home >> blog >>
April 2004 archives

April 30, 2004


Just a note to let all interested parties out there know that I am doing fine and loving life out here in Europa. My talks at CHI2004 went really well and catching up and going out with the other conference goers was a blast. Vienna is an amazing city, like the best of Germany and the best of Paris wrapped into one (and with a little Italian influence mixed in as well). And I have yet to tire of beer and sausages.

Tomorrow we're heading out to Prague, which is also joining the EU tomorrow. Should make for some good times, though my German is almost passing while my Czech is non-existant. Hopefully I will blog later with some more substance, but in the meantime check out Amanda's blog (metamanda.com/blog) for additional Europe info...

Posted by jheer at 07:42 AM | Comments (1)

April 22, 2004

more privacy and g-mail

scott recently posted some interesting satire on this whole g-mail fiasco... a little announcement that the United States Postal Service will now be opening envelopes to provide targeted ads. This got me thinking, so I'll share the comment I posted to scott's entry:

When I first read scott's satirical announcement, my initial gut-reaction was off-putting... which lead me to investigate why. Upon reflecting, I feel that, rather than a reaction rooted in some latent google-philia, my discomfort comes from a fundamental disconnect between how e-mail works and how most folks conceptualize it.

Us computer scientists are so often used to thinking about these things in terms of their actual implementation. From a security (as opposed to privacy, whatever you mean by that) standpoint, all the mail carriers have capacity to do harm. We know that sending an e-mail is not like sending a sealed envelope. Focusing solely on mechanism, scott's analogy is only correct if the USPS also mandated that from now on people could only send postcards... no more envelopes! However, a small minority of informed users would start using ciphers which scramble the "publicly" visible contents of their postcards into gibberish that the postcard recipients could then decode.

Metaphorically, however, many if not most folks think of their electronic mail in terms of it's enveloped, physical counterpart. The real problem then, may not be that G-Mail does this or Hotmail does that, but that mechanism and metaphor are not mutually supporting.

Given a choice, I personally would uphold the metaphor over the mechanism. If people's expectation is that their private content remains private, perhaps it's time to consider ways to make the mechanism match up.

It's funny though, I was checking my mail on g-mail yesterday, and noticed two little adverts on the side of the page. Struck me at the time as so insignificant... but in light of the comments above it seems to me that if there is a problem here that is worthy of action, the illconceived yet well-intentioned efforts of Sen. Liz Figueroa and friends are attacking the symptoms rather than the source.

Posted by jheer at 12:16 PM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2004


the Pixies are playing in my backyard (UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre) in late September. Tickets went on sale today. And I got six. I just checked, and as of now (12:19pm), tickets are still available, so get them while you can. I am definitely into throwing a pixies pre- and/or post-party out here in Berkeley, so let me know if you're going to be around. Unfortunately, I don't know yet where that party will be held, as our current landlords are selling our house :(. but who cares? I get to see the pixies!

Posted by jheer at 12:24 PM | Comments (2)

April 13, 2004

illegal g-mail

California State Senator Liz Figueroa (D) of Fremont is drafting legislation to stop Google's free e-mail service G-Mail, as she is under the impresssion that g-mail constitutes "an absolute invasion of privacy" due to its policy of using keywords in your e-mail to present targeted advertisements.

While I can understand the feature may be unsettling to those who don't understand how it is being achieved, this may be a case of a politician trying to legislate something they do not understand. Please people, a little research might be in order before you put your pen to paper. Only a computer sees the content of a g-mail e-mail, not Google employees. More importantly, Google's advertisers do not know anything about you nor have any access to you unless you choose to click their link and go to their site. G-Mail is also very clear and upfront about how and when e-mail data is used. Contrast that to Hotmail or Yahoo!, who provide banner ads that can allow advertisers to place cookies on your machine and track you across different websites.

Any online e-mail service has the potential for privacy violation. People's personal data are sitting on Yahoo! and MSN servers as well, leaving the same potential for within-company violations. Furthermore, as Kevin Fox has pointed out, both Yahoo! and Hotmail collect a ton more demographic info about you than G-Mail currently does. It is completely understandable that members of our society will at times be uncomfortable or uninformed about new technologies. It is not acceptable, however, for politicians to perpetuate misunderstandings, let alone attempt to inscribe them into law. Perhaps something like Derek Powazek's open letter will help focus Sen. Figueroa's perspective.

I do think there are important privacy concerns that this debate brings to light. When do machines "reading" our e-mail cross the line? If G-Mail is "bad", aren't spam filters (which scan our e-mail with greater sophistication) and Amazon's collaborative filtering violating our privacy as well? What levels of data mining are we comfortable with and which aren't we? These things need to be discussed and made subject to social negotiation, but knee-jerk legislation may short change people under the rubric of protecting them.

Another, larger, concern was raised earlier today in a conversation with Joe and Yuri. Yuri noted that what bothered him was having all his primary internet activities (i.e. search and e-mail) monitored by a single body. Given that this is the direction in which Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft are all headed, I think he has a point. Safeguards for preventing "omniscient" companies from abusing people's data are not a bad idea (and one which normal market pressures might resolve, if people are properly educated on the matter). But legislation preventing useful technologies for the wrong reason doesn't help.

Posted by jheer at 05:24 PM | Comments (1)

r.i.p., my bike

This is my 200th blog entry, but rather than wax philosophical on the nature of blogging or any other such things, I'm posting in memoriam of my bicycle -- a silver, black, and red Specialized Hard Rock. It wasn't much of a bike... I got it for cheap when I moved to Palo Alto almost 3 years ago, and it's model was already 2 years old at the time. Still, it served me well, never broke down, and had been my primary mode of transportation for navigating the Berkeley Hills and exploring the regional parks near my home.

But last morning I walked out to my car to discover the car's contents in disarray... cassette tapes, car manual, registration, etc all tossed about. Then I looked in the back seat and realized my bicycle was gone. I had packed it up for a trip back home to visit the family for Easter, but upon coming back to Berkeley late at night, decided I'd wait until the next day to unload it. Never got the chance. The thieves also took my mag-light and leatherman, but fortunately neglected to take my umbrella, snow chains, meter change, and old high-school punk rock tapes (which are, of course, invaluable). My car shows no sign of damage, which only makes me wonder if after multiple trips bringing items in from the car I forgot to lock it. My bad, perhaps. But they're still assholes.

I wouldn't mind a little danah-style digital vigilantism, but I don't have any evidence to work with. But if bike thieves read blogs, I guess they should know that you'll need a socket wrench for the left pedal, it comes loose every once in a while...

Posted by jheer at 04:58 PM | Comments (0)

April 09, 2004


For any of you who enjoyed DJ DangerMouse's Grey Album, a brilliant, albeit cease-and-desist generating, mix of the Beatles samples and Jay-Z vocals, here comes its heavy metal cousin... Beatallica is a Beatles cover band who remakes the Fab Four's tunes in the style of fallen metal-gods Metallica. It's all here, in one form or another: A Garage Dayz Nite, Blackened the USSR, The Thing That Should Not Let It Be, and Everybody's Got A Ticket To Ride Except For Me And My Lightning. Fuckin' brilliant.

Info and downloads at Beatallica.com. Thanks to pitchfork for the heads up.

Posted by jheer at 10:12 AM | Comments (0)

April 08, 2004


So while others were telling me I was falling victim to an April Fool's stunt, I instead got moving to try and procure my own g-mail account. Thanks to a friend, I just got my invite today, and so far I am impressed.


Here's a link to G-Mail's getting started page, which has info on the service. More first experiences and impressions are in the extended entry. I'm looking forward to using this service more and getting a deeper opinion, so e-mail me there (gmail.com), under the heerforce moniker.

First off, I get 1GB of mail space. Sweet. Next, the interface design is quite good, introducing great features while keeping a simple design. Google is pushing integrated search as a major feature, but since I just started the account, it was the other things that stood out.

One change from most e-mail clients is that g-mail automatically groups e-mail threads together into a single entry in your inbox. This means that when someone writes me, I reply, and then they write back, these are all grouped together and move to the top of the inbox when a new message arrives. Furthermore, when viewing an e-mail, all the previous messages in the thread are there, too, just waiting to be expanded with a single click. This includes all your replies, so no more digging through the sent mail folder if you don't want to. Reply and forward features are also integrated on the page, allowing you to respond in context (no new pages or windows popping up, unless you want to).

Another nice touch is that inbox entries don't just show the sender and title, they give a short list of the conversation history (i.e., not just the current sender, but previous ones as well), and after the title, the entry includes as much of the message body as fits. Other nice touches: instead of folders there are "labels" allowing multiple categorizations, auto-complete for address book entries (sorted by usage), integrated spell checking, and an easy flagging mechanism ("starred" mails) for keeping track of important messages.

All in all, it's a lot of little UI tweaks that I suspect will add up. It looks like the designers did a good job of optimizing the interface to make things faster and simpler. At this point I feel like a freakin' Google ad, but what can I say, I am impressed so far.

Which brings up the last point... Google includes ads along the side of the page, which are triggered by the content of your e-mail. While perhaps this may be unsettling to some, advertisers never see your content. After all, it's not as if Yahoo! or Hotmail can't read your content, too, and in those services the advertisers can actually use their banner ads to track you with cookies. G-mail's advertising is much more subtle... there are no annoying banner ads, and the text only ads, just like the ads on their search pages, are pretty easy to tune out.

Posted by jheer at 08:11 PM | Comments (7)