In my job as a technical writer at a software company, a lot of my time is spent talking to developers and QA people about how a new feature works or about how customers are supposed to use it. And very often, no matter how specific I try to make my question, I receive in return a long, complicated answer that starts at home plate and takes a trip around the outfield when all I wanted to do was go from first base to second.
So I chuckled knowingly when I read this paragraph from a news story about Google CEO Larry Page testifying in court in a trial over whether his company legally used technology owned by another:
Page’s answers Wednesday were occasionally slow in coming. U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup asked Page several times to answer “yes,” “no” or “I don’t know” after Page gave answers that the judge said did not address the question.
I mentioned this to Cris, who said, “Reminds me of that joke: A plane is lost in the fog. It flies by a tall building, and the pilot opens the cockpit window and yells out ‘Where am I?!’ A man in the office building replies: ‘You’re sitting in the cockpit of an airplane!’ Then the pilot punches in a bunch of coordinates, takes the controls, and flies straight to a safe landing. ‘How’d you know where we were based on that answer?’ asks the dumbfounded co-pilot. ‘Well,’ the pilot says, ‘I asked a question and got an answer that was full, accurate, and completely useless — so I knew we were flying over Microsoft.'”
I think I know how to defeat Google’s invasive “personalization” — for a while…
Given that in a sense it’s useless, that they are scanning all my email as well as this blog (which is hosted on their blogspot service), I still want to register that I think it’s offensive to see Google offer me “personal results” at the top of a search page. Why the FUCK would I want my search results “personalized” using my history of past searches as well as everything else Google knows about me? What am I, seven years old? Are people suddenly bereft of any search skills at all? I have been working for software companies for going on 20 years; I know a thing or two about search. Please, Google — don’t patronize me.
Added slightly later: Yes, it’s possible to click an option in your account settings that says “Don’t use personal results.” But that just means they don’t display the option for you. It doesn’t mean they don’t collect information about you. As for the “Search history” that you can also supposedly turn off (and I do) — I simply don’t trust that turning it off actually means they don’t collect information about you. I think it just means they don’t display it for you.
I’m someone who’s used GMail ever since it was available. I love Google’s services — but I also want to be able to say no. So I haven’t signed up for “Google +” and I never will — until the day they stop giving me the choice and simply force me to do so. And that’s the day I will dump GMail and make sure everything possible is off their systems — as if that were even possible.
But til then, I have a simple strategy: never search for anything on Google while logged in to my email or other services.
That’s simpler than it sounds. You have more than one browser on your machine, right? Probably Internet Explorer (or Safari, for Mac users), and Firefox. Maybe Chrome or Opera. All you have to do is dedicate one of these browsers to non-logged in Google use. For example, let’s say I want to search for a new car, but I don’t want fucking car advertising to clutter up my browser and I don’t want any evidence of it in my Google results. Let’s say I use Google’s own browser, Chrome, for my GMail and other Google services. Then I just start up Firefox for the Google search — and any other anonymous services, like Maps, that don’t depend on my identity. And I do my search while not logged in to my Google account.
If I did that while logged in, Google would know I’m looking for a certain kind of car, and then it would know I searched on their maps for the nearest dealerships. Why should I want them to know that? What services could they possibly offer me, based on that information, that would benefit me — as opposed to benefiting the car dealers whose ads would then pollute my email window and search results and, for all I know, my maps?
No really Google — thanks for your free services, but UP YOURS on the exploitation.
Google Plus is completely optional. If you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to.—Google chairman Eric Schmidt (via Gawker)
Gee, thanks, I took you up on that the very first day, without your specific permission.
It’s amazing that despite its relatively infinite capacity to store and study data, Google feels it needs to know even more about me than it already knows after I’ve been using GMail for years. Schmidt would probably say Google can’t protect me as well as it might be able to, if only it knew I liked the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — but it already knows that, because I’ve written about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on this blog, which is on the Blogger platform, which is owned by Google. So how is me filling out a profile on Google+ going to give them any more?
Anyway, I wrote a whole novel about this — or rather, half the novel is about this kind of thing, and half, more than half really, is just loads of sex. Which was a lot more fun to write about.
This story in my Google Reader (from the 3 Quarks Daily website) and an advertisement from a trade school resulted in an unfortunate pairing:
An essay on the blog Download Squad with the alarming title Facebook — with or without Google — will destroy the world as we know it explains the two companies’ diverging strategies. It’s interesting (though I can’t get very worked up about yet another apocalyptic scenario, in which something from the movie Terminator is used to get across how frightening it is), but what I was struck by was this line (emphasis theirs):
In other words, Facebook knows who we want to be, while Google knows who we actually are.
The article closes with this warning, which I find pretty believable. Referring to Facebook’s announcement yesterday that it was going to offer the equivalent of Facebook email, the article cautions:
You will be given the choice of opting out, of course. But think about it: can you see yourself leaving Facebook today? Now fast forward a few months, a year. Imagine what it will be like once all of your communication goes through Facebook; quitting won’t be an option.
Now, the thing is, I use Google mail, I collaborate with others using Google documents, I have Google voice pointing to my cell phone, I use the calendar, and so on. It seems as if I’m pretty wrapped up in Google. And yet I think if Google disappeared tomorrow, all I’d lose is my saved email and this month’s household budget. My life would go on, for the simple reason that Google’s mail system communicates with the rest of the world, while Facebook’s is designed not to. A “walled garden” is the term commonly used for such an exclusive online universe. I can think of another word.
I’m glad I’m not a Facebook denizen; I never registered. It’s like having gone through the 00s without having gotten a tattoo: once you participate a little, you’re marked for life.
I was dipping into The Savage Detectives today and re-read the long account of Mary Watson, one of the few pieces in the long middle section of the book (a section which consists entirely of first-person speeches, supposed interviews conducted by an unknown interlocutor) narrated by an English speaker. This section, labeled “Mary Watson, Sutherland Place, London, May 1978,” is one of the longest “interviews” in the book, almost twenty pages long in the American trade paperback edition. It recounts a series of incidents centering around an unnamed night watchman of a campground in the south of Spain near Barcelona, a man whom narrator Watson becomes involved during a period of several weeks when she and a companion link up with a group of motley vagabonds, spending part of the time picking grapes in the south of France.
In the last paragraph of the piece narrated by Watson, she describes her return to Oxford, where she is studying, and says “A little while later I moved to 25 Cowley Road, Oxford…” Why so specific, I wondered. What is at that address? I looked it up on Google Maps. I don’t know what was there in 1996 or so when Bolaño wrote the book, but now there is a Spanish/Moroccan tapas restaurant called Kazbar. From Google Street View, I can see that there is a residence above part of this restaurant, but the door is marked 27a.
So I wonder why Bolaño named the address of that restaurant. Is it significant that it serves Spanish food? Could Bolaño have made the acquaintance of the owner at some time, could he perhaps once have visited Oxford and had an enjoyable meal there, or at whatever restaurant, if it was different, that occupied the space at some point whenever it was that Bolaño visited? Did Bolaño ever even visit Oxford?
It would be nice if someone in Oxford were to do me the favor of going and asking the owner of the place. For all I know there’s a photograph of him on the wall; equally possible, the owner may never have heard of Roberto Bolaño, may not even be Spanish or Moroccan. Like everything else in the book that tempts the reader to ask what part is true or why the author chose a particular detail, this will remain a mystery, as the honorable author is of course dead.
Later: A little more searching turned up the facts that the Kazbar is owned by a man named Clinton Pugh, who is said to own several Oxford restaurants, and that (according to the restaurant’s own website) the establishment was “designed and developed in 2001” by Mr. Pugh. What was there before that, who knows.
Still later: Upon further consideration, I’ve decided that the most likely explanation has nothing to do with the coincidentally Spanish restaurant. It seems most likely that there was a house at 25 Cowley Road, one just like the house next door with the door marked 27a, and that at one point Bolaño knew someone who lived there, perhaps a writer with whom he corresponded, perhaps a poet friend who was in Oxford on a year’s visiting lectureship or something.
I’ll leave the rest of it to Bolaño scholars. Obviously not, as I added something else below.
It also occurred to me that it would be great if there were a Bolaño wiki where fans could annotate Bolaño’s longer works.
Even later: While continuing to surf around, I was reminded that the author Javier Marías, whose trilogy Your Face Tomorrow I am reading and which was recommended by Bolaño at various times, suggesting that Marías was a friend and correspondent of the Chilean, lived for some time in Oxford and set some of his novels there. So perhaps Marías was the one who lived at 25 Cowley Road.
Just as I predicted in How They Scored:
Twitter is in advanced talks with Microsoft and Google separately about striking data-mining deals, in which the companies would license a full feed from the microblogging service that could then be integrated into the results of their competing search engines.
— news story
Most stories about the limitations and network problems of the iPhone have to do with AT&T’s network problems that make central functionality impossibly to use. This story is a change of pace, saying that it’s GMail that can’t handle all the constant requests from iPhones asking for GMail inbox updates.
I don’t care whose problem it is. It’s still iPhone FAIL.
I was underwhelmed by this report about a putative “GDrive”, that is, an online file repository managed by Google.
I don’t get it. There already is such a thing; it’s called GMail. I use GMail as a file archive all the time, and GMail’s excellent search feature — fast and accurate — enables me to find my file without having to create and navigate a file hierarchy.
Worrying. This is how Microsoft went bad: they took something that worked just fine, for example Microsoft Word 4.0, and gilded it until it’s almost unusable — meet Microsoft Word 2007! Now I have to keep a laptop around running Windows XP and Microsoft Word 2003 for the rest of my life, so I can actually format a document and trust it to come out the way I want it to. Google, don’t go down that road.
In early November, Facebook’s 23-year-old C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, rolled out an advertising program called Beacon. It would track users onto the sites of Facebook’s commercial partners — Coca-Cola, the N.B.A., The New York Times and Verizon, among others — and keep their friends posted about what they were doing and buying there.
Did it ever. A Massachusetts man bought a diamond ring for Christmas for his wife from overstock.com and saw his discounted purchase announced to 720 people in his online network. What if it hadn’t been for his wife? What if he had been buying acne cream? Pornography? A toupee? You could go on. Researchers at Computer Associates, an information-technology firm, discovered that Beacon was more invasive than announced. MoveOn.org started a petition movement against Beacon that rallied 75,000 Facebook subscribers. …
The Beacon fiasco gives a good outline of what future conflicts over the Internet will look like. Whether a system is opt-in or opt-out has an enormous influence on how people use it. He who controls the “default option” — the way a program runs if you don’t modify it — writes the rules. Online, it can be tempting to dodge the need to get assent for things that used to require it. This temptation is particularly strong in matters of privacy. For instance, the “default option” of the pre-Internet age was that it was wrong to read others’ mail. But Google now skims the letters of its Gmail subscribers, in hopes of better targeting them with ads, and the N.S.A. looks for terrorists not only in the traditional manner — getting warrants for individual wiretaps — but also by mining large telecommunications databases.
So it is with Facebook’s Beacon. We used to live in a world where if someone secretly followed you from store to store, recording your purchases, it would be considered impolite and even weird. Today, such an option can be redefined as “default” behavior.