The Google-free option

Zen Habits has a fresh post up on becoming Google-free. It’s a pretty good look at the key resources that Google provides—Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Picasa, etc.—and for each one provides Leo’s choice for a replacement, along with mentioning a few other alternatives.

On the one hand, this is just the sort of thing I’m a bit too prone to worry about. For me, security, privacy, and reliability are right up there with functionality. On the other hand, it had scarcely crossed my mind that I’m so reliant on Google that becoming Google-free was an important issue. So, seeing Leo’s article prompted me to give it some thought.

To me, the more fundamental issue is choosing to keep your data on your own hardware or to keep it in the cloud.

It used to be that the cloud was a loser on all four issues (security, privacy, reliability, functionality). In just the past few years, the cloud has made great strides in the latter two. I haven’t seen a careful analysis, but my sense now is that the cloud is about as reliable as your own hardware, albeit with different failure modes (less chance of a bad disk drive losing a bunch of data, more chance of the provider deprecating the tool or simply going bust). Functionality is a different kind of question—all you care about is whether the tool provides the functionality you need—but my sense again is that tools like Google Docs do fine at providing the most important functionality.

On issues of security and privacy, though, it seems to me that the cloud can never win. Well, maybe in one narrow sense: Servers in the cloud can be professionally managed with security in mind, so there’s a better chance that security patches will be applied promptly and less chance that they’ll be configured in an insecure way out of carelessness or ignorance. Except for that, though, all the cloud can offer is an unenforceable promise of security and privacy—and it rarely offers even that.

Because of that, I’ve always ended up choosing to keep mission-critical work on my own hardware. I use various cloud services, but they’re all in some way either publishing or else secondary.

Where what I’m doing is publishing (such as this blog, my account on Flickrmy account on Twitter, and so on), the privacy issues are moot—I’m explicitly making the stuff public. I still care about security, but my security interests are closely aligned with the provider’s security interests, so I feel reasonably comfortable relying on the provider to get security right.

All my uses of cloud-provided tools are non-critical. I have a Gmail account, but it’s a backup account for use when my main email account is unavailable for some reason. I have a Google Docs account, but I only use it occasionally to view a Word document or make a graph with the spreadsheet facility. I don’t use Google Calendar (I use iCal). The one Google tool that I’d really miss if it disappeared is Google Reader which I use every day, but even losing that wouldn’t be a catastrophe. I could go back to reading blogs on the websites themselves (!) until I picked out a new RSS feed reader. My latest backup of my subscriptions was really old (I just now grabbed a current one), but I’d be able to recreate the important ones easily enough.

The upshot is that going Google-free seems to be a non-issue to me. I could do it in five minutes and scarcely feel the loss. I’m glad to have been prompted to think about it, though.

First run of the season

Milky Slough, originally uploaded by bradipo.

I went out for my first run of the season today. I ran about 1.5 miles in 20:36. That’s not very far and it’s pretty slow, but it’s still a good sign, because I could run for over 20 minutes. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to, because I’d been pretty sedentary this winter. It speaks well of Taiji as exercise, because it’s been about the only exercise I’ve gotten. I know from experience that once I can run for 20 minutes, it’s pretty easy to build up some endurance, so I’m starting from a good point this year.

I did my usual short run around Kaufman Lake, and noticed this scary looking white stuff flowing down Copper Slough. (Maybe it was just some sort of white scum floating on top of the water. I couldn’t tell.) It was weird enough that I felt compelled to walk back and get a picture, although the picture I managed to get fails to capture the terrible wrongness of the fluid flowing in that ditch.

Creative Commons License
Milky Slough by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Heinlein’s Rule Two: Finish What You Start?

I’ve never had a problem with Henlein’s rule one for writers (you must write). I enjoy the writing. I enjoy other stuff too, and want to be sure to get in my reading and exercise and Esperanto and playing of StarCraft, but of all the stages in writing a story, the step I most enjoy is putting the words down. So, I do write, and with enthusiasm.

On the topic of rule two, however, I go back and forth.

I certainly see that you can’t make a career (or even a sale) out of unfinished stories. But I’ve gradually come to see that many of my unfinished stories aren’t really stories at all—they’re just a cool character or a cool situation or a cool idea.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “finish” these non-stories. Years of experience shows that I can fool myself for a long time that these particular cool characters, situations, and ideas add up to a story. But the result is days or weeks spent generating prose that never adds up to a story.

I think a much better version of rule two for me is “Finish the stories you start, but ruthless abandon any project as soon as you realize it isn’t a story.”

I could finish two or three stories in the time it takes me to “finish” a non-story.

Mentioned by Doctor Oz

Two of my Wise Bread posts, The Ethics of Hoarding and Healthy, Frugal Eating, got very kind mentions in the Doctor Oz blog:

Wow. Just a stellar post… Philip Brewer strikes again with a straightforward, no-bull piece on why we gotta suck it up and stop eating expensive crap. Stern, but informative!

I find it surprisingly difficult to extract quotes like that—it seems too much like bragging. I guess that’s why it’s useful to have a publicist.

Mentioned on Planet Green

My Wise Bread post Have Style, Not a Lifestyle was featured on the Discovery Channel’s Planet Green.

Here’s the gist of what I had to say:

The key to resisting the Diderot effect is to have style. Not just any old style, but a particular style. Something nicer than everything else you own isn’t in keeping with your style and that makes it easier to resist: It’s just not you.

Check out the Planet Green’s Watch Out For the Diderot Effect which includes a link to a translation of Diderot’s famous essay.

Seasons

One convenience of living in Central Illinois is that the astronomical seasons and the meteorological seasons line up pretty well—you can reasonably expect spring weather along about the third week of March.

Just now, though, the equinox is still a full month off and the weather is wintery. It’s been weeks since we’ve seen the temperature manage to make it above freezing. But today it is forecast to do just that. It won’t be for long, certainly not long enough to melt much snow, but any melted snow has to be counted a plus right now.

I’m ready to get back to running and bicycling, but not quite ready enough to run or ride over the ice and snow. But, in Central Illinois, I can look at the calendar and have good reason to hope that the sidewalks and road shoulders will be soon be clear.

Avdi has it right: Give your kids high standards

This is exactly right:

Subjecting children to daily unpleasantness – in the form of arbitrary rules, dysfunctional socialization, scholastic regimentation, age-segregation, teasing, bullying, verbal abuse, or what have you – in the name of acclimatization to the “real world” simply lowers their standards for the life they will accept.

via The Lazy Faire » Blog Archive » It’s OK to give your kids high standards

The idea that parents should stand aside from protecting their kids—or even go so far as to deliberately do things that are cruel or capricious—to make sure that children learn the various lessons that add up to understanding that “life is tough” or “life isn’t fair” is an insane one. No child, no matter how coddled or protected, is going to fail to confront the sorts of problems that drive those lessons home.

I’ve written on the same topic.  In particular, in Find Work Worth Doing, where I criticize mock work (such as most school work) and go on to say:

I think parents also do their kids no favors when they encourage them to take low-skill, part-time jobs to earn pocket money.  (Sometimes they do so with the explicit motivation that it will teach their kids the value of work!)  Kids will be far ahead of the game if they’re taught how to identify work that’s worth doing, and how to find a job doing that work.

Protecting a child from the hard knocks of life will not prevent your child from learning the truth about the real world. Nothing can.

Amazon, cross-subsidies, and supply chain management

Jay Lake gently suggests that just waving your hands and saying “Cross-subsidy” is not a complete answer to the notion of what Amazon thinks its doing, and that’s a fair point. I think Amazon’s real objectives have a lot to do with controlling the marketplace. By selling ebooks below cost they do several things at once; in particular, they make it expensive for anyone else to enter the ebook market for new bestsellers.

If they can establish the one true price for the ebook edition of a new hardback, and keep other booksellers out of the market by selling the books at a loss, they’ll soon be in a position to dictate terms to the publishers in the same way that big-box retailers dictate terms to their suppliers in other markets. (Clearly they were supposing that they were already in that position, else I don’t think the “disappearing buy button” fiasco would have happened. Fortunately, it looks like Amazon pushed too hard too early.)

I think the result of an Amazon victory would have been very similar to what we have seen in the big-box stores over the past few years: Consumers would enjoy low(ish) prices while suppliers would see ever-increasing pressures on their profits. (I’m seeing the publishers as suppliers here, although the profit pressure would pretty quickly flow on to authors as well.) Choice would decline as profit pressures forced all but the lowest-cost suppliers out of business.

So, I’m glad that seems to have been headed off, at last for the moment.

Having said all that, though, I think the cross-subsidy analysis is also correct. I think Gillette made its own razors to give away, but it wouldn’t have needed to. Nowadays it would surely outsource razor manufacture, but that wouldn’t be necessary either. It could just as easily announce that it would sell any razor that matched the specs for its blades, and then sell them for less than it paid its suppliers. (In fact, that might be a perfectly viable business model. Surely some shavers would go for a cool-looking limited-edition art razor and accept the resulting lock-in to Gillette blades, as long as the razor wasn’t too expensive.)