Who is using Facebook these days?

(Author’s note: I embrace the irony that most of my readers will come from the facebook link)

I often use my younger cousins to find out what’s going on with kids these days. A few weeks ago, I asked them to explain what “ratchet” meant. They tried to explain. I still don’t think I get it.

Something I understand but don’t really get is that kids these days don’t use Facebook anymore. Apparently they use Instagram and Snapchat instead. When I was their age, we were all about Facebook because it had just expanded membership to high school students, and it was the cool thing that our recently departed college friends had. Consequently, I think that most of my Facebook friends to this day are high school friends. In any case, apparently Facebook is for their parents now, so kids don’t want to use it. Instead, they prefer newer, hipper services that old people haven’t caught onto, albeit with much more limited functionality.

However, it is disingenuous for me to tease my cousins for not using Facebook when I myself am not a heavy Facebook user anymore. The truth is that I honestly am not that interested in most of the content and don’t feel the need to share much myself.

I detailed most of my behavior in this blog post. To recap, I do like Facebook as a public address book that doesn’t require explicit exchange of contact details. Most regular status updates are uninteresting because I’m not close to most of my Facebook friends anymore. And for links to other content, I trust the masses on reddit to filter content better than suggestions from individuals, even if I do know them personally

In that blog post, I mentioned that I am in a group chat on Google Hangouts with some college friends. With about 20,000 messages in 5 months, it has been very active. I describe it as all of us sitting in a room together talking, except that we can all talk at the same time without interrupting each other. As such, there are usually several active topics, and they range from deep to ridiculous, significant to mundane, sports to politics. When we meet in real life, we refer to the group chat like regular conversation, which we expect everyone to keep up with despite the volume.

Interestingly, I have been posting content to the group chat that is similar to Facebook statuses: random pictures from events and daily life, links to interesting content I find on the internet, and thoughts off the top of my head. Despite my reluctance to share on Facebook, I’m happy to chat about the minutia I scroll past on Facebook.

I think the difference is the audience and context. Instead of sharing or consuming with hundreds, it’s the 10-ish that I actually talk to and interact with on a regular basis. And instead of an open platform more akin to public broadcast to newsfeeds everywhere, I’m in a more synchronous exchange with others. Although social networks offered new and exciting ways to connect, I’m reverting to a medium more in common with traditional face-to-face.

As for Facebook, there are a few types of commonly bemoaned content that I see. One is the controversial or politicized link or comment that inevitably leads to strongly-worded arguments. Another is the sad, vaguely-worded post about something bad that happened that isn’t elaborated on. And there’s the rallying outrage post about some issue.

These topics are similar in that they are best shared in smaller settings, yet we find some ego-directed satisfaction in sharing them publicly. Politics are always tricky to discuss, but it’s better to sit face-to-face with the intent to understand and not to argue. And yet we know that it’s bait for the most ardent responders who care to write long responses. Misery does need company, but I think most people actually respond better to a heartfelt conversation rather than a short, sympathetic comments and likes. And outrage on social media seems to be the new norm that makes us feel good in garnering likes while often doing little to enact change.

Facebook as a big platform is good for big things. For engagements and pregnancies, it’s a efficient way to share news with a lot of people. And social media has also been an effective forum for organizing political activism. But for most people, daily life isn’t that exciting, and a network that gives everyone a soap box (with status updates) and a feeling of impact (with the “Like” button) isn’t conducive to meaningful communication.

Despite my dire misgivings about Facebook, I still can’t quit it entirely. I often can’t even resist typing it into my address bar when I already know there’s not much for me. There are just too many darn people on it. I guess, in at least one way, I can relate to kids these days.

My Apple Event Reactions

The Apple event yesterday unveiled the iPhone 6, Apple Pay, and the Apple Watch, which might be the biggest Apple announcement since the iPad. This event was big for me, however, because it was the first iPhone event after getting one myself, which finally gave me the experience of, “I gotta get me one of those.”

The previous 7 iPhone announcements were less meaningful to me since I had no basis of comparison. They looked cool, but all of them were well-beyond my flip phone. Looking at the new features and specs of the iPhone 6, however, I could feel how these improvements would change my life, despite my light usage of my current phone. It’s thinner. It has better battery life. The camera is fancier and stabilized in ways I don’t understand. It uses technology to make phone calls better, apparently. What’s not to love?

This has led me to the same crisis as every other iPhone user has experienced for many years before me of how to reconcile my desire for something new and shiny with the reality of an existing contract and the fact that I still have it pretty good with a 1 year old phone. It still feels new to me.

So I turn towards sour grapes to resolve the dissonance. Well, my current phone is better anyways. The new form factor is too big. My phone is already bigger than it probably needs to be, and the bigger screen would just frustrate my pockets. And I would be so worried about breaking the new phone that I couldn’t really use it to its full capacity. Things are totally better this way.

But if the apple fairy came into my house at night and swapped my iPhone 5S for an iPhone 6, would I be okay with that? Heck yes.

The Apple Pay thing was cool, but I think the real target of the event was the Apple Watch. After having talked to various people over the past day, it seems like opinions are spread, but the median is negative. It’s too expensive. It’s probably limited by phone tethering. It looks too big. It looks too small. It’s too rectangular.

I myself am more positive on it than not. With the caveat that I am incapable of dressing myself (Julie does that for me) and don’t have any sense for fashion, this watch looks like something that people would want to wear. It offers customizability in something that one presents as part of their image constantly, and I think people care about that sort of thing.

I’m also not worried about the price point: Apple is snobby, and those unwilling to pay will have to wait for the price to drop, which I believe it will. For a completely new product, however, Apple has priced it high enough to detract people from using it just to give it a hard time. Only the rich and Apple fanboys will buy it, and that will give it snob appeal and positive user reviews regardless of the true experience. Apple seems to do a good job refining products, and I think the next iteration will improve while keeping the brand intact.

Of course, I’m not planning on getting one, but I’m excited to see how it goes. Detractors mentioned how derivative this product is and how other, cheaper products provide better, targeted experiences. I have to admit that I myself was hoping for something more exotic. Maybe it could have been something implanted in one’s chest like Tony Stark’s reactor, or something similarly mind-blowing. But it’s just a watch, and I think people will be more than happy with that anyways.

A brief history of my TODO list

I’m obsessed with staying organized. I know how often I don’t commit something to memory or forget later, and I see life as a constant struggle against the chaos and idleness of disorganization. Having a system seems to be the key, and when everything can seemingly be solved with software, there’s an app for that. As such, I thought I would share a brief history into my own system.

The Folder

Until I got to college, I didn’t have a system. I think we were required to have organizers and time trackers during primary and secondary school, but I never really used any of that. In retrospect, it’s astounding how much effort teachers put into teaching us reasonable skills (like time and task management), which we completely missed because we were some combination of not busy, conscientious, or understanding enough of why we should do it.

Regardless, I went through the motions as much as required but never really used any of that. All I had was a single, usually plastic, two-pocket folder. I had to carry binders of notes, spirals, time trackers, and whatever else, but the only thing that actually mattered was in that folder. At a time where most tasks were homework, which was often a piece of paper, it was an easy way to keep track of everything. Fill the folder over the course of the day, then empty it as I completed things.

I’m not quite sure how I factored studying for tests into that system, but when calendars only had to be scheduled at most a week out, it didn’t really matter. It was a simple system, but it worked because the scope was so small. In truth, my teachers, education system, and parents really kept track of anything important. They doled out my tasks and calendar in bite-size pieces that were easily represented with a folder.

OSX Stickies

When I got to college, I started using the Stickies widget on the OSX dashboard page. Presumably, the change of context from high school to college rendered the folder ineffective. I’m guessing I developed the habit when I started putting my random addresses into Stickies and evolved random notes into a single, very long TODO sticky note. Despite being somewhat rudimentary, it was effective for planning out when I would have to study for one class or work on an assignment for another.

I was extremely reliant on it. When my motherboard died, I wasn’t worried about any documents on my computer: the most important thing was recovering my Stickies so I wouldn’t drop anything within the week. Overall, it is perhaps the closest to a true TODO list as I have ever used: it had few recurring tasks and could easily be populated and scheduled out to about a a week. During college, most of my tasks were still relatively short-term and could easily be accommodated in this system.

Evernote

Towards the end of college when I started working, I switched over to Evernote. I became an Evernote fan as a way to collect my dozens of random text documents on my computer, but it became the right TODO list tool because it was portable. When I had a work computer and a personal computer, I couldn’t sync up the Stickies widget, so I couldn’t do things or add tasks while at work.

The portability brought me over, but it was the checkboxes that kept me. As I transitioned into real life with errands and chores, I developed more recurring tasks, which I could check and un-check as necessary. This evolved into the regular TODO list, which I previously described. In brief, I divided up tasks into daily, weekly, monthly, and irregular tasks, and managed it in a single note.

Asana

My Evernote system was good and probably sustainable if I hadn’t found a better task management tool in Asana within the past few months. Evernote is more of a swiss army knife, where Asana was built specifically for task management in mind. I started using it because unlike Evernote, it works with other people. I started recording tasks around the house with Julie, but I instantly became a fan of the system. It reminded me of the issue tracking system I use at work, except it stripped away a lot of the doctrine and boilerplate to make it very simple to add, organize, and complete tasks.

It was easy to transition everything, and it allows me to set tasks to repeat. This was particularly helpful for my regular TODO list: instead of having to reset at the end of every period, it resets on completion and files it away until that day comes up. Even better, it has the due date so I can see how many days I have skipped on a daily task (usually exercise).

I think there are a few other nice features to it that I’m not recalling at the moment, but ignoring the details, I think everyone should be using Asana. I honestly don’t get how any adult can get away without a task management system, and Asana makes it so easy for both personal and team use. With a task management system, it’s hard to guiltlessly fail to do something: there’s a task that won’t go away until it is completed.

The Future?

One of my coworkers shared Bullet Journal with me, and she was right because conceptually, I love it. I love it because it’s an organization system. Moreover, it has 2 characteristics which I feel are missing.

First, it’s analog. Despite everything about my life, I still fancy myself a luddite and pretend like things would be better without computers. There’s something still satisfying about having a system in pen and paper.

Second, it has history. This blog and my advocacy for journaling are both symptoms of my interesting in recording my life. I have at various times tried to maintain lists of books I have read, events I have gone to, movies I have watched, and music I have been into, but none of it really stuck. All of it was more work than seemed immediately worthwhile. Having that documentation built into my regular flow sounds really nice, especially if it’s private and analog.

So I’m not sure what’s next, but at the current pace, in at most 3 years, I will have a new system because it satisfies some new requirement. Looking at my history, it seems that each change came about by a larger change in my life: first college, then work, then moving out.  I’m not sure what is happening in 3 years, but I’m sure I’ll need something different.

Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

My First Smartphone

For the past 6 years, I have been using my Samsung SGH-A707 flip phone. It wasn’t my first phone: I actually had a Nokia brick for most of my senior year of high school, but most of my phone experience is with this thing.

Those icons are buttons. I never used them
Those icons are buttons. I never used them

But as of roughly 24 hours ago, I have joined the modern world and picked up a iPhone 5S.

me and my iPhone

 

I saw  2 main reasons for upgrading to a smartphone. First, I was still driving like it was 1999 and printing out or writing down directions from Google Maps. When that failed, I relied on the resources of my navigator to pull out their smartphone and lead us back in the right direction. Second, everyone believes that mobile is the future (or at least the present), and since I work in that industry, I was quickly becoming disconnected with potential users and their use cases. Unless I wanted to begin working on web apps for either babies before their first phone or senior citizens incapable of using smartphones, I needed to step up. Continue reading “My First Smartphone”

Discussion Questions for “Alone Together”

For November, my book club* read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. In it, Turkle, a professor at MIT, investigates how our relationship with technology has developed. In part 1, she writes about robots, from tamagotchis and furbies to robots for elderly care, and how we interact with and feel about them. In part 2, she writes about how Facebook, texting, and online communities have changed our relationships with each other.

Since it can be heavy reading, we focused primarily on the second half of the book. In all, we were pretty neutral about the book. Although she had many good points, some of her examples seemed somewhat extreme, and we also felt that there was a lot of bias. I think we spent most of the discussion disagreeing with her, but she brings up some very interesting topics for discussion. Below are the discussion questions we worked from, which I think are interesting enough even having not read the book. I have, however, added a bit more context for it.

  1. Turkle writes about how we develop an online self  that is independent of our real life self. What do you think of that?
    1. Pete spends significant about of time on Second Life talking Jade, a sort of second wife. He notes that it’s easier to talk to Jade about some issues than his real wife because he doesn’t have to be concerned with Jade worrying about him like his wife would. Thoughts? What is it about the medium that makes this work?
    2. Adolescents seem worry a lot about their Facebook profiles and the sort of person that it portrays. This includes the obvious things such as profile pictures, but also minor things such as the order of artists in “favorite music”. Have you cared so much about your online presentation?
  2. Turkle suggests that thee digital world can’t offer the same opportunities for relationships that real life can.
    1. Is this a problem? Is there a place for this type of relationship?
    2. How does this work for adolescents or others who aren’t fully capable of developing relationships?
  3. We love multitasking because it makes us feel productive. We love technology because it allows us to be on-call at all times to respond to things. Neither of these, however, are working well for us. Multitasking makes us less efficient at all of the things we’re working on , and being more able to quickly deal with problems leads to more stress
    1. Are you okay with this change?
    2. What is it about this method of working that appeals so strongly to us?
    3. If you think it’s bad, how do we reverse this trend?
  4. Time is a big theme. Technology leads us to expect faster responses to each other. Technology also makes us expect things to develop quickly, whereas many things in real life (relationships in particular) happen incrementally over a long time.
    1. Adolescents today are growing up like this. How do you see this affecting us in the future?
    2. How have you expectations changed about response times with technology?
  5. Being disrupted sounds bad, but really, we love it. We check our email and Facebook obsessively for updates. We love the ping of push notifications like texts and emails, and it’s all instant gratification
    1. It may seem intrinsic to the technology, but products are designed to get us addicted to using it. Do ou think this is good?
    2. How does this change our reward system?
  6. The phone call is dying. These days, we don’t use the phone as much because we’re often not up to the demands of it. Many adolescents love the fact that texts can be carefully constructed, whereas phone calls
  7. because we can’t meet the demands of it. There’s a lot of talk about being able to control things better when it’s done via text, where you can edit your message exactly as you like.
    1. How important is it to you to be able to control the message you present when talking to others?
    2. Do you see phone calls as a lot of pressure?
    3. Is texting more or less efficient than talking?
  8. Another benefit to texting is that it’s asynchronous. Suddenly, we see phone calls as a possible inconvenience to others as we demand their attention immediately, and maybe they’re busy
    1. Before, we mentioned that we like being disrupted, though. How do we resolve this?
    2. Since when did we get so sensitive about bothering others?
  9. PostSecret and communities. The internet is supposed to be our liberation as free flow of information allows us to develop the exact communities that really fit us.
    1. Are these communities good substitutes for what we have in reality?
    2. Turkle seems to believe that these aren’t real communities in that you can run from the bad stuff. Is she right?
    3. What about authenticity in these? Is it okay that a good portion of PostSecret is fake? Or FML?
  10. Technology is supposed to make us feel better. We’re constantly connected so if bad things happen, we have a safety blanket. It also, however, makes us anxious as we’re tied to it
    1. Is this inherent in the design of these things?

About my next computer: insert words in mouth, commence chewing

Since I wrote about how I have been moving to a desktop setup, I have been telling everyone that my next computer would be a Mac Mini. The specs looked good, and it would force me to walk away from my computer instead of lugging my computer around with me. Despite being on the computer more than half the time, I pretend to appreciate reality as well and want to step away from computers as much as possible*.

As of Monday morning, however, I feel as though I can no longer do that. That morning, all of the engineers were following live blogs of the WWDC keynote as they announced the new hardware. We moved on as soon as they moved onto software updates, but we were anxious to hear all about the new hardware. Apple announced a new Macbook Pro, a hybrid between the beefiness of the old Macbook Pro and the slim shape and the Macbook Air. The specs are great for a laptop, the retina display is by all accounts amazing, and it is on its way towards manilla envelope size. I admittedly don’t follow non-Apple hardware much, but I haven’t seen anything with the industrial design of this computer, and the specs are almost a kicker.

The skinny kids who didn’t get picked to play on either team during recess, however, were the Apple desktops, including the Mini. A few months ago, I was certain that the specs on it would last me long enough, but there’s truly no comparison with what the new MBP has. The difference in the specs is significant enough to my gaming experience that I think I need to go back on my commitment and get a portable computer.

It ruins my attempt to prove I’m “better” than a computer, but it is clearly the right choice. Except for price, it has the Mini beat in every respect. Thinking back to when I first got my current MBP, it had the slickest case design and the best specs. And it lasted me 5 years. I would give the same opinion of the new MBP and would certainly hope that it would also last 5 years.

The price will be what it is, but the surprising criticism of the new MBP is that is, in some sense, too well engineered. Kyle Wiens, co-founder of the popular ifixit.com that shows you how to do repairs on your own hardware, describes it as the “least repairable laptop” in this opinion on Wired. Read for yourself for some contrarianism against the hype, but his main point is that Apple sacrificed repairability and upgradeability in literally gluing together the most compact internals ever, and by buying it, we’re supporting a future of light, thin computers with planned obsolescence as the battery slowly drains itself. If you don’t like that, the older MBP design is the way to go.

Most of the comments seem to dismiss this opinion, but I have taken it surprisingly seriously over the past few hours. On the one hand, I haven’t upgraded my MBP. If it were truly modular, I would have, but the graphics card alone is too specialized for me to want to swap parts. And of course, the new MBP is very thin and light. On the other hand, my hacker instincts tell me that I want the flexibility, and it actually has been useful. The battery in my model happened to be defective, and it was a simple exchange at the Genius Bar to get it fixed. And earlier this year when I thought my computer was dying, it was pretty easy to open it up and clean out the fan. Most of the wins of the new design don’t benefit my outlook, either. I have since purchased a 23″ external display that makes the retina display unimportant, and I think my desk can withstand the difference of a pound as my computer hopefully spends most of its time immobile.

At the moment, though, I’m having a hard time resisting the specs of the new MBP. The older design is cheaper, but it might need a few additions to bring it on par with the new specs. As Julie helpfully pointed out as she just saw me on the Apple Store, “[I] don’t need to decide by the end of the blog post.” And in truth, I actually really enjoy thinking about what hardware to buy. After waiting months for the newest revisions, I’m still uncertain.

At this rate, I might as well just savor the prospect of a new computer as long as possible and wait for a new Mac Mini.

*At some point recently, I sarcastically said something like, “Well, the physical world is just a substrate for the virtual world we actually live in.” That might be the scariest, most honest thing I have ever said.

My Google+ Hangout Success Story

This past weekend, 3 friends and I met up to play Dungeons & Dragons in the early morning, mid-afternoon, and late night, in California, Washington, the UK, and Korea. Simultaneously. And we could all see each other and share notes and drawings with each other. Technology just works when we can easily do things we haven’t been able to in years, like meeting up with friends from junior high.

Since we were split across 3 time zones exactly 8 hours apart, one of us is working at literally every hour of the weekdays, with some spill onto the weekends. It took us maybe 4 weeks to schedule our first session, but it was well worth it to get a chance to catch up under the premise of playing Dungeons & Dragons, a game that I will try to sell you on in the next 2 paragraphs.

Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) is improvisation with a few dice rolls as a final arbiter for how things go. The players take the role of adventurers in a fantasy world of swords and magic controlled by the Dungeon Master (or DM). Unlike most tabletop and video games that have rules to dictate what you do, D&D lets you dictate your actions and makes the DM determine how those flesh out in the game. Want to stiff-arm retreating goblin instead of just swinging your sword? Or do you have a 5 minute argument to give the innkeeper about why his fedex quest was a waste of time? Just about anything goes.

Despite its nerdy association, D&D is very social: in this last session, we extensively discussed a battle plan that was obviously (and hilariously) flawed as soon as we began fighting, I described how my character was pretending to play dead to get a jump on a hobgoblin (which also didn’t work when I failed to roll well enough to bluff the enemy), and we interrogated a rescued hobbit about his plans. Like any good game should, it encourages interaction between players.

Being able communicate in speech and gestures, share documents with character details, and draw out various rooms is critical for D&D, and in truth, nothing beats sitting around a kitchen table. Even so, a Google+ Hangout was about as close as you can get without being physically present. Group video chat let us all look at each while talking and brought back the surprisingly important gesturing to conversation. While waiting for our last player, we watched a YouTube video together of the promise of custom games in StarCraft 2. The chat window let our DM copy-and-paste in written descriptions of the scenario, as well as being used as a log of in-game events. We shared Google Docs describing our various abilities (and also used an online character sheet I wrote to keep track of our stats. Check out my character!). The sketchpad took the place of the game board as we drew a grid and placed ourselves on various parts. And we even had a few laughs over the mustache and hat effects.

I have admittedly been somewhat fearful about Google’s integration of everything into their platform. With my email alone, they basically control me, but when they know what information I’m looking for (search history), where I’m going (google maps), what I’m working on (google docs), and more, I’m concerned about how much they know about me. At the moment, I’m not even using Google Chrome (which I admit is all-around the best browser) as my primary browser because I’m scared of the vertical integration of products in addition to the horizontal integration they already have.

But integration isn’t entirely to be feared. Google+ Hangouts are awesome because Google glued a lot of good features together in a single product. We spent surprisingly little time fighting with technology to make things work, and our game just went smoother as we discovered more features to use. At this point, this post likely sounds like an advertisement, but I’m just really excited about how well it work, so let me round out this post.

I’m very cynical about a lot of technology. Despite how “social” we’re being pitched that technology like facebook or mobile phones are, I think that these communities built on a virtual substrate are making us more disconnected than ever. I’ve been taught about the importance of physical embodiment in the world, and I worry tremendously that we’re replacing meaningful interactions with impersonal bursts, 140 characters at a time.

But this time, technology worked. When my friends and I are spread across 3 continents, it is impossible for us to get together for a quick check-in, much less playing a game. With this, however, we were instantly back to joking around and sharing the latest news with each other. I’m still anxious for the opportunity for us to all be in the same room again, but until then, I’m glad we have another way of hanging out  like we were.

Purchasing the Right Mouse

Low motivation to do schoolwork and being caught up in work caused me to spend an hour and a half of researching about computer mice this evening*. The result is a feeling of satisfaction, decent knowledge of mice, and 3 notifications on slickdeals for mice that I will instantly buy.

Like most things I do, I simmered on the idea of buying a mouse for a few weeks as I found more and more reasons to do something about it. My current mouse is a Logitech MX700, an apparently decade-old piece of hardware that I’ve used for just over half that time. I got it as a peripheral to a computer I was supposed to fix up and reallocate, and it was a great change. Previously, I had used a cheap, dependable Microsoft optical mouse without any particular concern about how it felt. This mouse, however, felt much better: it was larger to fit my hand better, it had a thumb indentation for better grip, it was much heavier, and overall, it was just much more comfortable to use. I’m using it for this post right now, and it still feels good.

But I also use a Logitech Performance Mouse MX at the office, and it’s also awesome. Found in a random pile of peripherals, its shape has the same indentation and feel that I like about this mouse, but it’s better in other ways, too. I thought I liked the heft of my MX700, but it turns out that the much lighter Performance Mouse also works: the size was more important. According to Razer, I’m a palm grip guy, and I like tall mice that fit into my palm. And while I have to charge my mouse every few days, I used the Performance Mouse on low battery for 6 months. And it also doesn’t have a huge dock/receiver, like my MX700. So given how many hours a day I use my mouse, it’s time to upgrade.

It’s honestly been awhile since I’ve needed to do serious shopping research. I’ve been contemplating my next computer setup, but since I’m a Mac user, there are actually very few choices, and the deciding factors are larger usage questions. In looking at mice, there are tons of small questions: optical or laser? Wired or wireless? How many DPI? What about the shape? Ultimately, most of these choices aren’t going to matter too much to me, and as overwhelming as it seemed, I think I’ve figured it out in about an hour.

My primary concern is to get a comfortable mouse. First, it should be a full-sized (not a mobile/compact) mouse. Second, it should be shaped for my hand, which would include a mouse indentation. Finally, it shouldn’t be light, as I have developed a preference for slightly heavier mice. Oddly, I discovered that this meant that I need to look at gaming mice. Nowadays, the best computer peripherals are gaming devices, and although I certainly do get my game on, I primarily want a good mouse for daily use. I’m already an emacs user who will develop carpal tunnel from how I need to use the keyboard anyways, so I might as well be as comfortable as possible with my mouse. So, all the details about DPI and extra random buttons weren’t particularly important.

Research went relatively quickly. I had previously accumulated a few links from random browsing, so I put all of those into a spreadsheet. In total, I had 11 mice with some basic spec and price points. From there, I used Google product search to find reviews for each and sorted them according to my preferences given all details. This narrowed me down to a list of 3 mice that seemed roughly equivalent and worth buying: the Logitech G400, the Razer DeathAdder, and the Logitech G500. All of them appear to have roughly the shape I want, aren’t too expensive when on-sale ($30 or $40), and are well-reviewed. At that point, I googled direct comparisons between them, which yielded a ton of forum threads on exactly this choice. As I figured, the preferences there were a wash as various people spoke up for personal preferences and mentioned their own particular malfunctions with each device.

I think this is where I call it a draw and let price and chance decide for me. I have deal notifications on slickdeals setup for each mouse, and when a good deal comes up on any of them, I’ll be upgrading. Sadly, I saw the G500 come and go less than a week ago while I was still deliberating whether to researching buying a nice mouse or not.

Anyways, that’s about it. This post ended up being a lot drier than I was shooting for, but that’s okay. I have 2 takeaways from the experience, which you might consider as well.  First, a lot of shopping research is really easy nowadays. The number of choices and unimportance of most of them can be overwhelming, but a combination of a well-deliberated system and a ton of opinions from others got me through the process in almost no time.

Second, it’s worth thinking about computer and desk peripherals if you spend as much time at a computer as I do. At the beginning of college, my desk was my Macbook Pro 15-inch screen, its built-in keyboard, and my MX700. Now, I’m on a 23-inch LCD screen and an external keyboard, looking to buy a new mouse, and more comfortable than I’ve ever been before. So if you haven’t thought about your mouse much until reading this post, I recommend it. Even if it makes you feel like a tool or a nerd, I recommend looking at the Razer Gaming Mouse Advisor, which can help you think through what you should look for in a mouse.

Or if you can wait, there will be a Logitech MX700 coming onto the market as soon as one of my deal alerts fires. It’s in fine condition, will come with rechargeable batteries, and may be more comfortable than any mouse you’ve ever used before. There might even be a blog-reader’s discount.

* not actually written this evening. I backlog and space out my blog posts nowadays. As of this evening, I have already bought the G400. Anyone want a MX700?

How to Be a Secure Computer User (Within the Bounds of Convenience)

It’s an old paradox to wonder why there are any doctors that smoke. It’s somewhat hypocritical, but mostly just confusing that the people who know the most about the effects of smoking should partake in it as well. I would like to say that I know better, but until a few days ago, I didn’t. Until then, my passwords for computer accounts and online services were all stored in plain text in a GMail draft. Were you to know that you could find it there, it would be very easy to steal all of them.

Using computers securely is a big battle for experts and users, and the best practices really depend from person to person. Every person needs to decide what their tradeoff between security and convenience is. On the completely secure side, one can remember long, random, unique strings of characters for every account. This, however, is extremely inconvenient to remember. On the completely convenient side, one can use “password” for every password. This, however, is extremely easy for hackers to break. Everyone’s practices lies somewhere in-between, using known methods and a little bit of personal construction.

That personal construction, however, is where we really get ourselves into trouble. Security is very hard, and most methods of compromising aren’t good. For example, I know that I should have long, unique, hard-to-guess passwords for everything. Because I couldn’t remember that, I decided it would be okay to record them in an easily accessible place for me. Unfortunately, that happened to be a really awful practice.

Most people aren’t security experts and don’t know the best way to use computers securely. Given that, I think that a lot of bad practices can be rooted out with a quick 2 question quiz:

  1. If a hacker knew where you store your passwords, could they guess your passwords easily?
  2. If a hacker knew a subset (none, one, a few) of your passwords, could they guess any of your other passwords easily?

The first question mostly deals with people securing their passwords by obscurity. This is mostly how my old system worked, and it’s a bad idea. The United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) thinks it’s a bad idea. It’s unlikely that you’ll come up with a method on your own that no one else has thought of, and if you’re borrowing someone else’s system, you’re already screwed. And even if you hide things, they can be found easily.

The second question deals with bad security design. In a world where you create passwords for many different services, some of which are well-built and some of which aren’t, it’s not hard to imagine that one of your passwords might be leaked to a hacker. That itself is somewhat unavoidable. If knowing that password, however, allows them to determine the rest of your passwords (either as a straight copy or by design), you’re in trouble.

Let me walk through a few common methods I’ve heard from friends recently (and a few trivial examples) and point out the possible problems with each of them:

  1. Use “password” for all passwords. This password is very common and not hard to guess. By question 2, a hacker could guess your password knowing a subset of size 0 of all of your passwords. This is an awful idea, as you can imagine.
  2. Use a small set (maybe 3) of passwords for everything. This is also a problem for question 2. If a hacker gets 1 of your passwords, they can now guess 1/3 of your accounts fairly easily.
  3. Store passwords in a (unencrypted) document on your computer. Even if you name it something other than “passwords.txt”, it’s not hard for a hacker who gets read access to your computer to find the file and copy it. At that point, this method fails on question 1.
  4. Start with a base password and modify it slightly for each service. For example, Google might be “abc123GoogleRocks” and Facebook might be “abc123FacebookSucks”. This ensures that each password is unique and somewhat long. Unfortunately, this is still a problem for question 2 because other passwords are deducible from a single password. In the example above, even though “Rocks” and “Sucks” are different suffixes that you can remember, it’s still a systematic method that doesn’t ultimately leave that many possibilities.

As you might have guessed, some of the above are better than others, but assuming you’re okay with the level of security each will give you, they’re all fine if they work for you. You should just be aware of the risks associated with it.

Given all this talk, I need to support my claims, so my new method is using a password manager (specifically, 1Password). Essentially, I have a single master password for an encrypted database that stores all of my other passwords. With that, I only need to type in my master password, copy the specific account password into the box (or use the auto-fill feature), then lock my manager again. Like other methods that aren’t memorized, random, long, unique strings, it’s not perfectly secure, but it’s good.

It isn’t susceptible to the flaw of question 1. Because the database is encrypted (using tested methods), it is presumed to be secure*, so even though I have announced that I’m using 1Password and the file is not hidden on my computer, a hacker shouldn’t be able to get my passwords without knowing my master password. Question 2 is a problem: if a hacker knows my master password, my world is open to them. Otherwise, my passwords can be arbitrarily complex.

The caveat to all this is that I trust that the creators of the password manager are honest people using secure methods of security. If they’re sending all of my passwords out to their secret server, of if they screwed up the implementation of some security protocol, I’m in trouble. But that’s the line I draw for myself between convenience and security: I believe that my master password cannot be guessed and that 1Password is honest and secure, and this is the furthest I’m willing to go to be secure.

So maybe a password manager is a solution for you, or maybe it isn’t. I just wanted to write about it since I had thought about it so much recently and think it’s worth it for everyone to evaluate the ways that they are being secure. Again, it’s a tradeoff between convenience and security. Just be aware and comfortable with the consequences of your method, keeping in mind these 2 questions:

  1. If a hacker knew where you store your passwords, could they guess your passwords easily?
  2. If a hacker knew a subset (none, one, a few) of your passwords, could they guess any of your other passwords easily?

* I say presumed because even security experts don’t know if any construction is completely secure, but it’s the best that anyone knows. The limit of that is whether P=NP, for the CS literate among you, so it’s pretty certain.