Cleanse thy soul

For the past few years I’ve taken to having routine breaks from certain timesinks to help me focus and also to denoise some of my thoughts. The number one timesink in my world is without doubt the interwebs, and there are a few steps I’ve taken to weaken its stranglehold.

Perhaps the following will help you, or perhaps you’ll email me to point out your ideas for me to try.

Cut the tether

I track every thing that I practically can, doing so can be very empowering. This is something which the buzzwordy types apparently refer to as The Quantified Self, and despite knowing that I continue to do so.

With a query of my network logs [1] I can tell you that for the first nine months of this year I’ve been entirely without internet access for thirty-one percent of the time. Last year the final amount was thirty-eight percent, and once our Winterval shutdown is included I’d expect this year to be about the same.

It isn’t just a case of being without internet access for a few hours or on certain days either, my longest complete break this year was a straight thirteen days back in May.

The number one thing I’ve learnt is that a lot of the things I burnt time on were genuinely just burnt. For example, news sites feel mostly pointless to me at this point.

  • Mainstream news is invariably a PR copy’n’paste fest, which is really noticeable when you come back from a break and catch up on various feeds in one huge chunk.
  • Sites with a slightly more tech bias like HackerNews and its ilk are just a complete time hole. Often the really interesting tech stories will bubble up elsewhere in a curated fashion(such as Trivium), and for example on HN the majority of posts and comments are just US politics or occasionally interesting insights from the SV bubble anyway.

I’ll still catch up from a couple of, in my opinion, trusted sources. That is to say I’ll dip in to a few categories on BBC news and perhaps visit The Guardian’s site(although I do that considerably less over the past year according to my data). I also like to avail myself of a little Russia Today and Al Jazeera to keep the bias in check a touch.

With a simple rdial report I can also tell you that on an average internet connected day I can spend an hour reading news, friend’s blogs, sports stories, &c. A big chunk of that time is also combined with breakfast, so I choose to let it slide for the most part.

Tighten the noose

For the two-thirds of the year that I have internet access, I’ve started to severely restrict access.

It all started with a friend who – while wearing his tinfoil hat – preached about how we all need to consider blocking sites that use CDNs in much the same way that many of us block web analytics companies. We’re probably giving up more tracking data to the large CDNs then we do to the simple analytics companies.

The thought popped in to my mind that a whitelist, instead of a blacklist, might actually be workable and since last November I’ve taken to doing just that.

The strangest result in my mind is just how short the list is. My old advert and analytics blacklist had close to 1500 entries, and would obviously miss many “nasties” that I either hadn’t seen or that were simply new.

The whitelist, on the other hand, has only ever had 900 entries. Right now it has less than 150 thanks to the automated decay-based-on-visits purging of the entries it contains.

The whitelist approach also feeds in to my data tracking habit, as I can now tell from the decay tracking data when bursts of certain sites appear. For example, StackOverflow(and cdn.sstatic.net/stackoverflow/ for styling) was on the whitelist for two weeks in June with six visits, which happens to coincide with a project that involved porting a tool to Windows.

The act of using a whitelist makes the point of procrastination noticeable and adds a cost to even starting it. Every time I want to visit a new site [2], I have to highlight the URL and rattle a key combo in awesome that updates the whitelist to enable access to it.

On the knoll

I know the whole “go without the internet” thing is going to strike people as unworkable. Questions abound about contact via email, missing bug reports, skipping meeting logs, depriving myself of invites to weddings I don’t wish to attend and so on. I do realise it isn’t achievable for everyone, but with a little effort it should at the very least be achievable for one day a week.

The other advantage of doing so is the forced removal from services that actively destroy your privacy and the privacy of your friends and family, which is something that feels increasingly important in recent years. For example, I no longer actively store my addressbook online [3] nor do I use a service to help me process receipts any more.

There are a myriad of benefits to dropping the reliance on SaaS affairs. The chance of any of them existing tomorrow is frankly not all that great: shuttering, buy-out closures, “pivoting”, &c. You can also retain some level of control over your own data, knowing that for example it isn’t being sold or stored in regions with little to no data protection regulation.

In all honesty, I – no, we – should have resisted the urge to use so called cloud services from the outset. One doesn’t need to be a fully paid up member of the tinfoil hat brigade to know that it is just not acceptable to entrust your important data to external companies for the sake of a little convenience or a shiny interface.

Killing my internet access for chunks of time really pointed out how much I had come to rely on services far beyond my control, and the freedom one feels when you regain some of that is very comforting.

Footnotes

[1]The code I use is an unreleased project created by a friend, but vnstat may work equally well for the same purpose.
[2]For the most part I whitelist based on hostname, but as in the StackOverflow styling example will whitelist specific paths on hosts on some occasions.
[3]I’m aware that Google has access to a small corner of my contacts graph via gmail, but I haven’t yet decided how I plan to resolve. I’ve never used gmail for work or mail that I’d be uncomfortable reading in public, but it does act as a nice sieve for everything else right now.