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Blog Editorial Story

The Fable of the Caterpillar

Imagine this scenario for a moment: You’re out driving your car, on a residential street, well under the speed limit, when all of a sudden you smush a caterpillar under your wheel. Picture something like this little guy, hairy and about an inch long ⬇️.

Photo: Andrew Hill

I’m willing to bet that you didn’t see the caterpillar, and that now that I’ve told you about it, there’s a good chance you don’t really care all that much that it’s dead now. If you feel bad, it’s OK. These things happen. It’s possible that you have no regard for life at all, and in general, most decent people wouldn’t go out of their way to kill a harmless caterpillar minding its own business. In this case, there was no real way for you to avoid this happening, your car and the road it’s on are not designed or built with caterpillar survival in mind.

When I was out riding my bike yesterday, there was a caterpillar in my path. I was on the shoulder of a road (the Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway, if you’re interested) where the speed limit is 60, and I was going about 30 kph. Because of the differences between cars and bicycles, when I was about 15-20 feet away from the caterpillar, I noticed it and adjusted my path to avoid hitting it. As somebody who tries to be mindful about the environment and my surroundings, this small act triggered something in me that I haven’t been able to shake since.

As a society, I think we can learn a lesson from the fable of the Caterpillar, about respect for those we interact with in our everyday lives, about how we design our transportation systems, and about mindfulness when it comes to how we treat those around us who wield less power than we do.

For me, this comes in to focus most obviously when considering the comparison between getting around in large motor vehicles (cars, SUVs, and trucks, for example), and more person-centric modes of transportation like walking, cycling, or inline skating. On city streets, these large vehicles have all the power, both literally in terms of their weight, momentum, and protection from collision, but also metaphorically, in that city streets have been built to prioritize cars around the world since shortly after they were invented.

Safety systems in vehicles have come a long way in recent years, from seatbelts and airbags to more advanced technology like lane assist and emergency braking systems. However, all these systems are optimized primarily to protect the people inside the vehicle, and less so anybody outside. And while these safety features help increase the safety of driving, other technology lets drivers pay even less attention to the road around them, like in-car entertainment systems, and adaptive cruise control which by human nature leave drivers with less reason to pay close attention.

The other major factor that shifts the balance of power to the side of cars over human-powered transport is the shape and design of the car itself. With trucks, SUVs, and crossovers, passenger comfort and looks drive the design of the car, which leads to SUVs with hoods that hit shoulder height on a regular adult, and which leaves kids effectively invisible standing in front of a car.

Another big issue with car design is blind spots, which can be helped with rear-view and side-mirror cameras, but the view from the driver’s seat of most vehicles is obstructed in the front and back corners very effectively. This doesn’t matter too much with proper shoulder checks when dealing with other drivers, but when cyclists and pedestrians are involved it’s all too easy to miss somebody who has inadvertently found themselves in your blind spot.

Can you imagine trying to see a caterpillar on the street out in front of you while you’re driving an SUV? Of course not, it’s ridiculous to even ask that question, right? But what if we designed not only our transportation, but our streets to protect the most vulnerable road users at the cost of a little efficiency for its most comfortable ones? To me, it’s well worth the trade-offs. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to get where we’re going safely, and don’t we all deserve that?

By the way, later on that same bike home, I saw another caterpillar out in front of me, this time on the bike path. And when I saw it, I thought to myself “Nice to see you, caterpillar.”

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Editorial

What’s Missing from Gmail (Compared to Inbox)

It’s been a long time that we’ve known that Inbox by Gmail is going away, and to be honest, I understand the decision to deduplicate the development time required to keep two apps and sites updated (Gmail/Inbox). However, I’ve never actually taken the time to describe in detail the missing features that never made it over to Gmail, and they’re the things I like the most about using Inbox. So here goes!

Missing from Gmail (In no particular order)

Bundles

When Inbox first launched, one of my favourite new features was bundles. The ability to put emails that are still in your inbox in to different sections, still sorted by date and conversation thread, was just unbelievably powerful. Having the further ability to keep bundled emails from showing up in the inbox right away was another amazing feature that kept me from being distracted by ‘Promo’ emails more than once a day, and let me create any number of other sub-sections of email that wouldn’t interrupt me or be visible in my email until I wanted it to. There are ways to work around this in Gmail with Priority Inboxes, but it’s nowhere near as powerful or customizable.

The other really neat thing about Inbox’s design when it comes to bundles is being able to open a bundle and have it expand but have all the other bundles/emails stay in context and in order, without disappearing off the screen. It never felt cramped or busy, and you always knew exactly where you were, and the design was the same on desktop and mobile, so it was very difficult to lose yourself in your email.

Swiping (sweeping) away all the emails in a bundle in to read was also very useful, and one of the big selling points of Inbox when it was released. Having an email set as ‘Done’ or not ‘Done’ in the Inbox was also nice because you didn’t have to worry about the read status of an email when it was done, but coming back to Gmail this month, I have hundreds/thousands of unread emails that I now have to mark as read (and will need to manage on an ongoing basis rather than just archiving them).

Another feature with bundles that was one of the premiere features of Inbox was for things like trips. Having your flights, hotels, rentals, events, etc. that are part of a trip all automatically show up in one bundle was SO convenient. This going away is going to make travelling and keeping track of emails quite a bit less convenient (could potentially be worked around with a custom label for a trip, but nowhere near as easy).

Saved Links

This feature has been a beautiful thing the last few years, keeping a bundle with a list of saved links right next to your emails, and having a share extension on Chrome (desktop) and on iOS (mobile extension). Not only will it be very tough not being able to use this feature, but there’s no easy way to view this list outside of inbox, so I had to manually open and copy each of these links because I don’t know where I’ll be able to find them in April.

Filing Messages

With Inbox (mostly, but not only) on mobile, it is simple to drop an email in to a bundle. Now, these are just labels in Gmail (as they always have been), but it’s way more steps to label emails on mobile in Gmail. I realize it’s just a different metaphor, but if you file your emails with labels, it’s really difficult to do regularly on mobile, whereas it was really easy and intuitive on Inbox.

Reminders

Having reminders show up (and be created in) Inbox was also a super convenient feature, and I’m probably just going to use reminders less now that it’s no longer going to be integrated in to my email.

In Conclusion

To wrap this up, since the first day Inbox was released, I have used it exclusively and preferred it to Gmail in almost every possible way (especially the ways described). It is very sad that it is going away, and I honestly have likened it to Google Reader going away, in that my use of email will probably be forever changed with the disappearance of Inbox.

Inbox made me hate email less when I needed to use it, and it will be sorely missed.

Categories
Blog Editorial

The Case for Owning Your Digital Life

I’ve spent most of my life on computers, and I would definitely consider myself a digital native (I’m typing this sentence on the iPad software keyboard, in case that helps you put me on a scale).

My history with technology

I love technology, and I first discovered its immense power for connecting people when I installed MSN Messenger on my parents’ computer back in junior high school (circa 2000, I’m going to say?). Going through puberty at the dawn of the public internet was quite an ordeal, but I think it was definitely more manageable doing so then than it is now. I really learned how to talk to people most intimately through MSN, and in that space, I formed the foundation of my experience in connecting with others.

I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s really cool that MSN would store chat logs for all your conversations in easily accessible and well-presented formats on your computer. This meant that if you wanted to go and look back on your conversations (and you inevitably did), you could easily do so.

Fast-forward to now

Things are VERY different now from what we had back then. Today, those of us who chat on Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, or Slack have little to no control over what we’ve said to one another once it’s been said. The canonical version of our ‘chat logs’ are all online, controlled by the creators of the apps we use to talk to one another. Because the services we use are mostly centered on our mobile devices (phones and, to a lesser extent, tablets), there isn’t a lot of space (or screen real-estate) to permanently store and/or display things we’ve said previously.

Because of the way the internet has evolved over the last 10-15 years, ‘the cloud’ (servers located ‘elsewhere’ and controlled by corporations), is now the absolute truth when it comes to what we say to one another. In the case of Snapchat, the messages we send are deliberately short-lived by default, and that’s part of the reason why I have stopped using Snapchat.

In today’s world, our memories are being stored outside our brains on an ever-increasing basis (rather than storing important information itself in our brains, we store the location where the important information is kept). However, when we split our communication between services like email, instant messaging apps, social media, reminder apps, to-do apps, and a whole bunch of others, it’s easy to lose track and forget where things are, even if they aren’t actually missing.

I’d wager that most people in the their late 20s and 30s wouldn’t be able to list all the apps, services, and social networks they’re members of, even given an infinite amount of time (or maybe I just subscribe to and then forget about more things than most people). The problem with putting your time and energy in to an ever-changing and ever-increasing number of these kinds of apps means our life stories are being spread out over a huge area, with patches and sections disappearing on a regular basis.

As I get older, I’m starting to see this pattern develop more and more, and it makes me worry a little bit that in 5 or 10 or 20 years, our generation will be missing most, if not all, of our written correspondence and things we’ve shared over the years. Now, one response to this is to say something like ‘we should be writing letters again’, but first of all, I don’t think those are any more likely to remain legible
on a physical medium, or stay in one’s possession for that amount of time, and I’m also not interested in putting pencil to paper.

There’s an easier way to maintain your relationships and keep track of our communications with others, and it brings up a concept most people my age have only recently become familiar with…paying for things you care about.

Paying for (and with) what matters

When you think about your preferred instant messaging/communication platform, what are the incentives of the company who created it, and how does it benefit them to have you use it? If you can’t answer that question, you may want to find out more about the company, and what their policies are. In many cases today, the incentive is that the company can make money off of information they can learn about you through your interaction with the service, whether directly or indirectly.

Especially if you’re using a service that doesn’t cost you any money, the company isn’t running servers and using immense resources in order to let you connect better with the people around you, they’re doing it because it helps their bottom line in some way.

Now, the average person doesn’t really have the ability to build an application that lets them have total control over systems they use to store information or communicate. If I had to guess what percentage of adults in North America own and operate a private server, whether locally or virtually, I would say it’s much less than 1%, and perhaps not even 0.5%. And I’m certainly not trying to say that maintaining your own server is something everybody should do, far from it. However, I do think there is value in having a place that you control on the internet where you can store digital information that is important to you or has some value.

Virtual Private Servers and Their Use

In case some of my readers don’t know what a virtual private server is, it’s really quite simple. A server, to put it as succinctly as possible, is a computer that is usually specially designed to run web services or applications efficiently and to be reliable in spite of running 24/7 basically without interruption and with little maintenance.

Such a computer can sit in your basement, run programs like email, and get you in a lot of trouble with federal intelligence agencies (if you use it for government business). With the advent of things like Google Apps GSuite and OneDrive, though, the need for, and use of personal private servers has undoubtedly dropped quite precipitously (I do not have *any* data to back this up).

Businesses like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the aforementioned GSuite and OneDrive all run on massive parallelized private server banks owned by those companies, who use them to run all their web and cloud services, because running a server these days is very cheap and distributed computing is very much in vogue right now.

However, if you’re a small-medium company, or somebody who wants the benefits of a server for their own purposes, there are big companies out there who run server farms and who rent out space on those servers for a monthly fee. The big benefit of this is that running these (virtual private servers) is that there is no physical space required on-site, and no expensive, specialized hardware to run (and power).

For a very small fee (all things considered), anybody can run any software they want on a computer they rent and access through the internet, and if you have any interest in technology, you will hopefully see what an amazing opportunity this presents in terms of being able to run things like email, websites, IM, or file sharing without relying on big companies (or at least, your reliance on ‘big’ companies lets you set up your own security).

What Does This All Mean?

If you are looking for a stable, free, easy to use system to use email, instant message, web design, or file sharing, and you’re just going to use the basics, it’s very easy to trade your privacy rather than money to use these services. But for less money than you’d think, and if you’re willing to slightly leave the mainstream, you can get a server up and running for pennies a day (quite literally), and run whatever you want on it, without buying any hardware. The possibilities are, quite literally, endless.

I would gladly delete my Facebook Messenger account (I already rid myself of Facebook) if I could get my friends and family off of it, and I do think that social media is ultimately a bubble that is bound to fall back down eventually, and personal websites will come back in to prominence as people seek to stand out and customize the way they present posts and photos/videos to the world. I think it’s only a matter of time before some *massive* privacy scandal makes most people realize they are far too trusting of Facebook with their information, and a backlash sees the service fade in to a historical footnote over time.

Rob, What Do You Do?

The service I use to host my server is called DigitalOcean, but there are many other companies who will allow you to set this up. I’m told that if this is something you’re interested in trying out, you can get up to $100 in credit over your first 60 days if you use my referral link (I don’t get anything for referring you unless you ultimately keep running a server, so don’t start anything for my benefit). I’ve been a customer for over 3 years, and the system is great with hourly billing so you can get something running to try it out, and if you don’t like it, you can just delete it and you’ll only be charged a few cents an hour while it was running.