This Ask Metafilter thread about some recent changes to Google’s search results has me thinking about a post I wrote six years ago. I moved away from Google for email, search, and document creation, and I offered suggestions on how you might make a similar move. At the time I recommended using DuckDuckGo, something I still recommend, but not always as enthusiastically as I have in the past.
There’s a simple reason for that: after almost six years of nearly daily use both at home and in the workplace, I still find myself using Google as a fallback search engine1, primarily because of how I use search engines. When I turn to a search engine, I’m primarily trying to answer a question or choose between the best options for a product I’m interested in buying. The kinds of results that these two search companies produce can be very different, and I’m not just talking about how Google (now) includes favicons in search results. Let’s take a look at a few screenshots.
In this search, I was trying to learn about the differences between acrylic gouache and regular gouache, and Google delivered the results right away. It even provided featured links to websites for additional information in an accordion beneath the most relevant search result.
DuckDuckGo returned a search result that wasn’t relevant to my question even as it offered a direct link to the specific question I asked. The answer I needed was second in the list, which may seem like a small thing. Over time, not having the most relevant result presented first adds up and leads to a general dissatisfaction with their results, hence my reliance on Google as a fallback search.
I asked folks on Twitter what the balance was between privacy and convenience, and while I didn’t get a direct answer to that question, one user told me that they switched back to Google because of DuckDuckGo’s unreliable/unrelated search results.
“DuckDuckGo has mysteriously gotten worse for image searches for me. Seems like it declined about 3-4 months ago”, they told me. Another Twitter follower said that they’d noticed a similar decline in quality.
I don’t know what’s going on over at DuckDuckGo, but I hope whatever it is they’re able to right things very quickly. I think it’s important for consumers to have options when it comes to search results, particularly if a search engine company is dedicated to returning results to lesser-known sites that still provide useful information. Until then, I’ll begrudgingly continue to use Google (in private browsing mode) as a secondary search engine.
I always open a private browsing session to do this ’cause I still don’t trust Google. ↩
The week is over, I have a four day weekend, and it’s unseasonably chilly in Vancouver. The roller coaster that was this week was full of peaks, valleys, and loop-de-loops, but at this particular moment, it feels good. Onward.
VALA 2020 Keynote Speakers – I’m pleased to announce that I’m one of six keynote speakers at the VALA – Libraries, Technology and the Future Conference that will take place in Melbourne, Australia in February 2020.
Anthony Ramos (Hamilton, She’s Gotta Have It) shared the official lyric video of Cry Today, Smile Tomorrow, the (incredibly moving) song he performed during season two of She’s Gotta Have It.
Apple’s Memoji Makeup Tutorial, featuring Patrick Starr and Desi Perkins. Initially, I hated this video, but the more I watch it, the cuter I think it is. I especially love that they worked in Patrick’s head wrap.
If you follow me on Twitter1, you saw as I opined about career precarity in Gen X librarians, talked about how I managed to improve my credit score over the last 5 years and went on and on about how Phil Collins’ ubiquity in the 80s gave us some of the most memorable pop and rock music of all time.
My account is currently locked, but I review new follower requests carefully at least once a week. ↩
“It’s been years since I’ve blogged regularly. Let’s see if I start again now. (I might. It’s a good warm-up for writing and I’m looking forward to being a writer again.)” @neilhimself
I am trying the same, a regular blogging practice, which in hopes will get me writing daily.
It’s been almost two years since I’ve written anything in this space, but thanks to a tweet from my friend Jen Hanen (and okay, also some words from Neil Gaiman) I thought I’d give this another try. I attempted a newsletter but for whatever reason it never stuck. I don’t like the idea of writing on a set schedule, especially if I’m not being paid for it. I suppose I don’t think the flexing of my own spongy intellectual muscles is enough of a reason to keep up a writing habit, which if you want to get all deep about it, is a sign of my mental health and feelings of self-worth in general.
Yesterday on my way home from work, I passed an apartment building where someone had soaped a message onto their window. “This is a lonely place without friends,” the message read and it would have stopped me in my tracks had I not been in traffic. It made me wonder how much pain a person had to be in to go to such lengths to write this message on their window, in reverse no less, so that other people would see it. Vancouver can be a very lonely and isolating place, and yet I’m still here, still trying to reach out, still trying to make friends. I’m making more of an effort to see people than I have in the past, and that feels good. It’s almost like I’m rounding a corner or something.
Here are a few things I’ve read/listened to lately and enjoyed:
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor. This novel is about a shapeshifting queer person and is set in the 90s, so it made my grunge queen heart go pitter-pat. The idea of being able to shift your shape at will is an interesting conceit, as it provides Paul/Polly with access to spaces that are usually segregated by gender. (Amazon | Powell’s | Audible | Public Library)
This space has been very quiet for a while now. I make no apologies for that as I often go through periods where I don’t write anything for months. A few weeks ago, I decided to try deleting all entries that were published before 2011, but instead I managed to delete all of my entries from 2016 instead. Since I don’t have backups, why not try to create some new content instead?
I work in a scent-light workplace, so I try to be conscious of wearing heavily perfumed grooming products. This morning it couldn’t be helped because I was out of my usual hair gunk and had to use Oyin Handmade Burnt Sugar Pomade on my hair.
A guy who works in IT got on the elevator and remarked “It smells like maple fudge in here.” I pointed to my head and sheepishly apologized. “No, it smells good. Can I lick your head?”
Realize that you are your own solution. You have what you need to look clearly; to hear and to heal. Anxiety is a message born within you, speaking to you through you, and therefore it’s within you to heal.
I’ll need to keep this in mind over the next few months. Thanks, Tiny Buddha.
The WNBA’s Glory Johnson and Brittney Griner were arrested on charges of assault and disorderly conduct. Both Johnson and Griner have since been released. A few media outlets were quick to paint this as an intimate partner violence situation, which feels inexact for a number of reasons. First: BG and GloJo are physical equals. sure, BG is taller, but on the surface, it’s hard to imagine the unequal power relations that are a frequent indicator of spousal/partner abuse being at play in this relationship.
Second: there’s a spectre of “butch-as-aggressor” framing going on in the media. Many articles only mention BG in the headline, a construction that elides Johnson’s involvement. You see BG’s mugshot more than you see Glory Johnson’s. While it’s true that Griner has the higher profile, it seems to me that BG is being given the perpetrator edit.
Autostraddle is one of the few media outlets to refrain from using mugshots in their coverage, and as far as I know, they’re the only publication that included Johnson’s name in the headline. Their reporting has been fair and nuanced, which I’m ashamed to say, wasn’t something I expected to see on Autostraddle. Kaelyn, the author of the Autostraddle piece, sounded off in the comments about assumptions people were making about the nature of the Griner/Johnson relationship, and her comment showed the kind of sensitivity and thoughtfulness you wish all media would display1.
This is a difficult issue, and my status as the ultimate Griner stan may make you take this opinion with a grain of salt, which is only fitting, considering I wasn’t there when the incident happened. I had such high hopes for this couple, and I hope they’re able to get whatever help they need to make it through this situation.
Thanks to everyone who has signed up for The Librarian Cabal. I started the channel so library folk would have a safe, open place to talk about All Things Library without fear of recrimination. The Cabal has a Code of Conduct in place, and I hope everyone will honor the spirit and the letter of the CoC. It’ll probably be a little tough to enforce. I’m committed to try, because like Anil Dash said, “If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault.”
Additional thanks to everyone who shared or commented on my Bridging the Experience Gap article. I think some great things will come out of the conversations that sprang up, including a tweet chat, and possibly a mailing list (if I can find an alternative to Google groups, that is). I’m not sure how to move on as an interest group/sub-group of a national library association when many of the people who replied are outside of the United States, so if you have any ideas about how to make that work, I’m happy to listen.
I’m contemplating moving away from Jekyll and back to WordPress to power this site. Jekyll is powerful, and learning to work with it has increased my comfort and familiarity with Ruby programming. But to tell the truth, there are times that I really miss a web-based CMS, or one that comes equipped with a robust mobile app that supports blogging from anywhere. I’ve been slowly moving some posts over to a WordPress site I’ve kept around for just such an occasion, but I probably won’t flip the switch for a few weeks yet. I’d like the switch to be as seamless as possible, so I’m taking some time to reformat entries and ensure that URLs stay the same between the two platforms.
It was also the first time I’d heard the term “common couple violence”, so additional kudos to AS for teaching me something new today. ↩
Lately I’ve been thinking about the degree to which I’m willing to turn over my private data to web service companies. I’ve also been thinking about privacy in general, and while Canadian laws tend to protect consumer privacy to a greater degree than in the United States, I’ve concluded that I’m no longer happy using services where my private communications can be mined, sold, re-used, or thrown away when the service reaches the end of its life. That’s why I decided I would stop using Google for email and search.
I started this process a couple of weeks ago by drawing up a list of features I couldn’t do without. Those features had to be comparable to Google to make this effort worthwhile; regardless of my privacy concerns, if moving was a hassle or if I felt I had to compromise on services or ease of use, there wouldn’t be much point in making a change. The features I considered were:
Calendar syncing across all devices
A fast, responsive web interface
IMAP syncing across devices
Two-factor authentication or app passwords
Excellent archiving tools
Excellent spam detection
Respect user privacy (namely mine!)
Doesn’t save search history
Servers outside of the US
Eventually, this list led me to choose Fastmail for email and calendars, and DuckDuckGo for search.
Switching email providers is more complicated than switching search engines. If you depend heavily on email making the decision to switch isn’t one you can make lightly. We (have to) use Outlook at work, so I don’t have a choice of platform for corporate communication, but for everything else I used Gmail for the last seven years. Google’s decision to shutter Reader was a serious blow, and that provided the push I needed to investigate other options. When companies provide services for free, its easier for them to decide to “sundown” those services (hi, Posterous!). I didn’t want to find myself in a similar situation with email.
Fastmail provides everything I was looking for in an email provider. Their web interface is sparse and uncluttered, but options are clearly labeled, which helps with recognition. Fastmail’s web interface even recognizes Gmail shortcuts, something I really only use to reply and compose messages, but shortcuts that are handy nonetheless.
Fastmail’s headquarters are in Australia, but they have servers in the United States. As an Australian company, they’re only subject to Australian law and are only required to turn over identifying information to Australian authorities. If you’re concerned about the NSA program to search every email that leaves or comes into the United States, Fastmail provides a bit of a safety net. Even though their servers are in the US, Fastmail maintains that while it’s possible the United States could convince Australian authorities to comply with surveillance attempts, it would be highly unlikely.
Fastmail has a variety of plans, ranging from a $10/year light plan that provides 250MB email storage, to a $120/year premier plan that gives you 60GB email storage, mail and calendar sync, the ability to use your own domain, and priority support. I opted for the $40/year enhanced plan that comes with 15GB of email storage, mail and calendar sync, and the use of my own domain. If you’d like to try the service, Fastmail provides a free 60-day trial at the enhanced level. All of Fastmail’s plans are ad-free.
Mail Setup and Migration
I wanted to see how well I liked the service before shutting down my Gmail account entirely, so I created a personality (what Fastmail calls accounts) that would let me send mail from Fastmail, but have it appear like it comes from my Gmail address. In the two weeks since switching to Fastmail, I hadn’t experienced any problems with this setup until a couple of days ago, when mail sent via Gmail started bouncing back as undeliverable. After trying — and failing — to get a response from Fastmail via Twitter, I quick web search turned up an easy solution that only required toggling a switch in my settings. So far, so good.
Migrating mail from one service to another can be a challenge, particularly if you have to rely on proprietary import/export mailbox formats. Fortunately, Fastmail makes migration painless; all I had to do was enter my Gmail user name, password, and server settings, and their migration script moved 15,000 messages in just under four minutes. I opted to import my mail using the same mailbox structure I used in Gmail, but you can choose to import the messages directly into your Fastmail inbox, if you prefer.
Spam hasn’t been an issue since moving from Google to Fastmail. I haven’t received a single piece of spam since switching. Not one. I still can’t quite believe it.
Fastmail provides fast, dependable email service. They won’t mine your messages so they can serve targeted advertising, they promise to protect your privacy, and the service makes migration, managing multiple accounts, and setting up mail for your domain easy. Documentation is plentiful and easy to understand although support could be more responsive. Because you pay them to manage your mail, it’s in their interest to offer a secure, seamless, and reliable experience, and I believe they’ve done that.
I’m a librarian who would rather enter terms into a simplified search box and retrieve “good enough” results for my personal use instead of using the library’s (excellent and vast) collection of resources. Convenience is important to me, and despite my search skills, if I can use a simple search and near-natural language to return a list of serviceable results, I’ll reach for a search engine over a database nine out of ten times.
The results from DuckDuckGo are for the most part useful, and in the two weeks since I’ve used it as my primary search engine, I’ve been pleased with the results. It’s taught me a couple of things: (1) Google’s search history and tracking shaped my expectations around the relevance of search results more than I previously thought, and (2) I’m willing to trade increased relevancy for results that are free of spam and advertising.
DuckDuckGo provides instant answers, maps, image searching, and integration with Wolfram Alpha. If you type weather into DuckDuckGo, the search engine will retrieve a five-day forecast for your location (I use this more than you might think, especially during a heat wave). If your search term has a related Wikipedia entry, DuckDuckGo shows the results at the very top of the list and provides a list of links to related entries.
DuckDuckGo is a fraction of the size of Google, and as a small team they can’t rely on a large team of engineers to build their search engine. Instead, the company uses their own web crawler to create an index based on hundreds of sources. It’s a comparable Google alternative and its principled stand on privacy pushes it to the top of the list as the search engine I’d most likely recommend to patrons…if I still had a job where I interacted with patrons.
Unlike switching email services, changing search engines will cost you nothing in terms of productivity. If you’re unconvinced, try DuckDuckGo for a week and draw your own conclusions.
Over the next little while, I’ll try using Fastmail’s calendar as a replacement for Google Calendar, and I’ll look into finding a replacement for Google Drive and Google Hangouts. I take part in a few distributed committees that depend on Drive and Hangouts, and while I don’t feel hindered by this, I am reluctant to use any other email address with Google’s services. The team I manage uses Google Hangouts/Google Talk for communication, and I don’t want to be the kind of manager that foists change upon them for no reason other than my discomfort.
If you’re looking to switch services, start with something simple like switching search engines. I recognize that deciding to switch from a free email service to paid email hosting isn’t a decision that everyone can make lightly. However, if you care about your privacy, I wouldn’t recommend switching from one free email service to another. If you are using free services to send sensitive information of any sort, you’re granting these services permission to use your information in any way they see fit, from serving advertisements to cooperating with forced surveillance demands from government agencies. Weigh the benefits of convenience against privacy.
Lastly, If you’re a library worker, consider changing the default search engine on public workstations to DuckDuckGo instead of Google, Yahoo! or Bing. When teaching patrons how to sign up for email accounts, consider adding information about privacy and managing your digital footprint to the course syllabus, and help your patrons understand how to make more informed decisions about who to trust with their communications.