Why I Pay for Email (and Domains)

In a world where you can get free email accounts seemingly anywhere, I recently decided to pay for an email service. This doesn’t mean that I don’t still have Gmail, Microsoft/Hotmail, iCloud, and Yahoo accounts–but it’s another step back toward paying for products and service instead of being the product. I chose Fastmail on the recommendation of a friend who has used them for many years.

Fastmail’s value proposition and advertising revolves primarily around security, privacy, no ads, no tracking–all of which are good. But the features I’ve found the most valuable so far are actually their search and mail rules. I have a fairly common first and last name. And unfortunately for me, this has meant receiving a lot of email in my Gmail account over the years that is intended for someone else. The email contents range from the merely annoying (emails from various GOP candidates for political office) to documents with PII and other content that is supposed to be confidential. But Fastmail’s mail rules setup allows me to delete that stuff from my inbox without ever having to see it.

Another feature Fastmail offers is Masked Email. You can use it to create a unique email address everywhere you log in on the web, and block addresses if you start receiving spam from them. What I do instead is use two domains that I own to create unique email addresses on-the-fly. What the setup with Fastmail lets me do is make up an email address on the spot with one of those domains and know that I’ll receive any email sent to it. For example: I go to Walgreens the other day, and made up an email to give to the person at the register for the myWalgreens program so I can get the associated benefits without giving them my real email. The mail rules let me filter these emails (and others like it) out of my inbox.

The email that’s actually intended for me I can label, filter, and receive notifications for if they’re really important. Fastmail also lets you create a rule based on a single message to control how future messages are handled (a capability that can also be applied to blocking senders). Whether I’m using the web application on my MacBook Pro, on the mobile apps on my iPhone or iPad mini, I get the same experience of email actually being useful again–including not missing important ones. It might be nice to have an actual desktop client, so I may try the FMail client someone developed and see if I like that better.

Fastmail makes it easy to onboard with a 30-day free trial where you can use it as the interface to whatever free email account you currently use the most. For me, that’s still Gmail. The import process (which had years of emails to pull over) worked perfectly. Because Fastmail can receive and send Gmail, I’ve had no need to use the Gmail web client or its mobile apps directly for weeks. I’ve even deleted Gmail from my phone and tablet.

I still have plenty of work ahead when it comes to unsubscribing my Gmail email address from so many things! Email lists, newsletters, stores, and all manner of other online services in the nearly 20 years since I first signed up for it. But as I do (and re-subscribe to just the things that matter most), Fastmail is helping make email a useful tool again.

Postmarks Revisited

Since my initial post on Postmarks, I made two minor changes to my bookmarking site:

  • I edited src/pages/layouts/main.hbs to eliminate the Login link from the header and the footer
  • I also removed the About link from the header
  • I moved the divider in the footer after the About link from outside the {{#if loggedIn}} to inside

This gives the site a slightly cleaner look I prefer.

Digging into the admin functionality a bit, I noticed the input textbox hid most of the JavaScript for the bookmarklet, so I replaced it with a readonly textarea and gave it the same id as the textbox I removed. This preserved the functionality while making all of the javascript visible. The bookmarklet itself works nicely, opening a pop-up that autofills the New Bookmark page with the URL, title, and description fields. When adding a bookmark, I forgot that multi-word tags weren’t allowed and got an error message like the one below:

invalid tags: tag must be in , tag name supports a-z, A-Z, 0-9 and the following word separators: -_.

When you get that error, the bookmark isn’t created. I updated line 11 of src/pages/partials/edit_bookmark.hbs to add the following reminder:

Remember: multi-word tags must be separated by dash (-) or underscore (_).

A nicer way to handle this might be to prevent the save attempt and allow the bookmarker to correct the bad tag. If I figure that out at some point and implement it, the new capability will be available for everyone who opts to remix my version of Postmarks.

Remembering 9/11

It’s hard to believe 22 years have passed since the terrorist attacks of that day. I still remembering being on the way to work when I heard the news on the radio of the first tower being hit by a plane. I still remember a lot of my coworkers with children in school leaving the office early to pick them up and go home. I still remember how soon afterwards letters laced with anthrax started showing up in the mail.

I personally didn’t lose any family or friends in the attacks. But a girl I was seeing at the time lost her older sister, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald—a firm noted often in the news at the time for just how much of their staff they lost. I remember spending a lot of time on the road between DC and New York visiting her, and supporting her and her family at the memorial service.

The intervening years have made certain memories fuzzy—fuzzy enough that some people engage in mythmaking when it comes to the country being unified by the attacks. But Spencer Ackerman remembers the way things really were–particularly in New York City. This piece I read yesterday is a stark reminder of how our nation actually treated Muslim Americans in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He plans to post follow-up pieces that I am looking forward to with great interest.

I wrote last year about how this country’s response to 9/11 would ultimately pave the way for insurrection on January 6th. Were I to update that piece today, I would certainly connect Trump’s various (and ultimately successful) attempts at Muslim bans to the surveillance, harassment, intimidation, and discriminatory treatment inflicted on Muslims in Brooklyn by the NYPD, INS, and FBI in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Years after it happened, I recalled that Trump’s initial Muslim ban kept the spouse of one of my co-workers at the time from joining him. A second co-worker at the same job was married to a man from Somalia, one of the seven countries subject to that ban. Ending birthright citizenship (in direct opposition to the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution) is another idea that gained currency on the political right during Trump’s term, but has had advocates among so-called conservatives before then.

Other anti-democratic impulses unbound by terrorist attacks of 9/11 threaten every American today, but especially those of us more traditionally and more easily “othered”. The Department of Homeland Security was a bipartisan creation, certain of whose component parts were responsible for civil rights abuses of protesters ordered by Trump, others who were responsible for the vile child separation policy at our southern border. The moral outrage that is Guantanamo Bay remains open, despite the end of US troop deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Even if Biden wins the 2024 presidential election (which is by no means a certainty), small-d democracy remains under threat in this country.

Unremarked Corners of Social Media: Substack Notes Edition

It’s been about 5 months since Substack introduced Substack Notes. Some Googling to refresh my memory regarding the timing of the announcement and the impact surfaced articles like this Guardian piece that detailed Elon Musk’s petty response to the launch of a (much smaller) competitor to Twitter. The shenanigans regarding blocked links, searches, and false “unsafe link” warnings have long since ended. An alert from one of the Substackers I follow prompted me to look at the service after some time away.

Here’s my Substack profile:

I wasn’t sure what the Claim Your Handle thing was about, so I clicked through to see:

Instead of the suggested handle, I went with the one I’m increasing using on all social media (and this website):

The Notes feature itself is nicely laid out, making it easy to see your “restacks”, original notes, replies, and other engagement from the Substack community. I only follow a few writers here, and I suppose Notes makes engagement easier. But it’s such a small audience it’s pretty easy to see why Substackers came to rely on Twitter so much to drive engagement with their pieces. It might not even be fair to Substack Notes to call it a social media option. I definitely could see engaging with Substack Notes more if I had a Substack newsletter, but I don’t write long enough or consistently enough for that to make sense (I also prefer to own my words, hence the choice to maintain this blog rather than let any one social media option own them).

Everything Old is New Again: Social Bookmarking Edition

According to this TechCrunch article, a Fediverse-powered successor to del.icio.us is now available. Back in the olden days of the web, I regularly posted links there to articles that I wanted to share or read later. I moved on from del.icio.us to Instapaper, and used it a ton (and actually read more of the content I saved there) because of the send-to-Kindle feature. Enough years have passed that I don’t recall exactly when I switched from using Instapaper to Pocket, but it might have had to do with original creator (Marco Arment) selling a majority stake to another company.

In the true spirit of the decentralized web, Postmarks is available as code in GitHub that you choose where to host (and connect to the Fediverse) yourself. Per the readme file, the creator of Postmarks put his thumb on the scale in favor of Glitch as a place to host your own instance. I played with Glitch briefly back in February when I first heard of it and found it to be a quick and powerful way to stand up new static or dynamic websites for whatever you wanted (within reason). So I started by visiting the default site the creator of Postmarks set up, pressing the Remix on Glitch button, and started renaming things per the instructions.

I used 1Password to generate the ADMIN_KEY and SESSION_SECRET values for my remix of Postmarks. I initially changed the username from the default (bookmarks) but since the Fediverse name Glitch-hosted sites resolve to is @bookmarks@project-name.glitch.me, I though the default (@bookmarks) worked quite well. Other changes I’ve made to the remix so far include changing the size of the read-only textbook on the About page with the site’s ActivityPub handle and changing the background color from pink to more of a parchment color.

Other minor changes I expect to make include:

  • Fonts
  • Unvisited and visited link colors

I’ve tried searching for the new handle with the Ivory client but it hasn’t shown up yet. There are other features I haven’t tried yet, like the Bookmarklet and Import bookmarks features that I will write about in a future post.