The Other Day I Thought That I Might Actually Cut Myself Off From Google

So I was going through my Google Reader the other day when I came across this Electronic Frontier Foundation link with instructions for how to remove your Google search history before Google's new privacy policy took effect on March 1. They said that with the right opting out, you could reserve the right to have your search history "anonymized," which sounds sort of Orwellian! I was a little taken aback: I didn't realize how much information Google was amassing in one place.

I'd thought about What Google Knows About Me in the past, but it was just in terms of which goofy stuff I'd, uh, Googled and what that might look like to some random Google employee perusing my search history. Which is to say, I figured no one really cared all that much about what I'd been Googling. I never assumed they could be as devious as, say, Facebook. I wondered, Do I need to rethink how much I trusted Google?

So I got on to my Gmail and emailed a group of friends who like to discuss stuff, and who generously indulge my half-baked theories and dumb queries. The thing I like about having a discussion like this over Gmail is that Gmail makes the back and forth of the discussion very intuitive, and combining all these emails in a single "conversation" means that my inbox isn't clogged up.

Frank, who is probably the web savviest of us, asked me how much I care about what Google knows about my web surfing; he wasn't sure he cared, but suggested that I visit Google's Dashboard to see what they have on me.

I wanted to be clear — as long as they "do no harm" or "be cool" or "don't be evil" or whatever they like to say, then I was OK with them targeting ads at the top of my email. That said, there was something about this new policy that made me a little nervous.

Maybe I started to notice that something was up when I had to use different browsers to open up different Google products I had signed up for — it was either do that or I would have to "log out" of my regular browser — not just my email but my actual browser! — which was a little annoying. But it wasn't such a big deal because Google Chrome isn't that bad to use. It's pretty intuitive as well, and the layout is pretty clean.

Of course, now that's all pretty normal, and being logged in to a browser is just the natural course of business, but something always bothered me about having to stay logged in. I don't know, maybe I want to reserve the right to look up sketchy shit. Maybe the SOPA/PIPA stuff made me think about what browsers necessarily know.

While I was waiting for my friends to respond to my latest hyperventilating argument, I clicked on another article in my Google Reader that took me to the New York Daily News website. Before I could go on, a little box popped up and asked me if I was going to watch the Oscars. Huh? I clicked yes, because I thought I would, and because I was pretty sure Jen wouldn't want to watch the NBA All-Star Game. I finished the article and clicked on another link: Another box popped up asking me if I was trying to cut back on candies. Wha? So I "learned more" and got this:

Why am I being asked this question?

Your opinions matter. Answering a quick question here gives you near instant access to the premium content you want without having to pull out your wallet or sign in. Our survey providers gain insight into what people think, and this website earns money when you provide answers.

The website you are visiting uses this Google service to allow access to its paid or premium content. Google displays questions that are written and provided by survey creators. Your anonymous answer is sent to Google and will be aggregated with other answers to the same question. All responses to questions will include an anonymous DoubleClick cookie ID (click here for information about the DoubleClick cookie). When the survey is complete, Google will share anonymous, aggregated answers with the survey creator who provided the question.

It's all part of a new product Google is experimenting with to help make market research faster, more accurate, and more affordable. If you're interested in running questions of your own, contact Google about becoming a trial partner.
For more information see the Google Privacy Policy.

I closed the browser — being careful to stay logged in, of course — and pre-emptively wrote my friends, "Wait! What is going on here? It's going too fast for me and even though I feel like a smart enough guy I can't figure out what the end game is here!!!!"

Which is of course part of the scariness of it — it's fine to assume that Google sees what stuff you search for because that makes sense. What is scary is not understanding how small, seemingly inconsequential behaviors get bundled into a mosaic of "you."

Frank agreed that it looked a little strange, but added that while Google AdSense was revolutionary in the way it tailored ads against a page's content, that was only useful to a point. As an example, I'm sure you've seen Google ads for, say, John McCain on a political blog whose readership was unlikely to support John McCain. The next step, he explained, is to target ads not based on what you're reading, but what it knows about you as a person, which is why Facebook ads are so successful. Then he passed along the link about Google's glasses.

In the end I think I got Frank to admit that he was increasingly worried about his reliance on Google — why I press these debates to the ends I press them, I'm not entirely sure. He added that he certainly hadn't made any leap to cut himself off of them completely.

I always think fondly of the time I spend with folks like Frank. I was trying to remember when we last saw Frank so I checked my Google Calendar — the interface is really fast and Jen puts all our engagements in there. So I realized that it's been since the summer since we've seen him. Too long.

So I started to think about it — I've had a pretty good year with Adsense, and it might be fun to take a trip out west to see Frank and everyone else that we're friendly with. I'll have to ask Jen what she thinks.

In the meantime, our friend Chris jumped in and asked Frank what cutting oneself off from Google would look like. Frank explained that the first step would be to ditch all of your Google accounts and be logged out of Google when conducting web searches. But then he said something that blew my mind: You can still be tracked because most websites use Google Analytics so Google can still build a profile around you, based on the browser you use, the operating system you use, your screen resolution, etc. He suggested we test ourselves and see:

Your browser fingerprint appears to be unique among the 2,062,786 tested so far.

Currently, we estimate that your browser has a fingerprint that conveys at least 20.98 bits of identifying information.

Which is to say, based on factors such as the ones Frank mentioned above plus stuff like my time zone and which plugins and fonts I have installed, my computer fingerprint is unique — unique! — out of the 2 million they've already tested. And you think you can just "log out" of Gmail to look up hair replacement therapies. Pfft.

Interesting stuff — and I didn't realize that they could build so much information from Google Analytics — which is a very useful application, by the way — and quite beside the point because I'm pretty sure I remember having to install Analytics code in our site in order to work better with Adsense.

(Just out of curiosity, I Googled "Adsense alternatives" and the comments on at least one post that was ranked either toward or at the top of the rankings seemed to universally agree that no other ad network pays as much as Adsense . . .)

After all that back and forth I decided to relax a little by looking at some funny YouTube videos Goober sent to me on Gmail — which reminded me that I needed to update the house expenses spreadsheet on Google Docs so Goober could pay us back.

And sometime shortly thereafter I think I fell asleep still looking at my iTouch. I found it next to me in the morning.

Posted: March 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Something I Learned Today | Tags: , , , , ,

The Story Of The Rock 'N Roll Toilet

So a few words about toilets.

The toilet that was in the house was a beautiful old pink toilet. We weren't exactly sure when it was from but it was from a ways back.

Kawama, Astoria, Queens

It was also giant bitch of a toilet. It took about ten minutes to fill after you flushed it. It was like riding around in a pink ceramic Cadillac.

As renters, we never had to think about water rates or water bills or anything about the water other than we were entitled to it.

As homeowners, every time we flushed that bitch of a toilet we thought about the water bill — and the longer it took to refill — every 30 or 40 seconds (or ten minutes) of listening to water drain, drain, drain into the tank — the more it shook you to your very core.

But like I said, it was a beautiful pink toilet. Of course the lid was cracked in two, and there was the slightest hairline fracture in the bowl itself, which, if you didn't clean the toilet for a few days, developed just a hint of a funk-mold hairline that waved in the current when the toilet flushed. Which is to say, we probably needed to replace the toilet.

Now when you get to replace a toilet there's a certain thrill in shopping for the most water efficient model ever created. You study the liters-per-flush stats and it just kills you how fucking green you are being. It hurts.

The only thing with buying a new toilet is that there are only three colors they really make: white, off-white and black. With our pink and black tiles, that left us just one real choice — black. The rock 'n roll toilet.

When it came to paint colors, I deferred entirely to Jen. When it comes to most style decisions, I defer to her. But for some reason I was really adamant about having a rock n' roll toilet. It just looked so correct. So that's what we did. We bought a rock n' roll toilet. And a rock n' roll toilet seat to go with our rock n' roll toilet.

Kawama, Astoria, Queens

The other thing that was sweet: You can buy a toilet on Amazon and they will deliver a toilet to your house. I don't know how we would have done it otherwise.

How hard is it to install a toilet? Like everything else — negotiating real estate, pruning rose bushes, raising children — you Google it. It's pretty straightforward, though I did have to go to more than one place to find a flange — the thingy that attaches to the subfloor that holds on the toilet itself (what those two bolts at the bottom do).

That said, there is the issue of the wax ring. If you've never unhooked a toilet from the floor, the wax ring is a ring of wax that globs together the toilet pedestal to the flange and seals the waste line from the rest of the bathroom. The only tricky thing about the wax ring is that after you glob it to the bottom you don't really see it once you set the toilet on the floor — so there's really only one shot to get it right. After it's on there, it's hidden from view for as long as you want to ignore it.

There's nothing like the feeling of accomplishment after installing a toilet and flushing it for the first time. And not seeing water seep out from the bottom of the base of it after you do so.

There is of course an irony in installing a water-efficient toilet: You (meaning I) are (am) much less likely to "let anything mellow" on the theory that you're never really wasting water with a water-efficient toilet. It's the kind of perverse logic that says that bicyclists and football players are safer without helmets.

I couldn't bear to part with the pink toilet completely, so I convinced Jen that we should install it in the backyard as a planter, as a way of sort of respecting the history of Kawama. It's not the ideal thing to plant stuff in — but not because of what you're thinking. Rather, a toilet is designed to hold water in the bowl, which means that it doesn't really drain correctly, which means that it kind of sucks as a planter. The stuff we had growing in there this summer did OK (a fern and some leftover hosta plants that were in the backyard when we moved in), but I don't know that we'll plant, say, herbs in there anytime soon. Like I said, drainage issues — plus, it's kind of gross to think about anyway. This isn't the best image — it's actually from August on the day before the hurricane/tropical storm hit when it was really raining — but you can see what we did:

Kawama, Astoria, Queens

In the end, I finally figured out when the bathroom dates from — it turns out that every toilet bowl basically has a date stamp. So this one says (if I can make it out correctly) "Nov 29 1965." Which means it was made the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1965:

Kawama, Astoria, Queens

That makes sense when you look at the décor of the bathroom — it's basically 1960s. Our rock n' roll toilet has a date stamp of sometime in March of 2011 (I forgot to take a picture of it before I installed the toilet).

Posted: January 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: The Cult Of Domesticity | Tags: , , , ,