Rambling Thoughts from a Wandering Mind

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Category: Technology

Whining about Netflix

This article strikes me as very odd, claiming that Netflix is going to be terrible in 2019 because they’re removing some older shows from their catalogue and focusing more on original content.

Netflix wants to start streaming more original shows and movies and focussing less on acquiring programs they did not produce. That means they are taking away the very reason why most of us subscribed to Netflix in the first place and they’ll eventually become just a really expensive glorified TV channel.

Enjoy it while you can, because by the end of 2019, Netflix is going to be horrible. 

While I certainly don’t want to subscribe to multiple different streaming services to get all the shows I want to watch (at that point, I might as well just pay for cable again), I think competition is good and I think it’s a little odd to suggest that most Netflix users are subscribing to the service so they can watch old episodes of Gilmore Girls. I mean, it’s possible that they are — Netflix tends not to release viewership numbers — but most people I know are subscribed to Netflix at least as much for the Netflix Originals as they are for the other shows.

In my house, most of the shows we watch are produced by Netflix or through some sort of partnership agreement with a cable network (e.g., Riverdale, which is published weekly on Netflix after airing on the CW network). Most of the non-Netflix shows could disappear and I’d still be pretty happy with the service. In fact, for the few non-Netflix shows I watch regularly, it’d still be cheaper to keep my Netflix subscription and buy those shows on Google Play than to subscribe to cable.

The same can’t be said for movies, on the other hand. Most of the Netflix Original movies I’ve watched have been terrible and I would definitely be upset if they started dropping popular movie titles from the catalogue at a greater rate than they already do.

Re-decentralizing the web

A few days ago, I came across an article in the Guardian, talking about decentralization as the next big step for the world wide web. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, and have written about before.

Re-decentralizing the web is a good idea, but I think some of what’s proposed in the article misses the point. Centralization is mostly a social problem, not a technical one, and it requires social solutions. The technologies needed to re-decentralize the web mostly exist already: we just go back to doing what we did before it all got centralized. We need, for example, to revitalize the culture of blogging rather than posting.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, as many people are only able to share their thoughts and ideas as a result of centralized services; they aren’t technically proficient enough to make their own website. We don’t want to leave these people behind as we move to re-decentralize things. This further illustrates that the problem is a social one much more than it is a technical one. Maybe the answer is something akin to Geocities (or WordPress.com, Blogger.com, etc.), rather than everyone having a Facebook profile. Technically, this would still be a centralized service, but the design and mentality behind it would much more closely resemble the decentralized web — everyone has their own website — than the social networks of today, in which everyone is part of the same website and all of their data is aggregated and analyzed in increasingly creepy ways.

Still, there are some good links in that Guardian story. Graphite Docs seems cool, although the fact that it’s based on the Bitcoin ledger makes me question its environmental sustainability. Beaker Browser is also interesting but, without widespread adoption, it’s not going to be revolutionary; and I just don’t see widespread adoption of an obscure browser happening anytime soon.

If the Dat protocol was a standard that could be used through any web browser, it might be different. It would still likely be a niche protocol, but it would at least have a chance at finding wider adoption among decentralization geeks.

Ultimately, if we want to retake control of our personal data and push back against the latest capitalist enclosure movement — the enclosure of not only our data, but of our relationships and identities — we need to re-decentralize the web. We don’t need a blockchain to do it. We need to rethink our relationship to the Internet and the big, centralized service providers. The revolution we need isn’t a technological one, it’s a social one.

Redesigning the site

As you can see, I’ve changed the theme I’m using on this site. I’ve also modified the theme very slightly, using custom CSS. I think this is the first time I’ve ever edited CSS on my own, and I’ve got a question.

How do I make it so headers that are also links don’t follow the same rules as other links? I just want them to look like normal headers (e.g., large, bold, black text).

I’ve got all links set to be blue, blue with underline when hovering over them, and purple when visited. Pretty standard stuff. But I want headers to not follow those rules. How do I create this exception?

Facebook is bad for my mental health

Image of the Facebook logo behind broken glass.
Does Facebook make you want to smash your screen?

Dramatically limiting my Facebook use has really helped my mental health. Inspired by the #DeleteFacebook movement, I have dramatically limited my Facebook use.

I haven’t deleted my account, because I do sometimes need to access Facebook for work and it’s very difficult to do so without an account. And there are a few groups that I don’t want to lose access to.

What I have done is to seriously lock down my account for privacy reasons (I’ll probably write a separate post about this in the near future), so I can feel a little more secure about maintaining my account.

In addition to locking things down, I’ve deleted the third-party Facebook app I had been using from my phone. At work, I’ve installed the News Feed Eradicator Chrome extension, so I don’t see my news feed at all. I can still look at pages and groups that I might need to view for work reasons, but don’t get sucked into my news feed. I’ll be adding it to Firefox on my home computer the next time I sit down to do something on that machine.

This means that I basically don’t see anything on Facebook, except for the occasional notification from groups I’m in.

It’s been roughly a week since I’ve had things set up this way. I’ve already noticed a huge impact on my mental health.

I’m happier. I’m less anxious. I’m less angry. I’m less stressed out.

It’s frankly amazing how much better I feel now that I’m effectively not using Facebook except to occasionally check work-related things or to pop into the dads’ group of which I’m a member.

I haven’t given up social media. I still check Instagram, though much less often than I used to. I still very occasionally look at Twitter, although I’ve also removed Twitter from my phone. Mostly, I’ve been using federated social media like Mastodon and diaspora. I’ve also played around with Friendica, which is probably a little closer to Facebook in look and feel than the other two.

So far, I find these networks have much less of a negative impact on my well-being. Partly, this is because they’re designed differently and don’t have intentionally addictive traits built into them the way that the big, corporate, for-profit networks do. And, partly, it’s because the networks are smaller and seem to attract people and conversations that are more positive and less combative in nature than those of Facebook and Twitter.

These benefits could disappear as these networks become more popular, but for the time being they’re friendlier places built on non-exploitative technology.

Thoughts on another blogger’s predictions for the future

Brennen Bearnes has some predictions (or, more accurately, guesses) about what the world — and the US in particular — might look like in five or 10 years. I suspect he’ll be right about a lot, which is depressing because most of his guesses are pretty negative. I’d say he was cynical if I didn’t think he was likely pretty close to the truth.

The one point I’m not so sure about is regarding self-driving cars.

6. Driverless cars will be happening for real, and like Uber or Lyft, they’ll have serious practical advantages for prosperous (sub)urbanites and the professional class. They’ll also gut public transit systems, increase congestion and passenger miles traveled, further marginalize poor people and “gig economy” laborers, and double as data sponges for various megacorps. Truckers will be looking real worried.

6a. There will still be no genuinely serious indications of a shift in the United States away from car-centric development patterns and lifestyles.

Self-driving cars have been “just five years away” for probably 20 years, if not more. I think they might actually hit the roads as more than just test cases in a few years, but they won’t be widespread enough to make much of an impact on infrastructure planning. They may result in the start of a hollowing out of public transit, as Brennan suggests, but I think it’ll take a while before it gets as bad as he suggests (definitely closer to the 10-year end of his spectrum than to the five-year end).

When self-driving cars do eventually become a meaningful factor in transportation and infrastructure planning, I suspect he’ll be dead-on accurate about point 6a, though.

Rediscovering the open web

#OpenWeb is trending right now. At least, I suspect it is. It’s kind of hard to accurately determine what’s trending on the open, decentralized web. And that’s a good thing.

Regardless of whether or not it’s actually trending, there is a lot of talk about the open web right now. Much of this talk is inspired by the #DeleteFacebook movement that has come about in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. People are thinking about changing their online behaviour and much of the sheen has worn off of the corporate, centralized web. After a decade of consolidation — so much of the web have been centralized into the hands of just a few companies — people are no longer sure about the benefits of using the services provided by Facebook, Google, Twitter and a few other large web companies.

This rethinking of who we give our data to has been good for decentralized social media platforms. Mastodon and diaspora* are probably the two services that have benefited most from this.

I’ve largely moved away from centralized social media in favour of these decentralized services. I still maintain a Twitter account, but am not very active; and I still have a Facebook account, but I’m very seriously considering closing it (more due to the fact that it’s a life-suck and rather terrible for my mental health than as a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, although I’ll admit the #DeleteFacebook movement has caused me to think more seriously about this).

But perhaps the bigger, more interesting thing about an attempt to return to the open, decentralized web is the possibility of a resurgence, however small, of personal blogs and websites.

I recently went through my RSS reader and unsubscribed from most (but not all) of the corporate blogs I was subscribed to. I wasn’t reading a lot of them anyway. In their place, I’ve slowly started adding personal blogs to my feed reader.

I’m finding that I enjoy reading personal blogs — or smaller “professional” blogs — for a number of reasons:

  • because they’re personal, I feel like I can better relate to and connect with the authors
  • they tend to publish less frequently than the corporate sites (they’re certainly not publishing a dozen or most posts every day); this helps prevent information overload and means I actually have enough time to read everything in my RSS feed, instead of just reading headlines and skipping the vast majority of articles
  • they’re unpredictable and provide unique perspectives that I wouldn’t otherwise get to read, because the corporate blogs are often very polished and without much personality

In addition, I find reading personal blogs and engaging in the more intimate conversations that decentralized social media allows for has inspired me to blog more myself. For me, that’s enough of a reason to rediscover and re-embrace the open web.

Regarding those disturbing videos on YouTube Kids

Even if you aren’t a parent, you’ve no doubt heard about the many disturbing videos being disguised as content for children.

James Bridle has done some digging and found that a lot of this content appears to be algorithmically generated. It’s not (only) trolls.

It’s a bizarre and, possibly unintentional, side-effect of the exploitative nature of Silicon Valley capitalism and the fact that children are, by their very nature, among the most easily exploited people in the world.

What concerns me is not just the violence being done to children here, although that concerns me deeply. What concerns me is that this is just one aspect of a kind of infrastructural violence being done to all of us, all of the time, and we’re still struggling to find a way to even talk about it, to describe its mechanisms and its actions and its effects.

Read the rest of the essay, Something is wrong on the Internet, for a fascinating and disturbing look at the world of creepy children’s YouTube videos.

We don’t block ads because they’re ugly, we block them because they’re invasive

Not too long ago, Google banned the AdNauseum extension from the Chrome Store. The reason they cited appears to be bogus. They also seem unwilling to discuss the real reason people use ad blockers. It’s not (just) because most online ads are ugly; it’s because they pose a privacy risk.

Advocates insist that ads aren’t just ugly, annoying, and bandwidth-sucking: They pose a risk to privacy, as the networks of software behind ads—cookies, trackers, and malware—watch not only where you go on the web but, through your phone and your purchases, what you do in real life. This data, which helps data brokers better understand you, includes everything from your health to your shopping and financial habits to your political and religious views.

But privacy is largely missing from Google’s discussion of problematic ads, says Howe. By avoiding mentioning AdNauseum’s actual intent, Google’s explanation for banning it echoes the advertising industry’s discussion of web ads, which focuses on aesthetics rather than privacy.

This is why I use Privacy Badger. If a site uses non-tracking ads, Privacy Badger won’t disable the ads. And I’m fine with that. I know ads are a necessary evil. But I don’t want ads to track me around the Internet, so I use Privacy Badger to protect me.

Mastodon, diaspora* and wondering if there’s a need for both

A cartoon mastodon using a smartphone.
The Mastodon social network mascot

I recently joined Mastodon, a decentralized, federated social network that’s been getting a lot of press lately as a friendlier alternative to Twitter. Rather than explaining what that means and how Mastodon works (there have been several articles already, which I’ll link to at the bottom of this post), I wanted to talk a bit about Mastodon’s place in my online social networking.

I’ve been using Mastodon for about a week at this point (you can find me at ink_slinger@mastodon.network, among other places). In that very short time, it’s largely replaced Twitter for me. I will still occasionally pop onto Twitter to see what news is being shared but, for the most, I no longer actively use it. I prefer Mastodon for a lot of reasons, but ultimately it serves a similar purpose as Twitter. It’s a microblogging service for posting short thoughts, musings and the occasional link to a news story or blog post.

Having an open-source, decentralized alternative to Twitter feels great. It aligns nicely with my attempts to support a more open web by breaking away from the walled-gardens that have come to define the modern web. I’ve talked a little about this on previous posts, but never in much detail.

When I was first starting to get into free and open-source software, I looked into Twitter alternatives like GNU social (which is compatible with Mastodon, since they both use the OStatus protocol and can talk to one another with relative ease), but never really found one that worked for me until Mastodon came along. The big differences this time are that I prefer Mastodon’s user interface and there’s a critical mass of users due to the recent media attention (yes, there have been people using GNU social for a decade, but the network was relatively small and didn’t really align with my interests or, if it did, I wasn’t familiar enough with the software to find the right node).

What about Facebook?

OK, so I’ve found an open/free (as in speech) alternative to Twitter. What about Facebook?

You may, if you’re geeky enough, have heard of diaspora*. Like Mastodon/GNU social, diaspora* is a decentralized, federated social network. It was pitched as being a little like Facebook, but without the privacy concerns and commercialization of your personal data. I have long bemoaned the fact that diaspora* never really took off. I even recently posted about it on Mastodon.

Wilhelm Fitzpatrick asked how I’d use a Facebook-like system that would be different from the way I use the Twitter-like system of Mastodon, especially in light of the fact that Mastodon allows posts with up to 500 characters. I didn’t have a great answer. I still don’t.

The way I use Twitter has always been different from the way I use Facebook. For one thing, Twitter’s limit of 140 characters meant it was simply not possible to use the two networks the same way. But since Mastodon is more flexible, some of the necessary differences no longer exist. In many practical terms, there is less necessity for two different types of open networks.

So what am I looking for when I talk about a Facebook alternative? I think I’m looking for Facebook, more or less as it currently exists, but without the privacy issues, corporate overlording and selling of my personal data. I use Facebook largely for two purposes: to connect with family and friends (mostly people I know in meatspace) and to join groups. Twitter and Mastodon, by contrast, are spaces where I connect with like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) people from around the world. Most of my “friends” on these networks are people I’ve never met in person.

My Facebook groups could, in theory, be replaced by Mastodon instances that spring up around similar topics (politics, local agriculture, parenting, etc.). What can’t be replaced, at least not unless I can convince a whole lot of not-technically-inclined people to abandon Facebook and sign up for something else, is the network of family and friends that exists on Facebook. Ultimately, I guess what I want isn’t really diaspora*– it’s diaspora* (or Mastodon, or GNU social, or just about anything other than Facebook) with all of my Facebook friends.

Given the extreme unlikelihood that everyone I know is suddenly going to jump ship and abandon Facebook, I guess my options are to either:

  1. decide I value my privacy more than my network and leave, or
  2. remain on Facebook, despite my better judgement

For now, I’m staying. Whether that will eventually change is yet to be seen.

Recommended reading

If you’re not yet familiar with Mastodon, here are some helpful articles you may want to read.

It’s time to start taking online privacy and security seriously

Donald Trump

On January 25, Donald Trump signed an executive order that, essentially, screws over all non-Americans online. If you use Internet services that touch US servers, your privacy is at risk.

As Canadian law professor and tech law expert, Michael Geist, explains:

For Canadians, the order should raise significant concerns about government data shared with U.S. authorities as well as the collection of Canadian personal information by U.S. agencies. Given the close integration between U.S. and Canadian agencies – as well as the fact that Canadian Internet traffic frequently traverses into the U.S. – there are serious implications for Canadian privacy.

Arguably, this was always the case to some degree, but this goes beyond what we learned from the Snowden leaks in 2013. In fact, the Snowden leaks had previously led to a push to extend greater privacy protection to non-Americans.

Geist goes on to say:

The Trump Executive Order makes it clear that U.S. agencies should ensure that their policies do not extend privacy rights to non-U.S. citizens or permanent residents under the Privacy Act. The intent and effect of the order means that the personal information of Canadians will not be protected under that statute. The decision requires an immediate review by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada on the effect of Canadian personal information and data sharing agreements and a potential re-assessment of what personal information is made available to U.S. agencies.

In essence, as a Canadian, you have no right to privacy when you use Internet services that use US servers. That includes things like Facebook and Google — including your Gmail account.

The best defence, at least until we have a better understanding of what this really means for Internet users living outside the United States, is to use a VPN or something like the Tor Browser to hide your location while online. It would also be very smart to stop using Gmail. I recommend ProtonMail which, coincidentally, I signed up for about an hour before I learned about Trump’s executive order.

ProtonMail is, arguably, the world’s most private and secure email provider. Because all your email is encrypted, they couldn’t hand it over to authorities even if they wanted to. They could only provide the encrypted data, which is close to impossible to decrypt through brute force methods. ProtonMail’s servers are located in Switzerland and they offer free accounts, which are probably good enough for most users, so there’s little reason not to switch.

It wouldn’t hurt to stop using Google in favour of something like DuckDuckGo or Startpage. DuckDuckGo is based out of the US, so could potentially be at risk of privacy breaches, but they don’t track users and I personally think they have a better user experience than Startpage (which is based in Europe), so I’m willing to take that risk for the time being.

Finally, though not directly related to the executive order that inspired this post, you might want to consider using something like Signal to encrypt your mobile messages. Unlike a lot of mobile messaging apps, Signal still allows you to send SMS messages to people who aren’t using Signal. They’ll get a regular, unencrypted text message via whatever texting app they use. But if the person you’re messaging is another Signal user, your message will be end-to-end encrypted, so anyone who intercepts it won’t be able to read it.

If you care about your privacy online, you should probably have been doing some or all of these things already. But most of us prefer the convenience of things like Google and Gmail.

You have to decide for yourself what you’re willing to give up for the sake of convenience. For me, that line is starting to move to a place where I’m more willing to deal with minor inconveniences in order to better protect my privacy online.