech.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/death-star-att.jpg
About a week ago, I got an interesting piece of snail mail.  It came from
CREDO Mobile — a name that didn’t ring any bells at the time — but it didn’t start off like your average “switch to us” cell phone pitch.  Instead it began by talking about all the positive change that has been accomplished in the past year: initiatives to help combat global warming, improved health care, marriage equality in Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire, the Lily Ledbetter Act — which ensures that victims of pay discrimination can go to court for justice…

What is this?  Is this a political campaign or a mobile provider?  What’s their angle?

Here’s the bit of important information I was missing: CREDO.  CREDO Action is an activist organization much like Organizing for America (what the Obama Presidential campaign evolved into after the election), Change.org and MoveOn.org — which is to say, they have a bunch of causes and you can help out by signing a petition or donating money.  It was through my involvement in one (or all) of these organizations that I became a member (by signing a petition) of CREDO Action, mostly to my unawares.

Okay, so what does that have to do with cell phones, then?

Well, did you know that AT&T made campaign contributions to someone who called global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” and Verizon contributed to the Republican Senator of Louisiana who urged President Obama to expand offshore drilling after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

Did you know that AT&T gave the maximum allowable contribution to GW in both the 2000 and the 2004 elections?  And AT&T has also been a repeat contributor to the Oklahoma Senator who opposes abortion even in cases of rape and advocates the death penalty to doctors who perform abortions.  Did you know Verizon has been a steady contributor to the group of centrist Democrats who helped derail the public option in the final healthcare bill?

As a member of all the above petition-signing groups and being an AT&T customer, out of contract for over a year, and just hanging on for lack of anything better to switch to, it’s hard to read where AT&T’s values lie and not be tempted to jump ship rtfn.  I’m sure they’ve made other contributions to other politicians with not so spotty records, but, in the end, is it worth it?  But woah there, space cowboy — how much do the plans cost?

My current plan with AT&T is a basic, 2-line family plan, 550 anytime minutes, free nights and weekends and in-network mobile-to-mobile.  We don’t even touch those minutes, though, because we actually talk on the phone so little outside of those times that our rollover minutes effectively amount to infinity (although rollover is something we got in the last year or two, the 550 shared minutes was never a problem for us even before we had rollover since the majority of calls we were making were to each other).  Our monthly bill averages out to about $120/month — $50 per line plus taxes.  Compare that to the 550 shared plan from CREDO: all of that (minus rollover) for $59.99. I must be reading that wrong, I thought.  It can’t possibly be $59.99 for both lines.  Even if it was though, that would end up being just about as much as what we’re paying for AT&T anyway with better values.

So I contacted CREDO Mobile and asked about the $59.99 family plan.  I looked all over the site and, try as I might to find some kind of loophole or fine print that said $59.99 was per line, I failed.  So I asked them.  Two days later I received a personalized email (not an email from a robot or a script monkey in India) that specifically addressed all my questions and concerns.  Effing brilliant! I couldn’t sign up fast enough.

So now I’m waiting for two phones, an LG Rumor 2 and a Sanyo 3810.

How does this action group become a mobile provider?  Obviously they’re targeting people just like me: educated, active in news and politics, concerned about strong issues, they’ve got a huge network of people (with names, addresses and email addresses) from everyone who’s ever signed a petition (a rather clever way of culling a contact list).  Now they’ve got a list, they’ve got an idea to fight against the big mobile conglomerates with right wing leanings, but they need to jump into an already-crowded market with no cell phone towers of their own.  They solve the problem by using Sprint/Nextel’s network.  I looked up Sprint/Nextel for coverage in my area: I got a combination of “Nextel is the best provider in this area” and “Sprint is the worst provider in this area”  (Nextel was purchased by Sprint in 2005), so this puts them right about the middle with everyone else if you average it out.  As far as tech goes, Sprint/Nextel is the first nationwide 4G network, and CREDO Mobile offers Blackberrys and Android smartphones (The HTC Hero 2 is coming soon).  Their plans are all pretty cheap — at least if you go by minutes.  It gets pricier for  unlimited plans, but even if we added almost 1,000 more minutes to our family plan, we’d still be paying less than we are now with AT&T.  Their individual plans are similar — dirt cheap if you go for the least amount of minutes, more as you add more minutes, data or texting.  But the point is, they’re competitive, and, if you’re an activist for any of the causes that CREDO Action supports, why would you get a cell phone plan with anyone else?

___________________

Chris Reynolds is one half of the design team at Arcane Palette Creative Design. He writes in his personal blog, jazzsequence, on subjects like music, technology and social media and shares links, videos, and posts various personal music and writing projects. You can also follow him on Twitter.

World War II Propaganda (as Art?)

This is a guest post by Chris Reynolds. If you would like to guest post on 10 Times One please click here.

Propaganda is to art as Twitter is to literature; concise, quick, bold, direct.  The message is put across as simply as possible using often using whatever means necessary.  Guilt, fear, threats, idealism, utopianism, racial slurs and violence — in addition to all the traditional design techniques like color, movement and perspective — can all be employed to drive the message home.

It amazes me the things that were printed and put on display in public spaces, but the same techniques are used today in advertising (though, possibly to less of an extreme).  Smashing Magazine did a post last week about propaganda art and the artists who make it, so I thought I’d use this as a chance to dig through my own archive of World War II propaganda art and show off some of the more interesting or unique posters and art that you may not have seen before.

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

American WWII Propaganda Poster

German WWII Propaganda Poster

German WWII  Propaganda Poster

___________________

Chris Reynolds is one half of the design team at Arcane Palette Creative Design. He writes in his personal blog, jazzsequence, on subjects like music, technology and social media and shares links, videos, and posts various personal music and writing projects. You can also follow him on Twitter.