Fastmail Recommendation

I recommend Fastmail to people a lot, and this is why. It is a great email service. It costs at least $3 per month or $30 per year, so if that’s a dealbreaker for you then stop reading. Plus you might have to deal with stuff like IMAP and SMTP server names and possibly DNS settings if you want to get the most of it. But none of that is really all that hard.

Before I get to the technical advantages of Fastmail, just philosophically, email is a decentralized service, but for their personal accounts most Americans tend to use email from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.1 Other services are big in other countries but the story of centralization is similar. Google and Microsoft are pretty big in the enterprise as well. This is a shame—we should hold on to the original decentralized model of internet services, where no one company has too much control, as much as possible. And it’s very possible with email at least, even if very few people are using Mastodon instead of Twitter.

Also, I think (at least if you’re tech savvy enough and can afford to pay for a domain and then pay for an email service, which not everyone is lucky enough to do) you should own your own email address, one that’s not tied to some commercial service like iCloud or Gmail or even Fastmail. Mine is my first name @ my last name dot net. That’s not necessarily to say that you should never use those services—you don’t want to actually host your own email servers unless you really know what you’re doing. But the address that you share with the world should be one that is yours and that you can move from place to place, just like you can port your telephone number from one service to another. Similarly if you do a lot of non-work writing, it’s better to have it on your own domain, instead of just on places like Medium or, if that floats your boat, Facebook.

With that out of the way, I like Fastmail for a few very specific reasons.

Works well with your own domains. Lots of email services allow you to use other email addresses as aliases, but it’s less common to see an email service that allow you to easily use your own domains the right way. Fastmail does. When you own your own domain, you can have Fastmail host your DNS for you and configure your DNS records for you (that is, you set Fastmail as your name server; it’s not a registrar), or you can just set your DNS MX records (and a few other verification records) to point to Fastmail. That makes it so that the “official” mail servers for your domain names are Fastmail’s. This is not a how-to so I won't tell you how to do any of this; Fastmail's documentation is really good.

This means that when you send an email from one of your personal email addresses from your own domain, that email is properly “from” that domain name—your mail headers don’t show its being sent “on behalf of,” clients like Gmail don’t say things like “from name@lastname.net via Fastmail.com,” and the message is less likely to be flagged as spam.

The other way—the wrong way—is for emails to just be sent as aliases, which is sort of like faking your caller ID. Like faking a caller ID, it’s an officially supported thing, and also like faking your caller ID, it’s often abused. This means that emails sent as aliases are more likely to be flagged as spam or displayed in some strange way on the recipient’s end. With aliases, typically people will buy a domain name, and set up a “forwarding” address with it (say, all emails to firstname@lastname.com will be forwarded to lastname@gmail.com), and then tell the service (like Gmail) to just put the alias in the “from” field. But all of the other email headers will show that the message is just an alias, being sent through email servers that are not officially associated with the domain, and this is the kind of thing that spammers often do. (Even when you have everything set up correctly if you are using the Fastmail web interface, that will be reflected in the X-Mailer header of your message, and Fastmail might also be part of the Message-ID header. But those aren't bad things.)

You can get proper domain support with lots of services, of course, like a paid Google Apps account, though I don’t know what limitations there might be with using multiple domains. Some support them, others don't, others make you pay extra. With Fastmail you can use as many of your own domains as you’d like.

(When you set up an IMAP client with a Fastmail account, you just tell it the various email addresses you want to use with it, after using your actual Fastmail address as the user name. This is a normal IMAP thing.)

Works well with outside email accounts. Sometime you don’t own a domain but you want to send from an outside email address, but still not as an “alias” for all the looks-weird-sometimes/might-get-flagged-as-spam reasons above. Fastmail can handle this as well, because you can connect it to outside email accounts. Say you have a Google Apps account, but you’d rather use Fastmail to send mail from that email address. You can just have Fastmail send email from the Google mail servers, instead of using its own. Doing this means that using Fastmail with that address, including using the Fastmail web app, is exactly the same as using Mail.app or Outlook. (You can also have Fastmail poll the outside email service and pull in emails from it via IMAP at regular intervals—but it’s better to just tell that outside email service to forward email to your Fastmail address. That way it comes in in real time, at least if that’s what you want.)

A nice thing about this is that when you send an email from a third-party email app like Apple Mail on iOS from that address, Fastmail knows to use the correct mail servers, even if those mail servers aren’t specifically configured in your app. So once you’ve set lastname@googleappsaccount.com up correctly via the Fastmail web client, sending from it will always work the way it should for any third-party app that is configured to work with Fastmail without your having to manually give each third-party app the mail servers for the third-party email address. You just add addresses you use with Fastmail in this was as email addresses for the account in your IMAP client the way you’d add any other.

Push support on iOS. Push email support on mobile is sort of a pain in the ass since the “official” push method for IMAP is too much of a battery hog to actually use. So getting push on mobile usually requires using something proprietary, like Exchange instead of IMAP, or using a service-specific app like the iOS Gmail apps that hook into standard push notifications to sort of fake it. I don't mind third-party, non-system email clients but I really hate the idea of things like a "Gmail" app or a "Yahoo Mail" app--they're at best a necessary evil to work around limitations on push email. (Fastmail does of course have its own apps.)

There is another way, though—Apple has worked with different email services over the years, notably Yahoo, to support push on normal IMAP email accounts. A while ago Fastmail and Apple worked together to make this happen for Fastmail, as well. So when an email arrives in your Fastmail inbox it’s immediately sent to your mobile device. (I have no idea if any of this works on Android or if Android has something better.) This means that, for instance, if you use Fastmail to send and receive email from a third-party account, you get push for that account even if doesn’t otherwise support it. This is pretty cool.

Fastmail itself has written about all of this.

Fancy Email Tools.. Fastmail also has all kinds of nifty things like the ability to quickly scan for and delete duplicate messages. Sometimes when migrating email around you end up with thousands of them, and this fixes it. And if you’re moving to Fastmail, it can also import email from other email services very efficiently.

Uses normal folders. Fastmail just works like a normal email service, not a weird space alien one, which means it uses folders and not labels (as well as a very normal IMAP implementation). One advantage of this is that if you ever decide to move away from Fastmail in the future it’s very easy, just using an email client, to move all your messages somewhere else by dragging them from one folder to another. Gmail-style labels make that very hard and could result in your creating lots of duplicate messages (since the same message would be in “All Mail” and “Sent” at the same time, for instance).

Works with outside calendars. It's not really a huge differntiating feature, but of course Fastmail supports calendars and contacts. But while Fastmail has its own calendars of course, you can also point it to outside services (iCloud, Google) and have it use those calendars as well. My work calendars are on Google, and my personal ones are in iCloud, but I see them all (and can edit/make new events) in Fastmail. I can also see/edit them all if I point an iOS device or a calendar app to Fastmail, using CalDAV--meaning that Fastmail is a good way to aggregate lots of services and prevents you from having to sign into lots of different services on different devices. Fastmail doesn’t support outside contacts services using CardDAV, but it does make its own contacts available to third-party apps and devices via CardDAV. So, using Fastmail, you can cover the basics of email/contacts/calendars all in one place. It also has some file/web hosting support and a few other things like that that I don’t use.

It’s fast. It’s right there in the name, and it’s true.

___

Ok, that’s it.

  1. The best counterargument to using Fastmail is, if you’re a person who’s super tied into Google services, using Gmail gives you some integrations that you may or may not want—it can automatically scan your email for tracking numbers and tell you when packages are going to arrive, do some similar stuff with flight times, and so on. Plus Gmail makes it easy to respond to Google calendar invites, if you use the web app. But nothing about Gmail that involves using the web app appeals to me since I don’t like using web apps (they suck, because the web is good for publishing information but is terrible at software), and I hate all that automatic scanning stuff. Plus third-party apps do it all better, and in less privacy-invasive ways. ↩︎

Why Google’s Search Monopoly is So Vexing

Google’s search monopoly1 is very real, and durable, precisely because it is easy for end-users to switch to other search engines (I mostly use DuckDuckGo, for instance.) This is not a paradox—because Google has to keep working on and improving search to keep end-users, the fact is that most of them don’t switch. Google is still largely better than its competitors.2

For a lot of people this would be the end of the story—Google has a monopoly, but through its own merits, and therefore there is no consumer harm, though maybe some additional regulation (e.g. on privacy practices) is necessary. But that’s not the end of the story at all, because the fact that Google has such a lock on users means that the content, companies, and edge services that rely on Google as a source of traffic exist at its mercy. If you are a restaurant that depends on Google for people to find out about you there is no “switching.” You can’t just decide one day “Why, I would like to start getting my business through Bing, instead.” If you’re trying to compete with Google in one of its “verticals” (say, image or map search) you’re going to, at least, have a very hard time.3

I’m not even going to address the advertising issues.

It’s not impossible for other internet business to thrive in this environment, and for many of them Google is a good source of traffic and probably will always be. But if there is a risk that that traffic might drop other entities need to find a way to not depend on Google. You can own popular computing platforms, like Apple, you can be completely app-based, like Snap, or you can own one of the handful of sites that people go to directly, like Facebook or Amazon. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. (As an aside this is not a paradoxical or contradictory statement. Crack a Wikipedia some time.) Most business are screwed if they suffer a sudden drop in Google traffic.

A further question is whether Google is a “natural” monopoly or just the regular old kind—that is, is its current dominance mere happenstance or does the search market inevitably tend toward monopoly, meaning that if not Google some other company would be dominant? Here, I don’t know, but I think there are reasons to suspect it might be a little bit of both.

The typical story with natural monopolies is that there are such cost advantages to scale that having more than one competitor doesn’t make sense. For instance with utility companies, there are very high fixed costs, yet marginal (or even no) costs associated with serving a new customer. So a new entrant would have to spend the same amount in fixed costs as the incumbent, yet the incumbent could always undercut the new entrant when it comes to serving any particular customer. It can spread its fixed costs around the rest of its customer base while the new entrant has to find some way to recover its costs from its smaller customer base. This is hard to do. (But, nothing is impossible. With a dense-enough population, a rich-enough new entrant, or a lazy-enough incumbent anything is possible. The question is what is actually likely.)

With platform companies things are more complicated—there are network effects and virtuous (or vicious, depending on your point of view) cycles. For example social networks become more valuable the more users they have, meaning that new users will gravitate to them, and software platforms are valuable to users if they have applications, and to application developers if they have users. These dynamics can be very powerful.

So the question is whether Google search enjoys some of these dynamics—and the usual answer is that, yes it does. Namely, the more users use Google, the more data it collects on user behavior, which allows it to improve its offering, which attracts more users, and so on. So like a social network the “natural monopoly” here is control of the user base, not data centers or CDNs (though those things help).

But, there is a limiting principle to these network effects dynamics: diminishing returns. Many people thought that Android, with its much larger user base, would drive iOS out of the market, the way that Windows very nearly did to classic Mac OS. Until the web became more important than desktop software, Apple was on a death spiral since all the good applications were being written for Windows first, or only for Windows, so even long-time Mac users had no choice but to switch, further creating reasons for new applications to focus on Windows. But this hasn’t happened in mobile, in part because the iOS user base, though much smaller than Android’s, is still gigantic: iOS alone, for instance, has more users than the entire PC market ever did. Of course it makes sense to write apps for this platform.

Similarly, though it seems obvious that user data improves a search engine—how much data is enough? Could the market sustain two or three very large search engines, supplying them with all the user data they could ever need? Or will the search engine with a slightly bigger user base always be able to eke out a slight quality advantage, thus attracting more users, and starting the whole snowballing process over again?

Here, I just don’t know. I think it’s an empirical question, and the value of data is not fixed but could change as more deep learning-style techniques are developed. For example Google was recently able to make its photo recognition algorithms a few percentage points more accurate by vastly increasing the size of the training data used—is this a meaningful difference? Would something similar happen in search? At the same time all of Google’s smarts don’t seem quite up to the challenge of preventing its AI from spitting out “fake news” answers to questions—it’s only as smart as its input data and the internet is not very smart.

This matters because the business and policy response is different depending on the nature of the monopoly in question. If there’s a natural monopoly you can’t just wish it away—maybe you regulate it, or nationalize it, or turn it into a co-op—but if you just break it up it will either re-form, or you will create permanent inefficiencies and quality problems.4 But if it’s just a regular old monopoly you can break it up, or wait for normal competitive dynamics to either replace it (what if people stop using search engines altogether? what if something new and more important comes along?) or create a new competitor (like Facebook was to Myspace).

I don’t have any answers here. The title of this post was “Why Google’s Search Monopoly is So Vexing,” not “Here is an Answer to Google’s Search Monopoly.” To summarize: Google keeps its monopoly by offering a high-quality (and free) service to end-users, which in turn gives it tremendous power over those sites it links to. Those sites can’t “switch” anywhere. So typically those sites complain, not users, and it can be hard to distinguish between legitimate complaints and illegitimate ones (for example, if Google de-lists a scam site, this is not a problem but the scam site might make the same antitrust arguments as a legitimate site). At the same time, it’s not clear whether search engines are inherently a natural monopoly market where, left alone, cost or quality considerations will always drive towards monopoly, or whether it’s just one of those things that happens, and where competition or technological change, or antitrust action, can shake things up. Because search engines are at the center of internet, which is now at the center of commerce, culture, and politics, this is all quite vexing.


  1. Its market share is a bit over 60% in the US and a bit over 80% globally, and is over 90% in some markets. Monopoly is not either/or; the question is whether it has market power.

    However I don’t think search is Google’s even strongest monopoly, from an end-user perspective. Youtube is. Google’s search monopoly is probably more broadly important to the economy but (from an end-used perspective, again, and as discussed in this post) there are alternatives. But for content on Youtube there are often no alternatives. This is trivially true of many media sites—there are no alternatives to Netflix for Stranger Things, for instance—but for the kinds and sheer quantity of content Youtube hosts I believe it would be a much harder platform to displace.

  2. DuckDuckGo differentiates itself through a focus on privacy and power-user features but most people value good results much more. Even I turn to Google when DDG lets me down—and DDG supports searching Google via its “bang” command feature—one of those power-user features. ↩︎
  3. There’s a simple rejoinder here, that if Google doesn’t do a good job in presenting results in a fair way that it would risk losing customers—and to an extent that may be true. If Google de-listed Amazon or Facebook it might lose customers. But if Google decided to just flat-out de-list some smaller category of site and launch its own how many customers would it actually lose? And even if they quality of Google decreased somewhat, how long would it take end-users to even notice? ↩︎
  4. Think it through for a classic natural monopoly—how would you break up the water company? You’d just create a series of smaller natural monopolies (which is probably inefficient, though having just one nationwide water company is not ideal either) or you’d have to lay down a competing set of water pipes, which is inefficient. Or you’d create some kind of pseudo-competition like some states have with energy, which might be valuable but is just a form of regulation. ↩︎

bandwidth and electricity are the same but also different

Electricity is ultimately a scare resource (burning coal, collecting sunlight), with the complication that it is being produced all the time so there are good reasons to try to offload usage to non-peak hours, as opposed to just reducing usage entirely.

Bandwidth is beguilingly similar to electricity, in that people access the internet via this huge network of wires, and there are similar peak usage problems.

Another similarity between electricity and bandwith is that non-usage can be wasteful--there has to be slack to accommodate burst and peak usage, but for the most part if communications infrastructure isn't being used to its full capacity it is being wasted; it's like building a six-lane highway that no one drives on.  Similarly, particularly with fossil fuels, if power is generated but not used it just means that the fuel used to generate it was wasted.  But there is a difference, in that electricity generation can be ramped up and down, while the amount of bandwidth available on given infrastructure remains fixed. (That's not to say that an individual user can't buy more bandwidth on demand, meaning that increased usage could cost an individual ISP more in, for example, transit costs; it's just that the total global bandwidth available remains fixed until someone installs more stuff, in the same sense that road capacity remains the same until more roads are built.) Also I suppose it doesn't matter too much if more solar or wind power is generated at a given moment than can be used--especially if it can be usefully stored in batteries or by pushing water uphill.

However I think drawing too many conclusions from the similarities between electricity and bandwith can lead to problems, because ultimately electricity is a scarce resource that is used up, while bandwith is mostly just a congestion problem. The idea situation is that all communications infrastructure would be used to just-below its peak capacity at all times.  (Similarly it would be great, if impossible, if people's road trips were evenly distributed throughout the day--no rush hours or event congestion.) But there's no reason not to use as much bandwidth as is available--to the extent there can be waste the waste comes about from building unnecessary infrastructure.  This seems very different than electricity where it always makes sense to try to reduce usage.

So, a per-bit metering system for bandwidth would likely be a bad policy because it would discourage usage all the time, but it makes no sense to discourage usage unless there is actual congestion.  Thus while it might make sense to use pricing or other means to try to smooth out bandwidth usage or even to reduce it overall when infrastructure is nearing capacity, unlike with electricity encouraging "conservation" does not always make sense--instead you often want to encourage use of the infrastructure, and the best way to do this might be a metered price of zero.

Assorted Free Speech Takes

So I don’t have to try to tweet all this, here are my various takes on the free speech controversies that have been welling up lately.

These are my personal (and provisional and subject to change) opinions and I don’t speak for my employer or any organization I belong to.

  • I am almost but not quite a free speech absolutist when it comes to the government: prior restraint is bad. “Hate speech” is not an exception to the First Amendment. I think the ACLU’s suit against WMATA is correct. If the government is going to sell advertising space (which it doesn’t have to do and probably shouldn’t) in public places then under current law it needs to sell ads to NAMBLA and Nazis, and in any circumstance must accept “political” ads.

 

 

  • The settled law that viewpoint-neutral time, place, or manner restrictions on speech are legal is correct. This is true even though people will get tricky and try to characterize viewpoint discrimination as viewpoint-neutral. A rule that leads to fact-specific arguments in situations like and occasional abuses is better than doing away with time, place, or manner restrictions. Based on reading the briefs and looking at the facts as they were known and presented to the court I believe ACLU was wrong in challenging the right of Charlottesville to move the Nazi demonstration to a different public park, and the judge was wrong in his decision, and that the events bear that out.

 

  • Major online platforms should afford everyone due process. Whether something is a “major” online platform depends on the specifics of the market and the availability of alternatives. They should be required to have clear content policies in advance, they should be required to give notice for any content that they wish to take down (unless it is per se illegal, see above), they should permit people and opportunity to export their content (again, unless it is per se illegal) and they should give people an opportunity to challenge the “charges” against them before a neutral decision-maker and have their content reinstated if victorious. (Maybe something like Hal's idea would work, though I don't think it's the right approach for ISPs.)

 

  • If a platform is an actual monopoly (probably whether a natural monopoly or otherwise) or more "infrastructural" in nature, then it should be subject to common carrier rules of some kind. This is a heightened version of the above, and it does not require them to carry per se illegal speech, but it would put some restrictions on their ability to decline to carry content even for reasons that are delineated in advance, and limit their discretion in individual cases. Some kind of restrictions that go beyond what the government would be permitted to ban may be permitted for some, but not all common carriers of this kind—for example with infrastructure-type services common carriage should be strongest.

 

  • The best way to avoid the abuse of power is to prevent accumulations of power. To the greatest extent possible would should avoid having any single platform having the ability to remove someone from the internet, which might mean breaking up, or restricting the size or conduct of some companies, even if they've done nothing "wrong" to achieve their position. Although if a natural monopoly exists we should deal with that fact instead of idly wishing for more competition. (Why not transform them into customer-owned co-ops?)

 

  • This is not really a "platform" issue but one of to what extent businesses should have the right to decline to do business with someone for any reason.  We already prevent discrimination based on protected categories (mostly immutable characteristics) but should we go further?  Obviously I think in some cases the answer is yes.  The reason to talk about "platforms" is that they tend to be more closely speech-related so these issues are more salient than they would be, for instance, in the case of a gas station.

 

  • In general, unions are very good and the best way to protect workers from arbitrary management. But even non-unionized companies should afford due process rights to employees, who should be able to challenge terminations. Due process must always be available to avoid pretextual termination or ones depending on falsified or no evidence. Believing and advocating hateful things, even outside the workplace, should be grounds for termination, but those kinds of things need to be spelled out, in advance, though not to the same level of precision that First Amendment exceptions need to be spelled out. For example, it would be ok to fire someone for denying the Holocaust (or the Holodomor or similar events). It would be ok to fire someone for believing in racial supremacy or gender-related pseudoscience. It should not be ok to fire someone for being a libertarian or a socialist or a supporter of the divine right of kings. Believing in things that are just generally stupid should not be grounds for termination. However companies should have the ability to buy someone out in such a circumstance, again under some clear pre-set rules.
Source: my brain

Letter of Recommendation: Detroit Techno

The radical act of Detroit’s techno rebels was that they entered an inhuman network of machinery and found a voice within it — which aligns them with a different Detroit legacy. The city’s first independent black autoworkers’ organization was called the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement — or DRUM. Members chanted the word while marching, as though keeping a beat.

 

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/magazin...

But a rack of lamb is not the Roman Empire.

“And yet, I think it was a better description of the market than they had, because the least of the market is the food.”

"What is it then?" Hardesty asked, though he already knew.

"Buying and selling, faces, the color, the light, the stories that breed within it, its spirit. Where else would you find all these clear lights strung so high and gleaming in the cold?" she asked, indicating the chains of electric bulbs over the stalls. "Harry Penn got a telegram from Craig Binky, that said, ‘How can you cover the market and not mention food?' Imagine, they send telegrams between two offices on the same square. Harry Penn cabled back, 'Eating assassinates the spirit.' 

"I like to eat," she said. "In fact, I'm hungry right now. But a rack of lamb is not the Roman Empire."

Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale.

This pretty much sums up how I feel about food writing.

Comments in the mp3 available here.

Soviet Jokes.png
embed Block
Add an embed URL or code. Learn more.