Thinking of leaving GMail

I am thinking seriously about leaving GMail, despite how the email service itself has been extremely valuable to me. This is because of the following:

1) Irritating interface changes

GMail now has two interfaces. There is a maddening ‘modern’ interface that is full of elements that change shapes and sizes annoyingly. Anywhere you might enter text is likely to annoy you with pop-up ‘autocomplete’ suggestions and the chat system built into GMail has been rendered too annoying to use by integrating it into a left sidebar where elements change shape and size for no good reason.

The ‘Invite a friend’ element in the left toolbar breaks all the rules of good design. It’s a button that serves the purposes of Google, not the user. It is prominently placed even though it is never used. Worst of all, it moves and changes shape when you put the cursor near it. I wish I had some kind of supernatural geekish power to blast it out of existence, and yet it is always there annoying me, taking up space, and being a source of distraction.

I want an interface where things stay still! And where I am not being constantly distracted from the thinking I am trying to do.

There is still a ‘basic HTML’ interface, but some of its behaviours are even more annoying. It will still autocomplete email addresses, for instance, but it doesn’t use my whole contact list. It seems to be a random subset of the much-lesser-used contacts within that list. It is also very awkward to file emails into labels using the basic interface, and to deal with archiving messages.

2) Pimping Google+

I hate Google+ and I will never join. Despite that, Google is constantly trying to force me to join or trick me into joining. In the top left corner of both the GMail web interface and the mobile interface there is always a link to join Google+. I frequently click it accidentally, and that simple accidental act has sometimes caused Google to actually create a Google+ account for me, which I then had to delete.

I wish there was a ‘Never tell me about Google+ again’ button somewhere within Google’s settings. I could click it once and stop being annoyed several times a day by solicitations from the unwanted service.

3) I trust Google less and less with my data

I have written before about how sensitive some of the data held by Google is. “Don’t be evil” is a basic standard they need to meet – not a lofty goal for which they should be praised.

It’s not especially clear to me that Google is living up to its own standards. Even if they are, telecommunications law in Canada and the United States seems to have developed rather perversely in recent years, with governments submitting illegal requests to perform unwarranted searches on personal information and large telecommunication companies complying in secret.

Google probably isn’t unusual in terms of the degree to which it complies with such requests, but it is unusual in terms of the vastness of the dataset they have on users. Potentially, this includes everything from their physical location history (Google Latitude) to their web search history to every email they have sent or received since joining GMail.

Using Google’s services involves putting a lot of sensitive eggs into a basket that may not be especially well protected.

Dealing with plagiarism as a teaching assistant

One aspect of starting a PhD program is that I will be responsible for working as a teaching assistant: teaching seminars, grading papers, and so on.

I am worried about the inevitable day when I discover that a student has committed plagiarism and when I am in the position of having to decide what to do about it.

So far, the best plan seems to be to issue a stern warning during my first session with each group of students. It could be something along the lines of:

Do not submit plagiarized work to me.

If you do, you will be reported to the appropriate disciplinary authorities without exception.

You are here to earn meaningful degrees. Plagiarism devalues all of the work you are doing, and I will not tolerate it.

It’s unfair to give some people second chances or the benefit of the doubt while denying it to others. Being consistent seems important, and it also seems plausible that a sufficiently strong warning could prevent the problem from ever coming up in the first place.


I bought the game Braid to play during my long subway commutes.

While I am not a huge fan of platform games – or any game that relies on precision jumping as a key game mechanic – I have been enjoying Braid. The artwork is sometimes beautiful and impressionistic and the puzzles are usually complex enough to be interesting but not so complex as to be frustrating or impossible.

The plot is difficult to evaluate. At first, the protagonist ‘Tim’ comes across as a bit of a stalker, and the whole game seems rather transparently autobiographical. There do seem to be hints of it becoming more interesting, however. Tim, after all, is a kind of a wizard with unusual temporal control powers. The story of how he gained those capabilities is probably more interesting than the rather predictable story of his failed romance.

The game certainly has some interesting mechanics. Playing a platform game inevitably involves seeing the protagonist die over and over again (how many times did Mario fall down pits, get torched by fireballs, and so on?). Braid is the first game I can recall playing where death can be a necessary part of solving puzzles. Tim can commit himself to impossible situations, then ‘rewind’ to an earlier state. Because there are game elements that are not reversed during such rewinding, it is possible then to ‘rewind’ to a state that is different from what originally existed. Puzzles of this sort can be quite perplexing.

Maria van der Hoeven on climate change risks

Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), has issued a stark warning about the world’s inaction on climate change and the consequences that may have. The Guardian quotes her as saying that the world is “on track for warming of 6°C by the end of the century” and that this level of warming “would create catastrophe, wiping out agriculture in many areas and rendering swathes of the globe uninhabitable, as well as raising sea levels and causing mass migration, according to scientists”.

It’s a shocking thing to read from the director of a relatively conservative organization. It certainly suggests that the policy-makers of the world have their priorities badly misaligned with the welfare of their own citizens and of humanity as a whole.

For years now, the IEA has been calling for global carbon pricing.