Alternatives to Gmail?

Now that I’ve moved from Google Reader to Fever, I’d like to reduce my reliance on other Google services. Switching from Google search to Bing is pretty easy, but I’m on much less sure ground when it comes to replacing Gmail.

Requirements:

  • Paid service (If you aren’t paying, you are the product, not the customer)
  • Search-driven interface
  • Reasonable limits on message and mailbox size

I’ve heard of HushMail. Is there anything else worthwhile?

Edit: HushMail is a no-go. It doesn’t have a way to set up a filter or rule to automatically file incoming mail.

Deleting duplicates in Google Calendar

I’m not sure if it was Blackberry, Android, or Facebook, but something caused all the birthday events in my Google Calendar to have 36 duplicate entries each. This not only caused visual pollution but also resulted in me getting 36 notifications on my phone for every birthday.

The first two apps I tried that promised the remove duplicates didn’t, so I nearly decided to write a duplicate remover myself. However, the third app I tried — GCalToolkit — worked. I used its free trial mode to purge all of the duplicates, and my calendar is clean again.

Incidentally, I ended up signing up for Google’s 2-step authentication, as one of the non-functioning apps was password-based rather than OAuth-based. I was unwilling to give it my actual password, so I used Google’s application-specific passwords feature which depends on 2-step authentication. I’m still somewhat apprehensive about being able to access my email should I be travelling or should I lose my phone.

Google Plus as a successor to LiveJournal

Google+ is Google’s new social network. It takes aim at both Facebook and Twitter, but I think its unique intersection of features also positions it to succeed LiveJournal in a way that neither Facebook nor Blogger ever could.

Let’s back up a bit. What is LiveJournal?

LiveJournal, or Zhivoi Zhurnal as its Russian userbase calls it, is a social network masquerading as a blogging platform. It started in 1999, 3 years before Friendster, and provided:

  • Fine-grained access control to individual posts
  • Ability to group your friends into circles
  • One-way friend relationships (so you could be a follower of someone without them friending you back)
  • An equivalent to Facebook’s News Feed years before FB filed a patent on it

Google+ has all of these features. Not just that, but it exposes them much better than inertia-laden LiveJournal ever did, and it is amenable to long posts.

LJ is a smaller fish than Facebook, with only 32,000,000 friends of whom only 2,000,000 are active, but targeting this community could give Google a sufficient core of users to take on the Facebook behemoth.

Will LiveJournal users migrate? I’m not sure. LiveJournal satisfies several rather different demographics. 48% of its active user base is Russian, exemplified by President Dmitry Medvedev and various photoblogs. There’s a big celebrity news community called Oh No They Didn’t. There’s also a significant scifi and comics fandom userbase exemplified by Scans Daily that is already moving to a clone site called DreamWidth. Some of these groups may be more amenable to the lure of Google+ than others.

I can say that the circle of people I met back when I had a journal on Slashdot in the early 2000s migrated to G+ overnight, and LiveJournal fostered and fosters similar communities. They could very well follow and give Google the critical mass that it craves.

MySpace’s death spiral due to no test environment, no source control, no code review

I just saw an extremely insightful comment by Nick Kwiatkowski quoted whole by the High Scalability blog. Unfortunately, they buried the lede very deep, while I don’t trust the original medium of Disqus comments to have any longevity.

Here’s the comment for posterity:

Having been in a position where I was able to work with some of the programmers who worked at MySpace, the issue wasn’t the engine (whether it was on ColdFusion or .NET), it was the environment they choose to breed for their developers.Management would say “We need X feature NOW to remain competitive”. They would then select a group of developers to implement that feature. The biggest problem was they didn’t allow the developers to have staging or testing serversthey deployed on the production servers on the first go-around. Sometimes these developers were given 5 or 10 projects that they had to deploy in very little time. And all this with no change management or control. No versioning either.

MySpace management never wanted to go back and review code or make it more efficient. Their solution was “more servers”. They ended up hiring a crew whose sole job was to install more servers. Meanwhile they had developers checking in buggy code and they were racking up technical debt at an alarming rate. At the time MySpace was running two major versions of their application server behind what was recommended for use. When Microsoft & New Atlanta came around, they jumped at the idea to essentially sell off their technical debt (like a mortgage to a financial firm), and have somebody else take care of their problem.

The problem then was Microsoft was not updating their old code, they simply were adding new features on .NET. This didn’t solve their problems and left them in a situation where they still needed to fix the old stuff, all the while updating new code.

The issue with MySpace was this : they are a classic example of when you don’t listen and you accumulate too much technical debt. Fixing old stuff should be a priority, and doing things like change management, version control, testing and development servers, etc. are all a must. This is why the bookface is able to deploy new changes with little impact — they have everything tested and proofed out before they let their actual users play with it.

(I will take this down on request. I appreciate that quoting something whole is generally a bad idea.)

Maybe this is just my bias as a developer, but to me this fully explains the failure of MySpace and the success of Facebook. The latter has a reputation of following good software engineering practices — separate development, testing, and production environments; source control; and so on. The former turns out to have gone out of its way to sabotage their own software.

Twitter reinvents the vocative case

I recently saw an interesting idea on reddit: that the @name notation popularized by Twitter and now adopted on many internet forums as a way of addressing someone is basically a reinvention of the vocative case.

What’s a case? Well, English has three cases for nouns: subjective, objective, and possessive.

The subjective noun acted on the possessive noun’s objective noun.

These roughly correspond to Latin’s nominative, accusative, and genitive, but are quite different in the fiddly details.

Latin had several other cases, one of which was the vocative. This case was used to address people and things in what you said. Some English examples would be:

  1. O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
  2. Yo homes, smell you later.
  3. Hey buddy, pass the salt.
  4. Mother, should I run for President?

All of these would be in the vocative case in Latin, but to my knowledge there isn’t a formal grammar for it in English.

By introducing a standard notation for addressing @someone, Twitter regularizes this in English. In a way, it is a formalization of the grammar and an inflection of the noun.

I think that the ultimate test for whether this a grammatical change or a passing fad is whether @name will make it into print outside of discussions of Twitter itself. If it does, the vocative will be reinvented.

Migrating from Delicious to Pinboard

DeliciousYahoo is shutting down Delicious. I’ve been using Delicious to share links with friends for years, so this is not a good development from my perspective.

The Metafilter discussion about possible alternatives points out Unalog, Pinboard, Diigo, and a few others. I took a look and decided that Pinboard is the best bet. What I like best is that it has a business model — selling a cheap permanent membership. I like things with business models because I think they are less likely to shut down.

There’ve been several shutdowns of free services this year — Xmarks went out of business (but were rescued by Lastpass), Ask.com killed Bloglines, Oracle is doing it’s best to kill MySQL, and now Yahoo is killing Delicious.

Migration

I found it very easy to migrate from Delicious to Pinboard.

  1. Open a Pinboard account
  2. Export your Delicious bookmarks
  3. Import your Delicious bookmarks
  4. Wait for Pinboard to catch up with all Delicious users importing their bookmarks at the same time
  5. Use Twitterfeed to set up automatic reposting to Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Just like Delicious, Pinboard has lots of handy bookmarklets.

Write to be read

In 1997, Jakob Nielsen wrote How Users Read on the Web. His organization conducted a formal study of usability and found:

  • Concise text (half the words) is 58% more readable than rambling text.
  • Scannable text (bullets) is 47% more readable than wall of text.
  • Neutral language (facts) is 27% more readable than marketese.

Nielsen added specific recommendations:

  • Mark keywords
  • Use descriptive headings (not puns or references)
  • Use bullets
  • Limit one paragraph to one idea
  • Start with the conclusion
  • Halve the wordcount

Concise text

Blaise Pascal: I have only made this letter long because I have not had the time to make it short.

Maintaining high information density is hard. You need to edit and cut the dead text. It takes up your time, but it saves readers time; it is respectful.

Scannable text

I think that Jakob Nielsen and Jeff Atwood overuse bolding. Nevertheless, they remain widely read because their postings are clear and readable. I can see at a glance their topics, their reasoning, and their conclusions.

Neutral Language

Being positive and writing empty boasts is different. Don’t blather about awesomeness, or people will ignore even the facts.

Inverted pyramid style

Observe:

  • Newspaper stories start with the most important fact and work down.
  • Essays start with the thesis and then prove it.
  • Reports start with an executive summary.

Some Facebook network stats

I’m part of three Facebook networks, and I’ve been keeping track of their size since May of this year.

Facebook network size stats

Toronto has gone from 600k people in May to 800k people in September. That’s 32% of the municipality or 16% of the metropolitan area, which is an impressive proportion.

University of Toronto has been stable at 55k, but there should be a flurry of new users in September when first-year students get their UofT email addresses.

The population of IBMers on Facebook has actually declined. Conversely, I suspect our population on LinkedIn, a career-oriented networking site, has not.