Degoogling my life

Privacy is a human right, when so much of our life is lived online. In my opinion, the two most evil companies on the planet with a blatant disregard for privacy because it is so fundamental to their business model are: Facebook (and by extension, WhatsApp and Instagram) and Google. A common argument against the need for privacy that I have definitely heard in my family is “but I have nothing to hide”. Well, neither do I and yet so does everyone. Does anyone really appreciate searching on Google for a vacuum cleaner and then seeing photos of vacuum cleaners follow them around all over the web for months afterwards? But I digress: I made a conscious decision to gradually rid myself of Google (Facebook was easier: just delete the app) to the extent possible.

I spent quite some time researching alternatives to each of Google services, and the list below tabulates what I have settled on. Importantly, I have reached the conclusion that viable (and often superior) alternatives exist. Nothing in life is free: one can pay with one’s privacy or with cash. It is no surprise this that most of these below are paid services. Personally, I am more than happy to support businesses where I know what I am paying for and my data is not being pilfered to create some Frankensteinian advertising profile on me.

1. Fastmail (email, contacts, and calendar): I have been using their email service for over a year now. They are a privacy-respecting email service based out of Australia. They’ve actually been around for a very long time: I remember a college friend in early 2000s (back when they were showing me a cool feature to send a (fake) email undelivered response to an email. I believe they don’t have have that feature in their present-day incarnation. These days my most-used Fastmail feature is their ability to create an unlimited number of email aliases. I can create a new email address for every untrustworthy website and if I start receiving spam on an alias, not only do I know which website was the culprit behind it, but I can simply delete the alias and move on. Another favorite: the ability to block remote images (and as opposed to delivering them over a proxy server — see HEY below) which makes for a pleasant 90s-like (remember mutt?) text-only webmail interface. They have a high quality iOS app with both email and calendar. The service is mature and it has all standard email features (filters, forwarding, IMAP/POP, 2FA etc.). One situation where Fastmail beats Gmail is the ability to send emails from MATLAB or R, or from a cron script running on my own hosted domain: inevitably, these were rejected as “low quality” on Gmail. Well, I am not too keen on letting an AI make that decision for me. Unlike Gmail, Fastmail doesn’t hold immediate push notifications hostage for the native Mail app either.

Perhaps the more difficult task was to then go to all the places where I had signed up my Gmail and then replace that with my Fastmail address.

Yes, I do realize that the moment someone sends me an email from Gmail to my Fastmail (or when I respond to them), I am effectively enabling that same advertising profile. But we have to start somewhere and one can only hope that enough people will switch over from the dark side.

2. DuckDuckGo: I mean, have you looked at Google search results lately? Once upon a time they used to be the 10 blue links company with one prominent and easily-identified, textual advertisement at the top. Contrast that with the situation now: it is impossible to find the organic result one wants amongst a sea of distractions and posers (ads cleverly disguised to resemble results). Admittedly, this Google service was the most difficult to be weaned away from, partly because when I tried DDG in the past, the results were less than spectacular. But I think the tide has turned now: DuckDuckGo is a viable and formidable competitor (remember when Google was just that against Altavista?) with two clear benefits: they have no intention to build an advertising profile on their users and there is a clearly demarcated ad at the top followed by organic search results. I am to understand that their results are based on Bing’s index. I would estimate that my average rate of going to Google when DDG can’t find an answer is 1 in 200, which is remarkable!

3. AWStats: This was easy. I just removed all Google Analytics code from my own domains. I cannot be, in good conscience, an enabler of that (creating advertising profiles based on which webpages a person visits) which I myself oppose.

4. Safari: Again, for someone who is 100% on the Mac/iOS bandwagon this is an easy one to accomplish. Of course, I have 1Blocker installed. The recent builds of Safari have this oddly satisfying Privacy Report where one can see how many of these creepy ad-trackers were blocked on a webpage and sometimes it is truly enlightening as to what the real business mode of some of the “free” websites is. For work, where we still use GSuite, I have isolated Gmail etc., into the Chrome browser. Firefox is an excellent alternative to Safari, especially for those not on Mac/iOS.

5. Little Snitch: A nifty little firewall for macOS to both see which apps are phoning back home (and where) as well as block any culprits from doing so. Bonus: they also sell another app called Micro Snitch that alerts the user whenever the camera or microphone are in use.

6. Apple Maps: This one is yet another example of a disappointing v1 that has now matured into a viable alternative. Maps is one area where my transition away from Google’s offerings is not complete: I still use Waze regularly mainly for their crowdsourced annotations (crashes, slowdowns, construction, etc.) which are unmatched on any other maps platform.

7. HEY: This is definitely the new kid on the block. From the folks at Basecamp who have been writing software and books for over 20 years now, this is their “weird” interpretation of what email should be. It’s a bit pricey, no doubt, but what I did like was that I was able to get an OG email address firstinitial lastname HEY deserves a blog post of its own (coming soon).

In conclusion, I have taken the first steps in a journey that is likely to be a thousand miles long. By documenting my experiences here, I hope others can learn about these first-class alternatives.

Daily life lessons from the pandemic (or how I learnt to stop worrying and love saving time and effort)

To say that 2020 was an unusual year would perhaps be the understatement of the century. Ever since our state went into shutdown in March 2019, we (my family and I) were forced to make some major changes into our daily and weekly routines. Some lessons that I learnt and are worth sharing are below.

  1. Buy a robotic vacuum cleaner. After much thought, we pulled the trigger on this one. The daily cleaning from 3 work-from-homers was simply too much. Our initial thought was to go for the default iRobot Roombas, but following a suggestion from a family friend and some Youtube+Amazon research, we decided to buy a Roborock S6 Pure instead. The primary motivation for this was that it has an inbuilt mop and there is no recurring cost as is the case for Roombas. Everyday, at 6 am this little magician wakes up and cleans the entire floor while the entire family is still fast asleep!
  2. Switch to online grocery delivery. In our case, we went with Peapod, and at some point were switched over to Stop & Shop’s own grocery delivery service. After trying them for a few weeks, we decided to sign up for their annual fixed-rate subscription ($55 I think) which removes the $6.95 delivery fee for Tuesday and Thursday deliveries provided we order at least $100 worth of groceries (which we do anyway). We also order intermittently from Whole Foods which has a $35 minimum for free delivery for Amazon Prime members. I have to say, I have not missed Trader Joe’s since I last visited their store in person in (checks notes) March of 2019.
  3. Use the dishwasher. Yes, this one could be categorized as ‘duh’. Out of sheer habit, I have always washed dishes manually, and even though we have a dishwasher in our house it has remained unused. And we had a few of the special detergent cakes lying around too waiting to be used. So changing to the dishwasher not only saved time everyday, but also helped use up the detergent. Side benefit: I learnt about how dishwashers work.
  4. Pitas, naans, and other breads can be stored frozen. Maybe this is common knowledge, but certainly no one in my family was aware of this. We learnt this trick from a note on the pita packaging. And to thaw, all it takes is 1:00 minutes of heating in the microwave to recover the warm, fresh-smelling bread!

(This post is a work in progress. More lessons coming soon.)

First post: the scope of this blog

I recently found a website to discover abandoned domain names (via HN), and was quite excited to find out that both and had recently become available. To any neuroscientist, the significance of this name is abundantly clear. I quickly grabbed both these domains, with the former set up to redirect to the latter. I intend to use, i.e., this blog to discuss topics of interest to me: recent papers, product reviews, share R code, describe travels, and any other topic that may be of interest. In other words, a simple changelog for my life. In some ways, this blog is timely – there is now a light at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic tunnel with the recent vaccine approvals, and my professional life is about to change in a significant way as I move away from academia to the biotech world.