Category Archives: Web

I Hate Google

I have a love-hate relationship with Google. This is a continuation of a blog thread that I started a few years ago. The first part was I Love Google. While some of the products have changed, I still stand by those notes. These notes are true as well. I’ll finish this series with a part 3 on my takaways from these viewpoints within the next few months.

The Google-Plex

The Google-Plex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My issue with Google comes down to data collection. Most of Google’s services are free, which means that the product being sold is you. They collect everything that they can about you, and use that information to put together effective marketing campaigns. My issue is that they know a TON about all of us. All of their clever services are designed to keep us using their products so that they can market to us. But, actually, you don’t have to use their services in order to be known by them.

We all know about search, Gmail, maps, drive (aka documents), and their other popular servers. But even if you never used any of those, they have a whole slew of services that they can use to track you. Lets take a look at a few of them. I’ll give a brief description of each, because my point is not to introduce to you new products. I plan to tell you how these collect data about you.

Analytics – Tracks visitors to any website.

Fonts – Quick & easy way for you to include stylish fonts on any web page.

AdSense – Contextual advertising on your website.

Maps – Mapping tool.

DNS – Public DNS servers.

There are literally dozens of others, but this is enough to make my point. Each of these services makes it possible for Google to track you without you ever having to visit their website. Millions of website owners use Google Analytics. If you visit one of those sites, Google sees your visit. They don’t literally know its YOU, but the fact that someone on your computer, from your city, at this time gets recorded. Google Fonts and AdSense are the same, if you visit a site using one of those tools, Google tracks your visit.

So why should you care?

A public company, accountable to shareholders, is collecting data about you, building a profile on you and your habits. If you ever create a Google account (Gmail, Google+, AdWords, etc.) they tie your search history and surfing patterns together in your profile. They can connect all of the sites you’ve visited with all of the searches you’ve made. How do we know? In the spring of 2012 they updated their privacy policy and terms of service to make this possible. From their blog:

…if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services…

Let that sink in for a moment. Think about all of the sites you’ve visited over the past six or eight years. This profile, combining your search history and all of the sites you’ve visited, definitely is uniquely identifiable. This idea actually came from Steve Jobs, while he was an adviser to Google executives. My source article is no longer available, but Jobs is reported to have said something along the lines of:

You have so many products spanning several services: Search, GMail, YouTube, Maps etc. – why not unite them all under a fluid user experience to both you and your users benefit?

With this much data in a single profile, it is absolutely possible to distinguish you from your neighbor. Think about all of the searches that you’ve made. What story does that tell about you?

Your profile says a lot about you, which makes it pretty valuable. And it can be used in all sorts of ways that you never intended. First, your profile is a target for the Government. This is not new at all. In fact, Google has fought this fight long enough that they have a well defined process for handling government subpoenas. This actually came up again this week, Google is one of several internet companies being mined for data by the NSA and FBI.

The government isn’t the only party interested in your profile though. In 2010 a Google engineer used his permissions to access user accounts and spy on teens. Talk about creepy! Google even issued a statement acknowledging this. And what was the outcome? He was fired.

Google has also been hacked. In December of 2009 a Chinese group hacked into Google to gain access to the Gmail accounts of human activists, as well as companies in the technology, financial and defense sectors. I can’t tell what the outcome of this attack was, but the investigation is apparently ongoing.

To be fair, Google isn’t the only company collecting data about us. Indeed, that would be a long list. Facebook, Yahoo!, Bing and Twitter come to mind instantly. Those are all big companies, there are certainly dozens (if not hundreds) of small companies doing the same thing. Google stands out.

Use Your Web

I just read an article that lists Firefox extensions that are supposed to save you time. Some of these are nice tips that genuinely could save time.

I personally don’t like loading up Firefox with plugins because it becomes another list of things to manage. I like simplicity. Many of the things listed in the article can be handled by blummy, which is not a plugin. In fact, it can even be used with Internet Explorer because its just a bookmark. I’ve been using Blummy for a couple of years now, and it definitely saves time. You can save links to in 2 clicks, or send a URL to someone via Gmail, TinyURL a link, submit the link to any social media site you choose, and even more. And its just a link that you bookmark. So you configure it once then use it on any computer that you log into. Linux, Mac, Windows, home, work, anywhere you need it.

So lets recap. Blummy doesn’t need to be installed, can be used anywhere, with any browser, on any computer, and its customizable. Or, install a bunch of plugins that only work in Firefox on your computer. I recognize that it won’t do everything listed in the article, but you can still install the plugins, and the portability more than compensates. In my mind, its a no brainer.

Internet Music

I’ve been listening to a lot of music lately. In Rainbows is still in heavy rotation, and I still strongly recommend it. I’ve been listening to a lot of internet radio, too. There are a couple of cool options that I thought I’d share here. has been a favorite for a while. You can type the name of a band in, and it’ll play a stream of music within that same genre. Pretty cool, really. Pandora is very similar but you can also enter a song name to generate a playlist. Between these two I like more, but for some reason I’ve been listening to Pandora more recently. I’ll correct that straight away.

So that’s all fine and good, but when you want to hear a specific song neither of these are great options because while you can pick a genre that you like, you can’t pick the specific song. What to do? YouTube. I realized that this was possible when B-Dub linked to Young Folks on his site (not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me previously, seems obvious now). The thing that’s cool about this is that its legal (as long as you don’t download it), and literally anything you can think of is there.

Lately I’ve been doing this a lot because I don’t know enough about the band to know whether or not I want to buy the CD, but I really like one song. One quick note, these are links to the music videos, but I haven’t bothered to watch the vids, I’m just here for the tunage. Okay, so here’s my list: Hysteria, The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret, Young Folks, Lazy Eye, Take Me Out and Perfect. I probably need to buy a couple of these CD’s.

Dear internet, you’re the best. Is there anything you can’t do?

Blog Spam

We all have to deal with spam these days. Unfortunately its part of having a digital life. This blog gets much more spam than I do on any email account though (I have filtered out more than 83,000 comment spams in the past 12 months!). Most of it gets caught by filters, and the rest of it gets caught by me. Lately I’ve been dealing with a new kind of spam. I just read an article on the same thing over at Defensio. I agree with his guesses as to why spammers are hitting us with worthless comments, and thought I’d write on how I’m dealing with it.
Continue reading

Web 2.0 Pres

I’ve been doing some research on the 2008 Presidential candidates lately. One thing that has struck me is that most of them have a MySpace page. I haven’t looked at all of the candidates yet, but so far I’ve only found one candidate that does not have a MySpace page. I almost like him more for not jumping on the bandwagon (but he’ll have to do more than that to earn my vote).

That strikes me as funny. Surely no one believes that these people actually use MySpace. I suppose they see it as a means of connecting with younger voters. I guess its good that they’re looking for ways to get people involved, but its still pretty interesting to me.

Secure Gmail

Do you use Gmail? You know how when you log in its a secure connection, but then when you get to your mailbox its NOT secure? That always bugged me, but I didn’t think there was anything to be done about it. Yahoo is the same way, you log in over a secure page, but then when you access your email its not secure.

Just this morning I learned the solution. You can work with all of your Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Documents through a secure internet connection. And it won’t cost you a cent.

You just have to update your links to include https://.

I don’t think Yahoo & Microsoft (Hotmail) even offer this with their premium accounts. All of the webmail providers keep increasing the account storage capacity thinking that will win new clients. Having a secure connection is more important to me than infinite capacity.

Way to go Google, keep up the great work.

Fraudulent eBay Transactions

I’ve been a computer and internet fan for most of my life. My very first email address was through Compuserve (remember them?), and it was something like 241587459. There wasn’t any @ at that time, because I could only send email to other Compuserve subscribers. When the internet became popular, I was there, on my 14.4 modem, watching pages load.

My Dad is the person that introduced me to eBay. He told me it was an online auction site, and it was cool because you could buy just about anything imaginable from regular people. I opened my eBay account in April of 1998, and started buying things right away. And its been shopping nirvana ever since. I’ve purchased just about anything you can imagine on eBay. Guitars, bicycles, stereo equipment, computers, school supplies, web hosting, software, and more. And it has been easy and trouble free.

Until December.

I was shopping for an iPod as a Christmas gift for my brother. I had a solid tip that I was getting something really cool from him, so I wanted to step up my gift giving as well. I got him an 80gb video iPod. I did some shopping, and found them on eBay for a few dollars less than they were going for on Apple’s own website, which is fairly common for tech products on eBay. Cell phones and accessories, computers, iPods, PDA’s, etc. All of these are typically 5-10% less expensive on eBay than they are in retail stores.

After finding my product, I did some research on 2 or 3 different sellers. I won’t buy from anyone that hasn’t been online for at least 2 years, they have to have sold a few products in the same price range as the one I’m considering, and they have to have a 98% or higher feedback rating. It takes no credentials at all to start an eBay account and start selling, so the seller’s history is the only indicator that you have of how the transaction will play out.

I found a seller that met all of this criteria. He had been a member since 2001 and had 100% feedback. I made the purchase and paid via Paypal, because that’s the fastest way of getting the funds to the seller. Plus, if anything goes wrong on the back-end of the deal, Paypal offers some buyer protection (or so I thought).

A week went by with no contact from the seller. No tracking information, not even a note acknowledging the order. I’ve been doing this for 8 years now, so I just figured the seller was wound up with holiday stuff like everyone else, so I sent a follow up email, and also sent it through eBay’s message service.

Another week went by with no contact, so I sent another email and note. This is when I became concerned and looked into Paypal’s protection policy. They only covered $175 of my purchase price, which was alarming.

Three days later I logged in, and his feedback rating had dropped to 4%. 45 different people had left negative feedback for this seller within a period of 3 days. I filed a claim with Paypal immediately and sent emails to the user, eBay and Paypal.

A day later (now 2 and a half weeks after my initial purchase), the seller’s account was closed, so no one could leave feedback for the user.

Paypal never heard anything from the seller, so the claim was decided in my favor, and I received $175 from them. This was significantly less than I paid for the iPod, so this was a net loss for me. Its the equivalent of throwing money away.

Since then I’ve done some research on this, and its a growing trend. What happened, most likely, is that the seller’s account was hacked, and the person that hacked his account listed a bunch of expensive items with no intent of fulfilling the orders. They’re gaining access to an account and trading the good history of the original account holder for cash.

When you know what to look for, its actually pretty easy to spot this. I can spot hacked accounts pretty handily now. If the person has a relatively low number of positive feedbacks, or has sold only a few items, and all of a sudden lists 30 individual auctions for the same product, its most likely a hacked account.

Here’s what really torques me about this. Unfortunately this behavior has become common enough that there are groups of people trying to find them and point them out before someone gets suckered. If individual users can spot these fraudulent sales, then so can eBay. Up to this point eBay’s official response to this has been almost nill, which is very weak. If they want to maintain their good name in the marketplace, then eBay needs to get in front of this and proactively address thie issue.

Second, Paypal, which is also owned by eBay, gives seductively misleading information about buyer protection. The language that appears on most auctions is technically accurate but the truth is that there is a limit on what is covered. This makes it easy for regular folks to get duped into completing a bogus sale. Once the money is deposited into someone else’s account, they can immediately withdraw it, and then its gone forever. This is a pretty painful reminder that Paypal is not a bank, and in my opinion Paypal is a silent accomplice in the matter because they aren’t helping to prevent this.

I say protect yourself. Pay for your auction with a true credit card (not a debit card) so that if you get duped at least the credit card company will refund your money. And if you have accounts with both eBay and Paypal, you would do well to select a different password for each account. If someone hacks your eBay account, at least they won’t get access to your money as well.

And never, under any circumstances log into anything from a link sent in email. No matter how good it looks or how sure you are. The hackers are a shifty lot, and if you mistakenly log into one of their accounts, you can kiss your eBay account goodbye. If you get a note through eBay, you should absolutely not click on that link. Open up a browser yourself and navigate to the site yourself.

Finally, buyer beware. I got harranged for over $100 because I wasn’t careful enough, and I’m an experienced eBay fanatic. I’ll be steering clear of eBay for the next couple of months to see if they straighten this out. If you have to buy something on eBay, be extra careful, and only pay with a credit card.

As much as I hate to say it, eBay is not the same blissful marketplace that it once was.

Google Maps Blunders

Edit 2/3/2013 – I just checked these again. Since I originally wrote this more than five years ago, Google has fixed them all. The only one that’s still visible on Google is the Pharaoh.

Edit 1/11/2007 – some of these blunders have been fixed now. Google took the levitating car out of the picture, for instance. Some of these are now links to boring images.

I just came across a list of what could be considered Google Maps Easter Eggs. These are anomalies in the images. Some are funny, some are weird, all are at least worth a look.

  • Airplane – Somehow a 1950’s era airplane got superimposed on top of some houses in England. I hope no one was hurt.
  • B2 Shadow – Closely related to that, yet less definite is the shadow of a B2 bomber over La Palmas de Gran Canaria. This, of course, is not a real shadow, its the result of differences in color quality between the images that Google stitched together. But, it has provided fodder for conspiracy theorists on the web.
  • Bug – This is one of my favorites. You think the roaches in Texas are big? Germany has bugs that are several hundred feet long! Either that, or a bug got caught between the plates when someone was scanning these images. It had never occurred to me before, but apparently some of the images that are used to comprise Google Earth were scanned in.
  • Buildings – This one is also pretty funny. These buildings are leaning different directions. M.C. Escher would have loved this one.
  • Jesus Loves You – I guess people in Idaho think that Jesus loves aliens, too. Now that’s interesting! It raises some interesting questions about theology, to be sure. I can tell you that if we ever start sharing the gospel with extra-terrestrials, I’m going to raise support to be part of that ministry.
  • Levitating Car – Over in Perth, Australia, Google Maps captured an image of a car that’s hovering over a lot. I hope the owner has a jet pack.
  • Pharaoh Wearing iPod – This one is by far the funniest to me. I can’t tell if this is real, or it someone at Google is having fun with us here. It just kinda adds to it that this is in Canada.
  • Star – When the image was taken, whatever is here was reflecting back sunlight. Its a little less interesting, but its still something to see.

There must be dozens of other examples of stuff like this. If you know of any, post them in comments.

Craigslist Works

Today was a crazy day. I had a 1967 Ford Bronco until this afternoon. I’ve been intending to sell it for a while, kind of dragging my feet about it because I didn’t really want to get rid of it. It doesn’t run, but its just cool. Silly, I know, but that’s me.

So, after much hesitation, I posted a listing on Craigslist. No pictures, just a few paragraphs describing the truck with my asking price. I posted the ad at 1:30.

I started getting emails right away. Two hours later, a guy was in my garage looking at it. By 4:30 I had a wad of cash and my truck was gone. The guy paid my asking price.

I know that selling was the right thing to do. As a working student, I don’t have the time or resources for a project car that doesn’t run. Part of me is glad that its gone, its one less thing that I have to deal with.

Trucks are one of the coolest things ever. Ask any two year old boy and he’ll tell you (some of us never outgrow it). And, while I generally am a car enthusiast and like all types of cars, old trucks are high on my list of favorites. I’m gonna’ miss that Bronco.

Esoteric Spam

Have you taken a look in your spam folder lately? I go through mine every once in a while to mark them as ‘read’ so that I don’t have to see how many unread messages there are. Spam is getting more and more weird.

Now, I’ll concede that spam writers have a challenge. Everyone has a spam filter now, so they have to be creative to get a message through to the inbox. But it can’t be that hard, I mean, I do it dozens of times a week. But the spam I’ve been getting lately isn’t even coherent.

“ggg diamond simulant…” I guess they forgot to spell check. Another says “us military phonetic alphabet”.

No link, just that. There are much longer ones, too, but they’re just as nonsensical. Now lets suppose that somehow I’m interested in buying… something… from them. I’m not exactly sure how I could contribute to their cause.

Old school spam I understand. They’re selling something, so they send an unwanted email with a link. But this new spam, how does anyone benefit from either end? I don’t get it.