Tag Archives: facebook

The Facehole, and the hoarding world

Two things happened to me of late: my Facebook account got messed up, and I helped a friend with the prep for a hoarders’ estate sale.

The Facebook thing seemed like a bug. The system demanded I add a cell phone to my account, something I resist because in the first place go to hell, in the second because I don’t want my phone number in such a hackable place, and in the third because I don’t ever desire to have to rely upon Verizon’s text messaging to permit me to log in. I couldn’t bypass it, so I tried–and FB wouldn’t take my verification code. It behaved as though I had entered nothing. Eventually it threatened to punish me if I didn’t “slow down,” a warning that persisted even when I hadn’t tried it for nearly a day. In an abundance of caution, I took a guess my account had been hacked; I changed my password and clicked on some link to alert Facebook.

I vanished from my friends’ view. For all they could know, I’d blocked and defriended them. In the world of Facebook, I’d been grabbed by the hacks and thrown into the hole.

Facebook did not respond to a single email.

In the meantime, I kept trying. Once a day, I’d retry the login process. I also kept feeding more focused search strings into a search engine. I tried from three different browsers. Some of my friends e-mailed me; my wife notified as many as she could of my situation, and some helped by passing it on.

Facebook didn’t fix it; searching did. I finally turned up a slight FB variant site mentioned on a message board in direct connection with fixing my exact problem. It looked a bit different, so I knew I might have reason to expect a different result. Indeed so: I was back in.

Some have speculated that my criticisms of FB had come back to haunt me. I thought it far likelier that FB had declared war on people who used a number of effective ad blockers, but I didn’t put anything past them. There have been people who have, for no discernible reason, found themselves permabanned from FB with no right of appeal. By far the most disturbing aspect for me was the concern that I would lose touch with people, especially older people whose technophobia might lead them to jump to the conclusion that I had blocked them. How do you explain to all of six hundred FB friends what happened? Oh, sure, when you get back on, you can post, but some of the most technophobic will have hmphed and gone on their ways. I didn’t like not being in touch, and it’s fair to say that I value FB more than I once did.

After a few days I got used to its absence, but I did miss a lot of people. For many, it was the only way to get in touch with me. In time I’m sure I’ll find that I lost a few elderly game-related friends and referral friends (“omg you and this person should link up, you would love each other”), and I’ll get a PM or two asking me why I blocked them, then unblocked them, and how was I able to refriend them without them knowing it. I won’t try explaining. I’ll just tell them it looks to have been a bug.

One thing that happened while I was in the Facehole was that I got a visit from one of my oldest friends, an antique dealer who was in town for the Portland show and then had to begin work on the estate sale for a hoarder house. Being a little short on honest casual labor manpower in this area, my friend hired me to help him begin the shoveling process.

Hoarding is a frightening thing. In this case, both homeowners are now in assisted living and their descendants are managing their affairs. It took a lot of work just to clear paths through the home, which had been done before I got involved. The guy was a sort of Gyro Gearloose, and my friend assigned me to battle my way to the basement’s back wall. What an amazing experience.

Imagine this: several shelves full of loose fuses, gadgets, gizmos, gauges, light bulbs, gaskets, pieces of conduit, screws, wire nuts, switches, fossilized tubes of stuff, matchbooks, pencils, razor blades, tuning forks, and other crap. A bunch of the same dumped on the floor. Atop the loose stuff, many boxed and new versions of the same thing, most seeming to date back to the 1950s.

I gathered light bulbs of kinds I’d never even known existed. I gathered adapters and fuses by the dozen. I gathered pieces of conduit. I gathered up several huge pipe wrenches and many boxes of fussy little stuff. Thermometers. At one point, a large box containing a plastic bag was fused chemically to a pair of wooden blocks and a can of metal faceplates. The white stuff in the plastic bag had leaked. No matter how I might maneuver this awkward mess, I could not avoid rupturing the bag. Good thing I assumed the worst, because only then did I see the label on the now-exposed side: CORROSIVE: CONTAINS POTASSIUM HYDROXIDE.

In case you don’t know, that is near kin to the active ingredient in Drano. It’s possible that, in fifty years, all of it had reacted with ambient moisture or some other thing, but if you’ve ever had a caustic soda burn (KOH also goes by the name of caustic potash), you understand why I didn’t take that on faith. I told my friend to get some dilute vinegar and spray the area until nothing further foamed up.

Fighting my way through piles of electrical components and toxic chemical spills, I pushed through to the wire.

Much of the wire was remnant solid insulated copper, neatly coiled. I was an electrician’s helper, one summer long ago, and I never saw this much scrap wire around the shop. Stacked–if that were possible–it would have formed a human-sized column about 8′ high. My buddy’s clients are sure going to like the kicker of maybe six hundred pounds at about $2.50/lb., and on top of that, he doesn’t have to wait for estate sale clients to buy it.

At least they hoarded stuff like glass bowls and pipe wrenches and light bulbs, as opposed to yogurt cups, bags of trash, and rats. I’m a member of a Facebook support group for relatives of hoarders. It didn’t take them long to show me where I ought to count my blessings.

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Deceiving Facebook advertising

Ever since the Ad Preferences thing became general knowledge, Facebook users have known a good way to feel creeped out. Yeah, we knew they would do this, and we can’t stop them.

However, I have figured out a way to ruin it, at least a little.

First off: why do that? “What part of ‘free service’ do you not understand? If you impair their ability to make money, you will no longer have a free service! You use this voluntarily! No one forces you!” Answer: because we aren’t getting paid enough. We, the users, are the product. Our compensation is not tied to the revenue we generate for a publicly traded company. Our views are the deliverable. If Facebook were to pay us, that would be one thing, but it never will. Because it never will, it’s moral to mess up their income stream.

How would one do that? At first, I though that deleting all the ad preference indicators would make sense. I then learned an odd thing: if you delete them all, they are soon repopulated with many more even if your FB usage is way down. I’ve been very busy the past couple of weeks and have spent far less time on the site. I checked last night and my “Ad Preferences” were as big a stew as I had previously accumulated (before the first Big Deletion) in years. If you delete them all, it seems, they are repopulated. Quickly. Like an ant colony.

All right. If you insist on keeping a dossier on me, I will ruin it. I will turn it into the hottest garbage I can.

Next time, don’t just delete all your ad preferences. Next time, go through them all and delete all those relevant to you: your leisure, your work, your beliefs, your hobbies, your passions. Leave only those that are complete whiffs. You like quilting? Delete any having to do with fabric. Oregon Ducks fan? There’s help for that condition, but in the meantime, keep any displayed ad preference that indicates you might like the Beavs or the Huskies. You voted for Jill Stein? Leave Mitt Romney on there and remove Jill. Make sure that all the remaining preferences represent lies.

There is nothing Facebook can do about this. It amounts to urinating in the data pool. It also takes less time than deleting them all, and is much more amusing. You’re a millennial? AARP is on there? That one gets to stay! You’re a stay-at-home mom? Facebook thinks you like diaper pails? Hell, no, you do not!

Have fun. We may not win the privacy war, but some of us will fight it just for enjoyment and pride.

 

My own Alexandria

Most people who know me assume that my first outing in a new home, assuming I’m not low on gasoline, is to obtain a library card. Not so much. Oh, I eventually do, and I venerate libraries much as you might imagine, considering that the written word has been essential in my life since the aftermath of the Watts riots. (I was pushing age 2, and thus on the verge of learning to read. I do not remember learning to read; by my earliest awareness, reading was something I took for granted.)

My family helped this along. When I was about four, my Great-Great-Aunt Nell (whose little sister was my great-grandmother) gave us a full set of 1955 World Book encyclopedias. Before I went off to kindergarten, I had read them. I continued to do this through high school. The encyclopedia was my first library, if you will–a place where I could always go and find reading, an inexhaustible well of enjoyment.

Aunt Nell is nearly half a century gone now, her little niece who is my grandmother is ninety-five, and I often wonder if Aunt Nell had the faintest idea what her gift would do. Giving her credit for the wisdom of an educator who lived to be ancient, perhaps she knew precisely what she was doing. If Aunt Nell could or can see how it all played out, I believe she would be pleased.

In adulthood, surprising no one, I ended up with a lot of books. By age thirty-five, I needed about fifty linear feet of six-foot-high shelving in order to house most of them. My office was right outside the library, so when I went to work, I walked past the stacks. The library gave me reading material, emotional comfort, and a sense of home. I didn’t very often go to a local library simply because I liked mine better.

When it came time to move, and the library was dismantled, I had to leave for a few hours while the packers worked. And once it was gone, that was no longer home to me. If a residence has my wife and my books, it is fully home. If neither, it’s glorified camping. I made the mistake of sharing my honest feelings about that on Facebook, and was mocked for it by acquaintances, which taught me why you never ever share anything on Facebook when you are authentically vulnerable, especially if you know as many callous wiseasses as I do. On Facebook, always be ready in case someone says something mockingly scornful, because they’ll do it when you can least handle it, convinced of their towering wit and that there is never a time not to show it off. And they know beyond doubt that if you don’t think they’re funny right then, you should just get over it. It does not occur to them that you might instead just get over them.

Can you tell that I’m coming to care less and less about making people happy on Facepalm? Maybe the best way to deal with obnoxiousness that shows one no consideration is to stop showing it unreciprocated consideration, and just tell it what you really think.

Or maybe I am simply aging past the point of tiptoeing around people in life.

Three years and two states later, I again live with my wife, and can set up the library once again. My little Alexandria.

For a number of reasons, this time we abandoned the breezeblock-and-lumber method. In that situation, the shelves actually cost almost as much to move as the books, and that’s just stupid. Plus, my wife hated them. When your wife picks out a house with a space specifically in mind for your library, and embraces the concept, and you do not meet her halfway by designing the library in a way that will please her, you are an ungrateful and selfish sod. Setup could not begin until we got the floors done, so that delayed us six weeks, but now it’s under way.

This means seventeen Ikea bookshelves, interspersed with six knicknack shelves so that my wife can display doodads and small items. The room is what most people would use as a large den or game room, 15′ x 20′. It will have a big leather recliner plus a couple other comfortable chairs, the bare wall adorned with maps and my wife’s artwork, daisychained lamps to illuminate the aisles, and eventually French doors. (These are more my wife’s idea. If the doors are French, do they go on strike once a week, as ancient French custom specifies? Mes amis français, qu’est-ce qu’on pense ?)

Since most of the boxes of books are piled in the library, this means some creative thinking in terms of setup. One needs physical space for bookshelves, yet one cannot put up any more until one puts some books on shelves. I decided to just put whichever books wherever, on the logic that I can organize them at leisure later. My uncle, who is a civil engineer and spends a lot of his working life figuring out how to build structures that are sturdy yet aesthetic, is a bigger influence than he knows. The only shelves that should hold the larger hardcovers on are the bottom or the middle bracing shelves, which are the sturdiest, and in any case we do not want the shelves overly top-heavy.

Little felt pads go on the bottom of every shelf, to protect the hardwood (well, hardgrass) floor. When they’re all up, then will come cross-bracing across the top and bolting them together at the base; we live in a subduction zone. While I’m under no illusions about what a serious earthquake would do to the library, if a whole full shelf were able to fall directly over, that is much more dangerous than all the books simply being shaken off and cascading to the floor. No entombed electrical outlets; each one has a power strip with a long enough right-angle plug cord to set it on top of the shelves, since those will hide that outlet from view for what may be the remainder of my life. I’m hoping my uncle will one day come to visit me and examine what I’ve designed, and give it the Good Engineering Seal of Approval. I’m hoping my aunt, to whom Great-Great-Aunt Nell was a great-aunt, will take satisfaction in the way the library will honor Aunt Nell.

One improves rapidly at the fine art of assembling Ikea furniture. I like that they are more likely to give you too many small parts than too few.  We got an extra shelf per unit, which was a spendy addition to an already spendy process, but we are united in the belief that we should do this one right. So I horse some book boxes around, build a couple of shelves, unpack some book boxes that are in a spot where I need to put more shelves, repeat.

I don’t like taking or posting pictures here, and am not good at it, but when it’s done, I just might make an exception. That would be more interesting than posting pictures of a dinner, or a cat, or yet another salvo in the endless, unwinnable cultural Afghanistan that American society has become, atrocity and reprisal fought out on social media between people who could be friends if they could at least agree that someone who disagrees with your politics can still be a decent human being.

If we turn out to have too many books, we will just have to cull some down. By that time, I hope we’ll have a good idea where to donate them. Libraries will just sell them, mostly. I think instead we will advertise them as donations for low income families with children who adore reading.

I can imagine Aunt Nell doing that, too.

The Great Facebook Garbage Patch

You might be aware that the Pacific Ocean contains a Sea of Garbage. No exaggeration (and it’s not the only one of its kind). While it’s nature is popularly misunderstood, the reality is disgusting enough: enough discarded plastic is floating in the North Pacific Gyre for the deteriorated particles to be an environmental problem at best, a disaster at worst. It doesn’t quite resemble the ‘many miles of floating used diapers’ vision many people have, but that actually might be less of a problem. One might gather up and dispose of used diapers, for example. Not so simple with deteriorated plastic particles.

I apply a related philosophy to my Facebook page ‘Likes.’

Why? Because one’s Likes feed the data hydra, which enables the following:

  • Serving suitable ads. I don’t like ads, and even though I block Facebook’s, that doesn’t mean I want to help them create a clear picture of my true preferences. And since we are the product, and we are not compensated nor cut into the profits, I see no reason to cooperate.
  • The collation of a dossier on me, which I expect either will be or is being sold to other people. There’s probably a clause deep in some TOS that says that I authorize that, but here’s a novel concept: I do not recognize those. I don’t care whether the law does or not. To me, anything buried in impossibly legalistic fine print designed to discourage me from reading it simply isn’t morally binding, just as I do not recognize as morally binding any form of coerced oath.

If I cannot prevent the dossier from compilation, I can ruin it by drowning it in trash. Thus, the Great Facebook Garbage Patch, containing at least a hundred spurious Likes for every valid Like. I Like flower shops in Indonesia, restaurants in Warsaw, bands in Chile. I Like a bizarre variety of movies. I Like numerous celebrities I’ve never heard of. I did this by feeding a random word to the search function, then Liking the first couple dozen pages that turned up. Over and over, once a week or so.

Does it bother me what people might think, surfing through my Likes and wondering what a strange creature I must be? No. I wouldn’t be sure what to make of anyone who based a judgment on that, if I was the type to care much about public opinion to begin with. Would it be great if they could be authentic, leading me to points of actual common interest? Sure, but it’s not worth knowing that I’m fleshing out the dossier in accurate manner.

What to mass Like today? Well, the Seagulls play the Broncos in a couple of hours. I think it’s time to bulk Like ‘seagull.’

A service to the technologically unaware

It’s pretty common for me to see someone on Facebook, or wherever, complaining that this or that suddenly stopped working. Or reverted back to an older setting or version, or doesn’t work as advertised at all, even though they looked it up in the help. It’s pretty frustrating for them, because they don’t see how that could be. “It’s supposed to work! What idiot designed this?” Some of the reactions seem to personalize it, as if someone is deliberately messing with them; others are just woe-is-me of some sort.

I’m patient with it unless/until they try to get me to ‘fix it’ for them, or more or less demand that I (who used to work with computers, thus I must know All Things Technical) take personal responsibility for it. That tripped your BS meter, unless you have ever worked at supporting computer users. They usually want someone to bitch at for their frustration, and the helper/tech will do. Somehow, it’s the helper’s fault that someone else created a flawed thing. This is why a lot of people who could perhaps help you, choose not to. They’ve been through that too many times. Those who have not yet learned, or for whom the validation of successful problem-solving is too alluring to resist, keep volunteering assistance.

The words I hated most, and that immediately marked a user as not grasping the situation, were “I don’t see why you don’t just FIX it.” If that were feasible, lady, and if it were that easy, I would. Your great-nephew would–he’d just overwrite everything you have, break everything you want to use by doing an easy reinstall, and then vanish when it came time to help you get your “e-mail working with your printer, and your software downloading in your drive, and your Works chart colors back the way you want them again.” Or whatever other way in which you imagined that solving computer problems was exactly the same as car repair. (That quoted list of complaints was a fairly typical sample. Most people don’t know what the tech terms actually mean, so they misuse them to try and sound more technical, which makes them in fact sound pretty dumb. Kind of like the non-Spanish speaker who responds to Spanish by saying ‘El grande pantaloons’ or ‘buenos nachos.’)

So I’m going to present some generalized realities that a lot of people don’t grasp. Words of ultimate futility: “But it shouldn’t be this way!” Many things should be and are not, or should not be and are. I don’t care how it should be, because I don’t deal in ‘should.’ I deal in ‘will’ and ‘won’t,’ and ‘can’ or ‘can’t.’ I can, however, tell you how it is. You’d be less annoyed if you knew. Or you might be more annoyed–but at least you’d be less mystified. It isn’t always just you. Sometimes, the situation is just unpleasant. It might help to know, at the very least, that it’s not always your fault.

1) Any large, complex piece of software, be it Facebook, your new Massive Ultracarnage III game, or MS Word, always has major imperfections. There are ways in which the documentation is simply wrong. There are features that are broken from day one. The help file cannot possibly keep up with the reality; no one’s willing to pay that many tech writers.

2) Most major ‘upgrades’ are net backward movements, adding some features but mostly moving the same stuff around so you have to look for it all again. It’s not your imagination. You’re not crazy. That’s reality.

3) Most major changes are a series of additional pieces bolted on, rather than rethinking the whole base concept. Thus, most highly mature software is like a passenger car that was evolved from a tricycle, and deep down inside it, still has that tricycle, which is no longer needed functionally, but it’s too much headache to remove, plus removing it would break everything else, thus the whole thing would have to be rethought and re-engineered as a car from the start. They won’t do that very often.

4) If software is online, such as a website, and is very popular, its information and code are stored across large amounts of computers and storage, with some redundancy and ability to share the load if one of them has a problem. This means that your reality will not always be the reality of everyone else. “It’s working fine for me, sorry.” That’s usually temporary, as they are gradually fixing something, upgrading something, or propagating some change about the system.

5) Sometimes, when something on a website is messed up, or an ‘upgrade’ turns out to be broken, or data is trashed, the easy fix is to revert to a fallback copy known to be good. This means that changes in the meantime were lost. It might be many or might be few, depending on how many people used that and how long it took to realize that the new Doodad had a memory leak that threatened some dire consequence.

6) Information systems management is a lot like generaling a battle. You make some hard decisions on the fly based on the best information you have at the time, and you try to avoid heavy casualties, but stuff happens. Expecting everything to go right most of the time flies in the face of this reality. It’s rather a miracle any of it goes right, ever, for any sort of bearable price.

7) All changes are beta-tested on live users. You are the guinea pig. “Why don’t they test it beforehand?” They do, but what they consider beta-testing is not comprehensive because no one can think of ways to creatively break software like several million people. They don’t have several million in-house testers and can’t get them. The only real way to find what’s truly messed up is to give it to the public and let said public work its magic by diversity of use.

In theory, beta-testing should mean ironing out the major kinks before inflicting change on users. In reality, users are the beta testers. They hand you the car and let you do with it what you want. Some people will drive normally. Some will drag race. Some will repeatedly slam on the brakes to see how long it takes for them to fail. Some will set up ramps and attempt stunt jumps. Some will refuse to drive it over 10 mph. Some will wrap it around the first tree they see. Some will put it on a grease rack and start altering it. What is sure: if there is a flaw, someone will turn it up, either by accident or by using the car in a way it was never intended. Software works like this.

A few years back, I remember, there was a WWII operational game that inventoried each unit down to number of operational vehicles and weapons. Amazingly detailed, and players could create their own scenarios to simulate nearly any battle. There was an enormous argument when someone set up a company of trucks and pitted it against a unit consisting of one Tiger tank (which, in reality, could have taken out twelve trucks without even firing its main gun; just run them over or machinegun them). The trucks always won. You can’t imagine the bitchfight that followed, with people screaming how unrealistic the game was. Never mind that the objective of the game was to simulate divisions and corps moving against each other; this microexample ‘proved’ the game was not realistic. Here’s what’s unrealistic: any competent officer or sergeant–hell, a private–attacking a heavy tank with a bunch of trucks in the first place. The developer (Norm Koger, an exceptionally capable fellow) used the term ‘pathologically strange scenarios,’ and he was right. But the point: someone was going to try that, and claim it to be a Major Issue.

8) In information systems management, sometimes so much goes wrong at once that–like medical staff after a catastrophe–the technical people must prioritize. It’s not that your issue doesn’t deserve fixing. It’s that there may well be five more major issues that you don’t know about, that affect hundreds of thousands of users, whereas yours only seems to affect a few thousand. They will triage the eternal process by number of users impacted, severity, and so on. This means there are numerous small problems that will simply never be fixed because they will never be important enough. Repair and testing resources are finite. If you have one of the small problems, you may just be screwed. Since there is always someone with at least a broken leg or a severed artery, your nagging hamstring pull may not get any attention; you may just have to work around it as best you can. Sucks when that happens.

9) Why are nearly all upgrades actually downgrades, or unimportant lateral movement at the very best, as described in 2)? Because you, the user, really aren’t the priority. You never have been. You are dealing with the programmer mentality, which prefers to create the new rather than fix the old. The programmer mentality is abysmal at designing user interfaces–which are the way users interact with the system–because the programmer doesn’t care that much how many steps the path requires, simply that the path eventually leads there. Watch the way a Facebook game devolves and you’ll have an example. It will keep bolting on more and more stuff, in this case to generate revenue, and because programmers like to keep creating the new, but hate going back to rebuild the old. What if most users like it the way it is and don’t want any changes (they haven’t even adjusted fully to the last batch)? Not the programmers’ problem, because the users aren’t what drives the thinking. They can never come out and say that, of course; it’s a shibboleth.

If programmers went back and made everything work correctly, really did it right, they’d get bored. They don’t like doing that. Programming involves more artistry and creativity than most people imagine; creators gotta create. Perhaps more importantly, if they didn’t keep coming up with new stuff they imagined would improve the system, there’d be less need for programmers, with all problems fixed and nothing new planned. Programmers like to have jobs too, even if their job is in fact to make your experience worse. It’s their mortgage payment vs. your happiness; the former wins.

10) Ideal software on a large scale is problematic to create, even starting fresh. In theory, developers would come up with a concept, build it, test it, find all the major flaws, release it, learn about a few that slipped through the cracks, fix those and be done, and move on to re-imagining the next major version. It’s never like that. That takes a long time, and with nothing new being released, there is less new revenue. At some point, everyone who wants it has bought it or pirated it. What happens is that developers wing it a lot faster, and let the world find the flaws, which take longer to fix–and which delay starting on something new.

11) Thousands and millions of users all have computers that differ as much as one human from another. A few humans can’t stand cilantro, for example; it tastes like soap to them. The rest of us can’t taste the soapy stuff, and we keep dunking our chips in the salsa. There is probably someone mortally allergic to kumquats, will go into convulsions if they even touch one. Some people are allergic to everything. We vary.

Even if the hardware were all the same, a different mix of software is loaded on each, and most software does something to the operating system when installed. This means it is inevitable that some user will have some deadly combination of hardware and software, duplicated in only a few cases, that happens to mess with the one piece a given system must have. There is no practical way to troubleshoot or fix that, unless it’s widespread enough to trace to a single item (usually a specific piece of hardware, like a video card, or perhaps even a specific version of that hardware’s accompanying software drivers). Why do the tech people always ask you for a full list of what hardware you have? This is why.

For example: I bought one of the Diablo games. Everyone else loved the new game and said it was brilliant. It hard locked my machine after a few minutes. If this were very widespread, everyone else wouldn’t have loved the game. It probably had to do with some video or sound driver, which I could have upgraded and hoped for the best. Or I could just decide it wasn’t that important, which is what happened. Same with one of the SimCity games: about ten minutes in, just as it was getting interesting, it crashed. Not for most people, who thought it was the best version ever. When you’re in that situation, if you’re in a small minority, don’t count on a solution. It rarely comes.

12) A fresh restart solves a lot of problems, often enough to always do it. Clear the cache, power cycle the modem, reboot the machine, then immediately try what isn’t working and see if it fails again. This is why techs always have you do this: it solves enough problems that it’s nearly always worth a shot. No failure is diagnostic unless it can be reliably repeated from a fresh start, because some failures are a result of an extended, deteriorating operating system session which something else caused to begin deteriorating.

If you can start fresh twice and get the same failure, reliably, you can reproduce it. If you really want it fixed, being able to reproduce it on command gives the propellerheads something to work with–because there is, then, a way to know when it is addressed. Magic words to tech support: “I can reproduce the failure every time from a complete fresh start.” They can sink their teeth into that.

So, you have problems. You always will, here and there. Using a computer is like driving down a highway that has some frost heaves and potholes. Some you will miss, either because you never drove that stretch of road, or because of your alertness. Some you’ll hit. Some will flat a tire or crack an axle. The people who make the software are mainly concerned that most people eventually get there, even if they have to take detours. This may mean that some roads just keep deteriorating, because they are less traveled, and because it was more important to fix a major bridge that was about to fall into a river.

You can still be annoyed about this if it helps you, but the annoyance isn’t going to change reality. But maybe if you at least understand why it’s this way, you’ll be able to guess whether the problem is worth trying to report or troubleshoot, or whether you’re better off just living with it, working around it, or rethinking how important it is to you. Expecting perfect computing is like expecting a perfect round of golf every time, something not even tour pros achieve. Their success is mainly judged by how few major mistakes they make, and that is also true of computing–for developers as much as users.

My current privacy array

I’m fairly sure I’m at the right asymptote of ‘willingness to go through headaches and try new things in order to thwart people’s data gathering just because.’ The tools for this are in a state of constant change, so this might be a time for an update.

My basic browser is Firefox 16.0.2, not because I want to be on that version, but because I was forced by sunsetting to upgrade from a previous version. FF has heavy memory leaks, and has become clunky, but a) it has the most add-ins, b) I hated Safari, c) there is no way I’m going to let Chrome have its way with me, and d) these days, if you use Internet Explorer to do anything but download a real browser, your friends will stage an intervention. “Jonathan, we’ve all come here because we care about you. Your use of IE has affected my life negatively in the following ways…” For all FF’s flaws, it has the most dynamic privacy tool authoring community, and that’s what matters most to me.

It begins with Adblock Plus, which hides just about all the advertising, everywhere. There is a certain irony in all the efforts I exert in order to ruin Facebook’s data mining, when I don’t in fact see their consequent advertising. ABP is low maintenance. It has the added benefit of allowing me spot removal of any image I happen to find offensive and just don’t need to see again.

NoScript is a very helpful package that doesn’t let JavaScripts run unless I say so. It probably also accounts for most of the headaches and tweaks I go through, because it goes by site, and some pages have scripts from fourteen different sources (some of which you only learn of after unblocking this other one). Which one is the one needed in order to do what I came to the page to do? At times I have to turn it off temporarily, but I usually just enable scripts one at a time for the session.

FlashBlock is easier than NoScript because it shows a ‘play’ button on the screen where the Flash content is. Usually it’s a video. Do videos automatically play when you go to a page? Not for me, they don’t, and that’s how I want it.

TACO is wonderful, because it does the best job on cookies. For example, I can accept Facebook cookies on Facebook and on the one game that I play, while blocking them everywhere else. I have to do that one page at a time, but once you do it for the pages you visit most, it’s less necessary every day. That also lets me blow away Google’s ubiquitous cookie-mongering. There is no reason either of those sites needs to set a cookie on my browser just because I visited, say, CNN. That visit, and what I did there, is neither Google’s nor Facebook’s business. While TACO also blocks most web trackers, it doesn’t do it as well as…

Ghostery. In addition to cookies, many sites use beacons/web trackers to keep tabs on what you do. Ghostery blocks nearly all of them by default. If it finds one unblocked, you can choose to add it to the list. Very easy to use, and very satisfying.

GoogleSharing partly convinces Google that I’m somewhere else. Currently, Google News thinks I’m in Austin, TX. Once in a while, I believe when GS resets to a new ‘location,’ my GN shows up in a foreign edition and I have to change it. Although if it’s a language I understand, sometimes I’ll do a bit of reading first. GS says that it anonymizes my search results in some way; sounds good to me.

TrackMeNot spams Google with spurious searches on mundane things. The effect of this is to bury my actual Google searches in a sea of irrelevant crap. Slight downside is that sometimes it gets a little zealous, and Google makes me do Captcha in order to search, announcing that it has detected a lot of traffic from my IP address. This is rare.

WebOfTrust assigns reliability/safety icons to links, especially in Google searches. This mainly keeps one from blundering into sites that attempt to emplace spyware or viruses on your machine. Foolproof it’s not; helpful it is. Part of the problem is that the color of the icon could mean anything from ‘naughty pictures’ to ‘unsafe due to spyware,’ and you have to hover the mouse in order to find out. Part of the problem is that the safety rating of a page comes mainly from user input, so it’s possible that a given page was given adverse ratings simply because a bunch of people wanted to hurt the page’s owner. Use it with some discernment, and it’s helpful.

What are the downsides?

The biggest one is the need to selectively enable JavaScripts until a page works. I admit that sometimes I just punt and use another, unshielded browser. Since I don’t go from place to place with other browsers much, the dossier they compile from them is a tiny fraction of my web surfing. It’s also pretty much impossible to know which script unlocked what I wanted, unless I do it one at a time, which is often more futzing that I desire.

Second biggest is needing to go into TACO each time I go to a new page and block/delete all its cookies. You’d be amazed how many sites stick you with Firefox or Google cookies; WordPress and Yahoo are also frequent offenders.

Third would be the inability to save Google search settings because I won’t take Google cookies on their search page. At times, the non-evil folks at Google break Google search for people who do this–I’m convinced it’s to teach us a lesson.

Fourth would be that you have to use Firefox, which isn’t a very efficient or robust browser compared to others. For games, I use Sleipnir, Opera and/or Maxthon. Sleipnir and Maxthon are very robust. Opera is lousy, but it’s good to have some backup without resorting to IE. Maxthon’s update nags are very annoying; haven’t found out how to get them out of the system tray. At least I can ignore Opera and FF’s update nags.

Anyway, if you want to try browsing my way, there are all the links. Enjoy.