Paying For It

I just read an article by a fellow SysAdmin and blogger about Google's tendency towards abandonware, the fact that Google's users are not its customers, and the fallout of all of this for him personally, particularly in light of the recent killing of the beloved Reader.

Divesting In Google
And then, the thing I didn’t think would be killed was. Reader is the third Google product I depended on the most, and knew the most about me after Search, and Mail. But for Google that’s not enough. I was mad, but that’s just silly, so I’m not mad anymore. Like others are saying, it’s going to unleash a wave (pun intended) of new products in the Atom (and RSS if you must) parsing space. I’m looking forward to that.

But it is the stark reminder I needed again that I can’t depend on Google for anything that I want to keep around. I’m not sure you can depend on anyone’s technology/service or anything that’s not an open standard and that you run yourself, but still, I don’t want to run everything.

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This is a great take-apart on why you really shouldn't — and, believe me, you really shouldn't — entrust your world to Google. I never used Reader, but I've been skeptical of Google for a while, because the fact of the matter is, in the grand scheme of things, you the user, are not Google's top priority. The same thing goes for Facebook. And Twitter. And pretty much any other service you use online for free.

And as I use online services more and more — even this blog is now completely hosted via an online service — I become increasingly aware of who the customer is. And I become more willing — and I think it's more important — to pay for those services. Paying means that I'm the customer. And being the customer comes with a certain import and cachet amongst decent companies, ostensibly because they value their customers' business.

Of course, this isn't always the case. But at least if a company treats you like shit you're free to contact them and complain. That's not true of Google. You're also free to use another company, and exercising that right directly takes money away from that crappy company. Being a customer gives you some degree of power and control. And when it comes to my data, that's extremely important.

What surprised me most in my fellow blogger's post was this:

So personally, I’m done. Google has lost my investment. I get my Mobile OS from Apple, my desktop OS from Apple (for now, and that’s as much Apple Hardware and Lightroom as anything). I’ll get my maps from Apple on mobile, and just as often as Google from Microsoft on the desktop. My work browser stays Chrome, my personal browser is back to Safari (for now). My feeds I control, for now from Fever, but I’ll write my own reader, starting with Sam Ruby’s Mars - or one of the twenty bajillion readers that will come out of the community or the market now. Opera Software/Fastmail gets my mail. My google spreadsheets get replaced with Numbers sync via iCloud. My bookmarks and notes are in Pinboard and Evernote (though Evernote makes me a little nervous long term as well). Google analytics for my personal sites, gone (I’ll replace it with Gaug.eswhen the time comes that I want analytics again).

Particularly that bit about mail. Opera Software/Fastmail gets my mail. Wow.

 I have nearly 18,000 Gmails.

I have nearly 18,000 Gmails.

My positive feelings regarding Gmail are pretty well-known. Right now Gmail in the browser is, for me, the best user experience going in email these days. It's also got a ton of features I rely on and it's extremely secure. But email is a big deal. I keep everything in email. Including the gargantuan history of my email. I've been depending upon Gmail for just over ten years now, and increasingly so. I now use it for all my email — work, personal, website, everything. It's just that good.

Still, that nagging voice in the back of my head just doesn't trust anything I get for free. So I've often wondered about paid email services. And this is really the first person I've known of to switch to one. I'd be really curious to hear how it works out for him. And, despite being a decade-long Gmail lover, I'd be pretty curious to try it out myself.

In any case, it's good to see someone — or maybe I should say, someone else — take the plunge. I think, for anyone who's more than a casual user of email, this should be a concept that's revisited from time to time. Email is a big deal. We store a huge amount of the details of our lives there. Having an email provider that's on my side is extremely appealing. It's also something that's certainly worth paying for.

A Good Time to Leave Wordpress

Speaking of leaving Wordpress, it looks like the blogging platform is under a major attack. Wordpress has long been known for its security holes. Not that they're necessarily any worse than similar platforms, but the fact that Wordpress is both so prevalent and so insecure makes it an obvious target. 

Huge attack on WordPress sites could spawn never-before-seen super botnet
Security analysts have detected an ongoing attack that uses a huge number of computers from across the Internet to commandeer servers that run the WordPress blogging application.

I was always pretty good about keeping my Wordpress installations updated with the latest security patches, which is part of what made it such a bear to manage. Glad I don't have to mess with that anymore.

Talk about good timing!

A Site Update

So, yet again, I'm trying something new. Isn't that what life's all about?

First off, you may notice the site looks a bit different. Not radically, but enough that you might get a little weirded out if you come here a lot. Is this still The Adventures of Systems Boy? What's with this weird header nonsense? Who the Hell is Mike Barron?

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Then, upon further investigation, you might notice that the URL has redirected to malcontentcomics.com. Huh... That can't be right. I'm sure it used to be systemsboy.com.

Rest assured, you've not gone mad. Here's what's going on.

If you come here a lot you probably also know that I haven't been posting much lately. This is due in large part to the fact that writing about systems has begun to increasingly take a backseat to my artistic endeavors, most particularly the making of comics. I've had a comic site for a while now, and after lots of thinking and hand wringing I decided that it was time to unify all my online projects into a single site. Since comics are my primary focus these days I've decided to go with my comic identity for the top level domain: Malcontent Comics.

I must admit, though, that this entire changeover was, in fact, prompted by a distinctly systems-oriented problem, as well as an interest in trying a new approach to hosting this site. First, the problem.

THE PROBLEM

I've posted before about my trials and tribulations with web hosting. I've used Blogger, Web Hosting Buzz, Media Temple and most recently 1&1 to host this site, and each has had its good and bad points. But after spending the past few years self-hosting, during which I've added numerous Wordpress sites to my stable of online homes, I'm getting sick of it.

About a year ago, I switched to 1&1 for hosting these sites. I'm using a VPS plan, paying $30 bucks a month, and I'm still having problems. Everything was fine for a while, but gradually I started having problems with SQL. Suddenly all my categories will disappear on the site, and when that happens I have to SSH in and reboot the VPS because SQL is so locked up I can't even run Plesk.

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Honestly, I haven't really tried very hard to solve this problem. I did Google it, and mostly what I read seemed to suggest that 1&1 Support would have one of two responses: either they would tell me, "You have root, it's your problem, you're on your own;" or, "you need to upgrade your plan." Now I have not contacted 1&1, nor do I intend to, so I don't know what they'd actually tell me, though I do get the impression, from my years of experience as a webhost client, that you just won't get anything decent under $50 a month (which is what we pay for Mediatemple's VPS at work, which works pretty well). But I've just been doing this too long, I have to do it at work, and it's not really fun anymore. I'm done. This is no longer how I want to spend my free time, nor my money.

Yes, there was certainly a time when this would have been an intriguing challenge for me to tackle. But not anymore. I'm paying someone decent money to host and run my server, I do nothing that should place undue strain on that server, and yet it doesn't work reliably. Frankly, if someone were paying me to run some computers for them (oh, wait, someone does, every day) and they didn't work, I'd be fired.

THE INTEREST

At the same time all this has been stewing, I've been increasingly aware of and interested in a site hosting company called Squarespace. Squarespace hosts everything for you and you build your site with their online tools. It's a lot like Blogger.com or Wordpress.com, but much more sophisticated — with features like custom CSS and Code Injection — and with a terrific graphical authoring environment. Squarespace recently updated their platform to version 6 with much fanfare, and after reading about it for the bajillionth time I finally decided to take the free two week trial and kick the tires. While testing out Squarespace I tried two other similar services: Mediatemple's Virb and the well-known Weebly.

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All these services are actually quite nice and their performance is surprisingly brisk and consistent. But Squarespace's ability to import — and export, should the need arise — all my Wordpress site data really carried the day. I also like the design tools best in Squarespace. They just do more of what I want, from the amazing and gargantuan selection of fonts to very flexible templates that let me brand my site and all its sections in ways the others don't. And last but by no means least, Squarespace's gallery functionality was my favorite, and this is a key component of my comic sites.

The more I played, the more I liked what I saw, and the more I started to think that Squarespace could probably do the job for me and my many sites. But more than that, Squarespace allows me to never have to worry about managing the server side of things again. This means that not only will I never have to SSH into my VPN and reboot because of a SQL lockup, but I'l never have to update — and possibly break — another Wordpress install (I have three I maintain regularly); I'll never have to update — and possibly break — all the plugins for each of these Wordpress installs.

And the icing on the cake? What will eliminating this huge time sink cost me in terms of dollars? Sixteen bucks a month. Not thirty. Sixteen. Or, to put it into perspective, slightly more than half what I've been paying. Less work, as good or better performance, ostensibly better reliability and terrific design tools, all for less money? That, my friends, is what I like to call a no-brainer. 

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The downside to all of this, of course, is that I lose a certain amount of flexibility. To be sure, Squarespace and its ilk have far more limitations that the wide open spaces of a 1&1 VPS plan. But the limitations just happen to be in areas that don't really concern me all that much these days. And what I lose in flexibility I believe will easily be made up in productivity. That is to say, all the time I spent maintaining that damn VPS and those Wordpress installs will now go towards writing and drawing more. And after all, that's what I'm really here to do.

Especially now that the flow of Systemsboy posts has pretty permanently slowed to a trickle, it seems even sillier and more pointless to self-host to the extent I've been doing, and the systemsboy.com domain no longer seems particularly relavent or necessary. There's just no reason to suffer for it anymore.

ANOTHER CHANGE

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Commensurate with the change of hosts, and the general unification of my online presence is another kinda big change to the way TASB works: I am no longer anonymous. Maintaining my secret identity, now that I no longer blog about specific work issues, is no longer particularly important to me. And I really like the idea of having everything under one, big umbrella site that represents me as a person, rather than a set of fragmented brand identities.

So, hi. I'm Mike Barron nice to meet you.

SAME OLD SYSTEMSBOY

Despite all these changes, though, The Adventures of Systemsboy! should be much the same as ever. You can continue to expect very occasional and oft-cheeky posts that contain my personal observations on a variety of my favorite technology-oriented topics with a focus on the Mac and iOS platforms. But no punditry. I'm terrible at punditry.

And, oh yeah: Enjoy the comics.

-systemsboy

It's Oh So Quiet

Not long ago I posted about my plan to aggressively filter bacn — messages that aren't quite spam, but that I don't actually want to read — out of my Inbox.

So for three or four days, I let the bacn accumulate, and then I created a couple choice filters from that collection of mail. After putting these filter into action, it's been very, very quiet on the email front.

It's actually a little shocking how seldom I receive email now. That's how much useless email I was getting. So much, that once the signal-to-noise ratio is leveled, it actually feels like I rarely get email at all. maybe a few times a day do I actually receive anything of real, genuine interest.

But it's been great. I'm now spending zero time managing mail I don't care about. I never look at my Inbox now unless there's something worth reading. Email, on the whole, just takes far, far less of my time and brain power, and those are two things I can always use more of.

As a New Yorker, I've both come to accept and to truly hate excessive noise of any kind. Bacn management gives me a rare opportunity to squelch some of that noise, at least of the virtual kind, and the resulting quiet has been truly blissful.

If you're not already filtering your bacn, I highly recommend you take a bit of time and do it. You won't be sorry.

Bacn Management

I've recently realized that probably about two-thirds of my email is stuff I just don't care about or want to read. But it's not exactly spam, either, as it comes from trusted sources that, if only peripherally, I know or who know me from somewhere. Turns out there's a name for this type of email: bacn.

In some ways, bacn is worse than spam because you have to decide what to do with it; you can't just mark it as spam, so there's a great deal more cognitive effort that bacn requires. But the main problem with bacn is that I get a lot of it, and it commands far more of my attention than I'd like. In fact, it's a constant distraction. It's like those people on the streets who hand out flyers or try to get you to donate to their cause. You know, the ones everyone hates. But dealing with bacn is like having to deal with one of those people every hour or so, all day long. It's just awful. So I've finally decided to do something about it.

Where possible I've tried to be conscientious and unsubscribe from the mailing list in question. Beyond that, the obvious solution to the bacn problem is email filters. Just create filters for all the bacn you get and be done with it. And that's largely what I've done. But creating filters for every type of sender is tedious, requiring you to set up a new filter, enter the criteria, test it and then apply it. Ideally, there would be a way to create a filter using a selected email as an example.

Well, it turns out that there is — at least in Gmail, which is my email client of choice for most of my mail — I've just missed it all this time. To create a filter from an email, simply check the tickbox next to the email, then, under the "More" menu select "Filter Messages Like These."

You'll get Gmail's standard filter interface with the sender info correctly pre-filled and you can set up a label and add whatever actions you want. It works with multiple selections as well, so if you choose two emails with different senders, the filter will be set up to handle any email from either sender.

I know it only eliminates a couple steps. But being able to create filters directly from my Inbox based on the exact type of email I want to filter will really be a boon to my bacn management. It's much easier, more direct and less error-prone. And reducing the amount of bacn I have to directly deal with will be a boon to my productivity, happiness and sanity.