Two years without Facebook

I completed 2 years without having a Facebook account a couple of days back on my birthday. I wouldn’t say the experience was perfect, but still it did me more good than bad. A lot of people use Facebook under the guise of staying in touch with a lot of people, but do they actually stay in touch with people through Facebook? I don’t think so. The stream of updates on Facebook is heavily clogged by photos, videos, messages from apps and meaningless likes from people whom you just know and nothing more. And more often than not, knowing about the lives of other people via Facebook often unleashes bouts of depression caused by comparing our lives to theirs based on whatever they have posted, however true or false that maybe. I am glad to be free from such emotional baggage. I also believe that connecting with people in real life does more good than pretending to do so on pseudo-social networks.

Often, the fact that it is a social network and you are not talking to people in person, makes you say things that you would never say in person. Apart from that, it takes a lot of effort to filter out just the content you want to read. Previously when I was on Facebook, there used to be a “Status updates” filter which used to filter and show just the status updates from people. But that was removed after some time and Facebook started to use various algorithms to determine what content to show me and what I would like to read. Unfortunately the intersection was almost always empty for me. As Facebook never deletes anything, all my activities on the site can always be traced back to me. Right to be forgotten is very important to me. So I am glad I quit Facebook.

Since the primary revenue for Facebook is via advertising, it is always trying to find more about users to show them targeted ads. As a result of this, Facebook wants to be everywhere on the internet trying to track all your online activity which in my humble opinion is nothing short of stalking. Even if you don’t have a Facebook account, all the information is associated with a shadow account which will be merged with your account if and when you create one on Facebook. I don’t want to give them any of my data any more. I use browser plugins to block all Facebook social content and other forms of tracking. If someone who knows me really wants to share something with me, it is very easy to find ways to get in touch with me instead of just broadcasting on Facebook and hoping that I see it. I am very active on Gmail chat and prefer having one on one conversations with people once in a while.

You might be thinking that Google is as evil and it makes no sense for me to ditch Facebook and use Google’s suite of products where you are the product being sold. I totally agree with that point and I have thought about self-hosting those services on my server using something like Sovereign, but I haven’t managed to find the time and motivation to get it done. Google has made such a move a bit more difficult by abandoning XMPP federation which means people using their own XMPP chat servers cannot communicate with the users using Google’s chat. Since I have been unable to abandon Gmail, I am fairly active on Google+ for now. I don’t like how Google is forcing it on all users with Google accounts.

Google+ is fast becoming the omni-present evil that wants to know more and more about your activities. The latest in the series of moves in that direction is the compulsion of using real names with all Google accounts and using +1′s of users and showing them as advertisements/recommendations with their photograph to other users. To mitigate it, I try to use Google search engine in private browsing mode without being logged into any of Google’s services whenever I can.

Having an Android device gives Google a lot more chance to mine data about my life, but I am doing my best to avoid it by using Cyanogenmod and its Privacy Guard. I did try to use my phone without any of Google’s apps, but had to give up due to the need to install a few apps which are found only on the Google Play Store. Being very paranoid about installing any app on my phone and denying it the permissions it doesn’t need has helped a bit, but it is not fool-proof.

You might also find me active on Twitter. I believe Twitter at least tries to be a social network and with the 140-character limit on messages, there is not as much spam as in Facebook. I have a lot of friends on Twitter (still just a fraction of the number of friends I had on Facebook) who do post a lot of content that I find interesting to follow. While I also use Libre alternatives like Diaspora, StatusNet, Pump.io, I don’t have my friends there and with not a lot of people there on those social networks, they often end up being ghost towns.

Services like Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp have become the latest fad and they have a large number of users using them with the smartphone boom. While the ideas behind those services might be unique and trendy, they have a dodgy track record and privacy terms. Snapchat provides a way to send ephemeral picture messages to other users of the service, but do we know for sure that Snapchat isn’t archiving all the messages sent using its platform and selling them to advertisers? Isn’t it creepy what they could do with all the data? WhatsApp has had known security and privacy issues (like uploading the address books of users to their servers) for a long time and still people use it because they just want to appear trendy and don’t care enough to appreciate the harm.

When I talked to one of my school friends a few days back, he told me that a lot of our classmates were having a fun group conversation on WhatsApp. While that made me feel bad about missing on getting in touch with classmates, I was never going to get tempted to install such a thing and use it. For the sake of my privacy, I consider it a reasonable sacrifice to miss out on all first-hand conversations and get to know about them late from someone who participated.

If you are someone who cares about privacy, do consider quitting the use of privacy-invading social networks and mobile apps. I know that it could be very difficult for most people, but at least give it a try, If you are skilled enough, you can even try creating open source alternatives based on open standards. While you might face failures initially, remember that every long journey starts with the first few steps forward and don’t give up.

Sachin Tendulkar – End of an era, take a bow!

With curtains coming down on a glorious career living the dreams of millions of fans, a lot of emotion and sentiments were let loose, I thought I would repost some of my blog posts and tweets (a few of them critical as well) on the great man as my tribute.

20 years of my superhero!
Why I’d prefer watching good tennis than good cricket more often!
Sachin Tendulkar – 200* !
If you can’t appreciate, at least don’t sling mud!

Looks like I predicted it right more than 3 years ago :-)

Demystifying “lucky draw coupons for all” at malls

If you are living in a major city in India like Bangalore and have visited malls, you might have noticed that lucky draw coupons are offered to whoever enters the mall. A lot of us have at least once filled in those coupons with our name and phone number and handed them over. Have we ever realized that they give the coupons for everyone who enters the mall whether they buy anything or not. Sounds fishy?

If you did enter yourself in such a lucky draw, a few days or weeks later you would get a call from an unknown number declaring you as one of the prize winners in the lucky draw and that you could collect the prize by visiting some location that is mentioned. If you’re an unmarried person, you would be told that only a couple can come and collect the prize. You would even be suggested to send a couple who could be related to you or be your friends or anyone who would do it for you.

A lot of people would be put off by the “couple” requirement and possibly by the prize distribution location’s distance from your home. If you weren’t, you’d be promised thoroughly that there wouldn’t be any hidden clauses or conditions to collect the prize. To enlighten people faced with similar situations, here’s my experience in pursuing it further.

A few times I hadn’t trusted the whole lucky draw and “you have won a prize, no hidden clauses or conditions” thing and ignored it. But my mother, new to the city and its happenings, was always intrigued by this lucky draw prize thing and wanted to pursue it further and see what happens.

So recently when I got a similar call from an unknown caller proclaiming that my mother had won a prize and the same blah blah blah, I told my mother about it and asked her if she was interested in venturing out to collect the prize. She was very much interested and since the prize distribution location that they mentioned was not too far away from my place, I decided to join my parents.

After we reached the landmark near which the gift distribution location was supposed to be located, we found nothing at all. I called the “you’ve won a prize” messenger again and asked him about the location. He apologized and asked us to travel further and reach an another location a couple of kilometers away. Even at that time he didn’t give the exact details of the location. Since we were motivated to see it through to completion, we boarded a bus and went to the new location. Nope, nothing there anywhere in the vicinity of the place he had asked us to get down.

On calling him again, he gave instructions to walk in one particular direction till we come near a “Country Club Resort” and enquire the security guard at the resort who would show us the location. My radar smelled something fishy at the mention of “Country Club” but my parents were still imagining a building near the Country Club resort where the prizes would be distributed. We reached the Country Club resort and the guard asked us to go to the underground parking lot of the resort.

There was a small office operating there and I could see a few couples coming in and going out. I went in and asked the receptionist about the gift and a we were asked to wait. A few minutes later we were told that there would be a presentation for an hour’s time at the end of which we could collect our prize. My innocent parents were imagining some prize distribution ceremony that could be an hour long with a lot of guests and speakers. Kaboom! Back to reality! We were then taken into a room full of small round tables with chairs around them. There were couples seated in each of those tables talking to one “presenter” and there was blaring music.

We sat in one of those tables with one of those presenters, who told us about our prize – a kitchen item and a couple of sponsored items from Country Club. He told us that we would be getting our prizes at the end of his presentation on a promotional offer provided by Country Club and that we would be getting our prizes irrespective of whether we buy the product being sold. At that moment I realized what we we had gotten into. They had deliberately not revealed “Country Club” till the last moment as a lot of people would have backed off on hearing it.

The salesman asked us some questions to fill in a survey form. Then he kept talking on and on about the benefits of buying a Country Club resort membership under the promotional offer. Since I couldn’t hear him clearly due to the loud music, I kept nodding my head at regular intervals. My parents very much liked his style of presentation, but they never had any intention to go ahead with the offer. So the presenter redirected his focus towards me trying to impress me into buying it. The price was revealed only at the very end of the presentation after about 90 minutes of showcasing exotic holidays, excellent facilities, the convenience and value provided by the Country Club membership and it was a 6 digit figure. The salesman didn’t know that I wouldn’t splash so much money on luxury and entertainment when there are a lot of people with their basic needs unmet. Seeing that I hadn’t yielded he started advertising partial down payments and attractive monthly EMI.

As it was getting late into the night and well past my dinner time, we asked him to complete his presentation and give us the gift so that we could leave. That triggered the strategy of asking us to wait for a couple of minutes to generate the gift vouchers online and while we were waiting, the salesman started trying to convince us to buy. The cycle of being asked to wait a few more minutes for the gift voucher and facing the blatant canvassing continued for about half an hour. It could have continued further if all the other salesmen and their prospective customers weren’t done with their presentation and left the hall.

The couples who had agreed to buy the membership card were taken inside a special room in the office and given prizes and possibly some additional goodies. We were just asked to go out to the parking area and they just dumped the prizes – a gift wrapped box and a couple of vouchers, in our hands and we left the place.

I told my parents that the people behind these “lucky draws” had used the “lucky draw” and the greed of the people to try and win more customers for their product. By following a “gift coupon for everyone” approach, they collected the contact details of thousands of people to canvass them into buying the club membership.

In case you’re still awake and not bored after reading this far and want to know what the gifts were, here are the details. We got a box containing 6 ice cream glass bowls from an unbranded local maker, a voucher for our family to enjoy the facilities at a Country Club resort on a weekday within a month’s time and a free accommodation in 3-5 star hotels on during our holiday tours provided we pay the minimal taxes of about Rs.4000, valid a for a year. The voucher was not signed by a person of authority as required and that made it invalid and useless.

So did we really get free gifts? Nope. We had invested our time and effort and showed a lot of patience in sitting through the “presentation” and also unintentionally gave our names and mobile number to them. Fair enough. Nothing in this world is free. So just think twice before you reveal your personal details in the hope (greed?) of winning a prize without spending a single rupee.

Looking back at 2012

One of the most important lessons that I learnt this year – never put your health at stake no matter what. No, don’t do it even if you are absolutely sure that you will emerge unscathed. I did exactly that at the beginning of this year and now I am wondering if I will ever recover from that. Yeah, I had a lofty sense of righteousness about standing up for something good, blissfully blind to failure and its consequences – the known and unknown. I messed it up pretty bad shattering my health and mind to pieces. After having that near-death experience even without knowing it was one, my daily life was filled with problems hitherto unknown. While my body was recovering from a sudden and serious ailment at its own pace, my mind totally lost it. I was so scared of death and even more of life. I wondered everyday if there will be a tomorrow that I will wake up to. I lost interest in life, for it just seemed an inevitable procession to death. All the emotions – love, hate, affection, anger, happiness no longer made any sense to me. That my body was giving me a different problem every other day or once every few days didn’t help either. I felt really disturbed at having lost all the sense of ignorance and suddenly I was groping thin air trying to find out the purpose of life when it was this futile and meaningless. The people around me were rambling on and on just about what they wanted and there weren’t any comforting shoulders or enlightened minds whose help I could use. Suddenly, it became next to impossible to get interested or involve myself in anything. Even the things that I loved seemed to be nothing more than a vague memory from a distant past. I always had a morbid fear that something was horribly wrong with my body and doctors always seemed to miss finding that out and helping me. I had frequent panic attacks as a result. Hearing about violence, death of even unknown people still affects me very badly and gives me nightmares.

So how did I get out of such a messy state? What makes you think that I got out of it? I have learnt to accept and live with these things. That has eliminated most of the panic. Whatever is remnant, keeps me honest and helps me live life to the fullest. Yeah, health improving a bit has helped reduce the paranoia as well. There have been people who have done their bit to help me and I’m indebted to them.

My father came and lived with me while my health was recovering. He helped me to be very disciplined with my life style as that was of utmost importance at that time. Once my father went back, I learnt to cook on my own and managed to cook for about 6 months, though not for every time in a day. In the initial days, I did try to cook all the time, though gradually it reduced and went through barren periods in between. Starting from just following the procedure to prepare food, I tried out new things and learnt a fair bit about cooking which should keep me in good stead in the future.

Organizing an online treasure hunt contest at office by designing the event, website and conducting it successfully after an initial faux pas helped me get a lot of my confidence back. Visits to my alma mater for server and network administration work and for FStival made me feel as normal and happy as possible. Gradually towards the end of the year, I was back to near normalcy learning about a lot of new stuff and fiddling with them. One regret I have though is that I haven’t been able to contribute anything in terms of writing code or contributing to free software projects. I intend to change that in 2013.

Ever since my beloved Nokia N79 phone slipped out of my hands and fell into the toilet of a running train, I wanted to buy a good smartphone. With the Android boom happening these days, it was just an impulsive buy away. Though I bought my parents a Samsung Galaxy Y last year, I didn’t feel satisfied with a such phone. My mind always craved for a high-end latest smartphone. While Samsung Galaxy S3 captured my imagination and I was always on the verge of buying it, my mind kept reminding me that it wasn’t worth its steep price. The next best phone, Google Galaxy Nexus was at least 10K cheaper, though Samsung decided not to release the phone in India to push S3 as its leading phone. I bought my Galaxy Nexus from eBay India in the last week of August. Galaxy Nexus was a flagship Android phone and provided the pure Android experience straight from the hands of Google, which meant that it will always get updates directly from Google, far ahead of better phones. In the worst case, the phone manufacturer might arbitrarily decide to stop providing software updates to a phone after it is reasonably old, in order to push the newer models. I got my phone within 2 days of ordering and my initial experience was very hesitant, partly because I had never used such a big and powerful phone. I already had a bad history with expensive phones losing them soon after buying them. This phone cost twice as much as my most expensive phone till date. I kept using it only at home, too scared to take it outside. Since I don’t own a vehicle and travel by public transport, I was scared of losing the phone. But with time, I got used to handling it and have been taking it with me wherever I go. But the sad part is, when it rains, I am more worried about my phone getting wet than about me getting drenched. :-)

After spending a very long time in deliberation, I got myself a server on the internet. It hosts my website and Keirthana’s and an owncloud instance – just for me to try out. I am sharing this server with Bala anna, who named it ‘Knuth’ :-) and would be hosting his site on it as well.

My parents opted for voluntary retirement from the service in Indian Railways some time in the middle of the year and have moved in with me at Bangalore last month. That has helped me greatly to lead a better and comfortable life. My gratitude to them as always.

I managed to attend a couple of Bangpypers’ meetings and also PyCon India 2012 which happened in Bangalore. As always, Bala anna participated with me.

Right now I’m at Trichy for the year-end vacation, penning down this post in bits and pieces whenever I have been blessed with electricity supply at home. If I have to blurt out truth plainly, I would have to say that 2012 is by far the worst year of my life, but as always there is a silver lining. I’ve had some really happy moments scattered in between the tough ones during the course of this life-changing year. And all I keep saying to myself is “This will pass. Tough times do not last, tough people do”.  Hoping for a great life ahead and wishing everyone the same.

Moving away from Ubuntu after 5 years

Ubuntu’s Amazon search “feature” fiasco (Probably I have enough in my mind to write another big post) was the last thread in the straw for me. Switched to Debian Testing with GNOME 3. Surprisingly, GNOME 3 isn’t that bad at all and not much different from Unity. Yeah having to install extensions to achieve some functionality expected to be out of the box, is a bit weird, but is something you can live with.

One thing that isn’t quite up to the mark is the notifications system. Most of the commonly used applications in Ubuntu, like Pidgin, Thunderbird, Gwibber, Transmission, Empathy, make use of the notification system created by Ubuntu. In GNOME 3, that sadly isn’t the case. A lot of work still needs to be done in integrating the applications with the notification system.

Since I have a 8 mbps internet connection at home, installing the proprietary drivers for my NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GS graphics card and proprietary firmware for my Intel® PRO/Wireless 3945ABG wifi adapter was a breeze and went without any issues. I even tweaked GRUB’s resolution and enabled a cool bootsplash screen featuring the Joy theme.

All these years of using my laptop, a couple of times, I did try to move out of Ubuntu, but there was always something that made me come back to Ubuntu in no time. But this time I am having a good experience with Debian Wheezy and GNOME 3 and it’s highly unlikely I will come back to Ubuntu any time soon. Ciao Ubuntu, without doubt you were very good and worked without issues for me ever since I started with Feisty Fawn and I am very happy about that. But now it is time to go.

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P.S. The ‘New Post’ composer on WordPress.com is kinda cool. Hoping to get it soon for my self-hosted blog.