Internet Usage (2018)

(Versión en castellano)

Days ago I saw a video showing two guys performing an unfair test.  Put side by side, they had to mow grass in a piece of land destined for orchard use, one with a modern lawn mower, the other with a “scythe,” an ancient agricultural tool that, if you're young, probably the only place you saw it is held by The Death cartoon characters.  Not surprisingly (at least not for me) the one with the scythe went three times faster, plus in a more comfortable and healthier way, since he didn't need eye, ear and respiratory protection.  And what's also important: not disturbing his neighbors!  Many people running ecological orchards are starting to re-adopt this “zero contamination” old tool.

To realize that a tool invented around 500 BC is more efficient than a 21st century machine is a good example of “progress” in the real sense.  Running to buy the latest fancy tech toy and parroting, “That's obsolete, that's old,” about traditional tools is not progress but consumerism.  Those so dazzled with tablet computers today, years ago didn't envy supermarket cashiers suffering the annoying touch screen.  With software is even easier to robe their money, just a bit of graphical interface redesign and sell them the new version as an “upgrade.”

I've been selling web hosting since years.  Email use, specifically bad habits mostly introduced by multinationals (and submissively adopted by people,) has been the main obstacle I found.  The whole Internet have suffered a big deterioration.  People don't seem to realize smart-phones and the cloud are the ultimate step to slavery, nobody chooses what to share anymore, just as banks ended up handling all your money time ago, today multinationals handle all your personal data, they control your whole life, they literally own your life.  It's funny how confident people are about “their choices,” and how offended they feel if you dare to insinuate they're just following a fad.  Once they bought the trinket they feel a curious need to promote it for free, starting with family and friends, and you better look at them with astonished eyes, nodding to their vacuum cleaner salesman's spiel as if it were knowledge revealed by some advanced extraterrestrial civilization from outer space.

Fantasy, in the sense of avoidance, is their only need.

I remember a decade ago, among other useful formatting details while composing email, final users knew how to quote text, mainly because mail clients weren't so bad; today you see IT professionals who have no idea of how to format email correctly, and they couldn't even if they knew, since mail clients, especially those written for “smart” phones, are anything but smart.

Let me entertain you with some short real life examples.  Being myself an immigrant in Spain I left relatives and friends at the other end of the world (Argentina.)  At first, circa 2004, I was able to contact two of them via email (not without suffering the weak interest people put today in composing and writing.)  Today (2018,) you better have a whatsapp or facebook account, since it's the only thing people know about the Internet and computers usage; two years ago, when I tried to explain to a cousin of mine that the so called social networks are no innovation, that instant messaging predates the Internet, that facebook or whatsapp are just trademarks, he almost covered his ears and ran away insulting me.

More eloquent is the case of an old friend of mine.  We met each other on high school and sustained a good friendship along almost fifteen years.  He was the typical “geek,” who made you sit down in his living room a Sunday afternoon to watch the whole Star Wars saga on VHS (lucky me there was only one trilogy at that time!) praising and relating how all those wonderful special effects were made.  Unlike my cousin, now we are talking about a guy who had a computer connected to the Internet at the time nobody had, who made an IT career and ended up earning a living with that.  About fifteen years ago and twenty five of knowing nothing from him (I was already settled in Spain,) he sent me a message inviting me to his wedding; here it goes the funny part, in this message he also comments he was lucky to remember that email address he had created for me years ago (when Yahoo had just been founded as a company and I didn't know how to plug the computer) since he hadn't been able to find me in the web.  At the time I received that message from him I already had my personal website, sharing my email account in use, what means that just putting my whole name in double quotes in any search engine would've been enough.  Then, why wasn't this “IT professional” able to find me in the world wide web?  Well, as he also explained me in that message it seems the only thing that came to his mind was searching me on facebook.

You know that these aren't isolated cases.

Finally, for those who bought the “specialization” story (told by those who want to make of us their production robots.)  Computers and the Internet have become more than just part of our lives, today your whole life and your family's happen there, you can't be fine with just blindly download some pretty application claiming it'll do all the task for you by clicking a button.  For your sake, your interests, your life, the more you know about what happens behind-the-scenes the better.  You may think this would take time and money in courses but it's more a matter of attitude and approach: try to avoid those applications that hide all from you behind a pretty facade in favor of those that educate you while you use them.  I'd really like to say (as in theory you'd bet it was) that, in this sense, the so called FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) is a better choice, but this is true only in some cases, less as time passes, what suggests that final users are more to blame than multinationals for the issue I'm trying to describe in this article.

I know this is a lost battle...

Anyways, I'll describe here how I've been learning to use the Internet and electronic mail along the years and the reasons how I think these practices are advisable.  At least, this article will remain as a record to let people judge if we've experimented a real progress in communications (under the risk someone cut his ear trying to make a phone call from a scythe.)


Even when it's obvious it's the dumbest and more irresponsible thing they could do, people put their sensitive data in social networks and store their whole family photos in a smart-phone.  Why?  To do what others do, to get what others have, that seems to be their only goal and reason in life.  The Internet is affected by this human issue as any other product; monopolies and cattle are a perfect symbiosis.  As globalization advances, things for the few of us who try to “think and choose” will be more and more difficult.

Let me explain some technical aspect.  There are two kinds of web applications, those that run on the client side and those that run on the server side.  Applications that run on your web browser (the client side) are mostly written in a programming language called JavaScript.  The security issues JavaScript carries are public knowledge, even so web developers aren't happy with just using it for some fancy effect in a non critical site, even online banks are bloated with JavaScript.

Despite all that, security is not the only reason to block JavaScript in your web browser.  Have you asked yourself why to browse the Internet was smoother decades ago with just a Pentium III with a 256MB RAM?  Do you remember Google in its beginnings?  A clean, simple (plain HTML) interface.  At some point they decided to add features and services (of course they have to make money.)  As I told you JavaScript applications run in your web browser, using your machine resources, each time I unblock JavaScript in my browser my CPU fans start to spin.  Think about how Google's electricity bill would rise if they ran all those billion processes in their servers instead of distributed among all users machines.  Obviously, not every site in the web needs the resources Google does, even so, once Google set the trend the cattle did what it usually does, by result the whole world wide web is now bloated with JavaScript.

In conclusion, the Internet went in the opposite direction to the advisable, not only in what matters to security and privacy.

How I Browse the Web

I use phones to make phone calls, to browse the Internet I use a desktop machine with a browser where I unblock javascript only when I'm forced to.  Do not listen who tells you the opposite, no web master should oblige you to use JavaScript to access a web site, especially those managing sensitive data.  In the case some service is overloaded by its “million” users, just search for another company, you'll surely find lots out there willing to give you that same service.  Decentralizing is good for services and the economy.


Do you find a 12 to 24 hours delay in responding an email too long?  Do you assume having 24/7 access to your email from multiple locations or devices will optimize your work?  You're breaking a screwdriver handle hammering a nail!  Despite you see email is sent instantly it's not different from traditional mail in the sense there's no way to know exactly when or if it'll even reach its destination at all.  Once your message “luckily” reached its destiny it still has to survive spam filters and finally be opened and read.  You ignore the volume of messages the recipient has to read before yours, he may overlook it, accidentally delete it or could've abandoned that email address years ago.  Repeat to yourself a hundred times: email is not for an urgency or chatting, for that the best option is still a phone call (what you used to do with a phone, remember?)

To really take profit of email you should count with:

  1. Daily access to a desktop computer with a suitable keyboard and screen.  By “suitable” I mean a physical keyboard, and a screen which dimensions allow a readable sized font to fit in about 72 columns wide text (I'm being redundant in purpose, any desktop computer fits on this description.)
  2. A good email client (MUA) conveniently configured.  Web mail interfaces, as those you know from gmail or hotmail, should be seen as a fallback option, for when you don't have access to your main personal desktop computer (eg at a friend of yours or, as not so long ago was usual, a cyber café.)  Let me insist: avoid the current tendency to use a web browser for everything.
  3. Finally the obvious and more difficult to accomplish: enough time to check and respond the volume of messages you plan to manage on daily bases.

If you don't have this minimum at your disposal, email won't help but rather hinder anything you're willing to accomplish.

So, to be able to access your email from different ends at any time is not essential.  Hence, you can perfectly avoid leaving your personal data indefinitely stored in someone else's machine as most people do today fooled by big companies that use that data for market statistics (as, by the way, is also the case of whatsapp; you don't get anything for free.)  It's funny how lately, aware of the obvious security consequences, those same big companies are discouraging (or even blocking) users from log into their accounts from different ends, what from users' point of view was the only advantage of letting their personal data stored in a server.

How I Manage My Email

I download all messages to my desktop machine (using POP3.)  Currently, I have in total 2718 messages that take only 18MB of my hard disk.  Where's the trick?  Messages themselves are plain text, that's very light, attachments are what takes a lot of disk, eg images or PDF documents.  When I want to keep some document, I save it to a normal directory (folder) in my machine, then I delete the attachment and save to my Mail directory only the body part of the message.  Hence my Mail directory contains only plain text that's ridiculously light on disk.  When I want to send a file to one or more recipients, instead of sending the same file multiple times as attachments I upload the file to a directory in my web server and then I add the download URL to each message body; once those interested downloaded the file I delete it from my server.  In this way I avoid multiple versions of the same file get stored in my Mail/Sent folder and wasting bandwidth to upload the file multiple times (in domestic connections the upload speed is dramatically lower than the download one.)  Everyone can accomplish the latter by renting a hosting service (~60$ year,) what is by far a better practice than using social networks and email services from multinationals (gmail, hotmail, yahoo.)  Again, decentralizing heals services and economy.

What Most People Do Instead

I had users of my mail server (clients of my web hosting service) that after a couple of months of use they'd already eaten half gigabyte of disk just in mail attachments (server machine disk in this case,) their email Trash folder wasted 70% from all their disk usage, including their web site files!  Once they'd reached their “gigabyte” disk quota they complained asking for more.  Besides that disk usage control is not a way to diddle the customer but an essential basic security measure, trying to explain all the above to them was like talking to a brick wall.  And when I did that by email, since they are too lazy to read and write (they use email only to send files, text is irrelevant to them,) they forced me to repeat all on the phone retorting to each objection “But, how much are two gigabytes?  I'll pay you!”

Composing and Sending

Whatever you do at time to compose and send your message (or whatever came out from the ass of the idiot who developed your iPhone app) people are so uneducated in this matter that they'll most likely complain when you do it right.

Your mail client should:

1. Use Plain Text

With popular applications you must take time to “deconstruct,” i.e. access the configuration and remove all you don't need.  You don't get popular by selling something useful, people value more bells and whistles, the more the application is able do the more powerful makes them feel.  So, developers, besides adding lots of crap bloating the software, they scrub all in users faces right at the start, showing their application does all the competitor's and more.  In popular applications, the default configuration is never sane.

One of the annoying consequences of this popularity contest is today most mail is sent fancy formatted, mostly in HTML, i.e. the language used for web pages, option this attractive to those who want to send pretty propaganda but which implies security issues, among others: the recipient doesn't see where links point making life easier to scammers; embedded images are downloaded from remote sites letting the spammer know the recipient opened the message (green light for them to triplicate the volume of SPAM sent to that address) and, finally, JavaScript can be embedded in HTML turning a harmless message into an executable application (malware.)

Even if you decide on using the compose facility, embedded in most graphical mail clients, the first thing everyone should learn, not just because email but as a good knowledge base for computer use in general, is how to use a plain text editor.  You'll probably have first to find out what “plain text” is, I'll give you more clues in the next point.

2. Format Text Plain Sensibly

While reading, if the text is too wide, each time your sight jumps from the end of a line to the beginning of the next it loses track of in which one it was.  When it's too narrow (as used in news papers) your sight has to jump continuously.  That's why in books you generally see lines not narrower than 60 columns and not wider than 78, that's the comfortable range.

How this is handled in computer programs.  It's important to understand the difference between hard and soft line wrapping.  Hard wrapping is what you get when in a plain text editor (notepad, vi) you hit ENTER.  Soft or “virtual” wrapping is the effect you observe when text width gets magically adapted to the window (or screen) dimensions, i.e. the behavior you used to observe in web pages before the advent of wide screen monitors (desktops and laptops,) when most web developers, for purely cosmetic reasons, started to use CSS (cascading style sheets) to force text to an absurd 100 columns or more “fixed” width.  More late, when smart-phones took the market, things got screwed in the opposite direction.  Web developers are right assuming that SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the only reason text is included in web pages.  In the case of email, to implement some kind of adaptable width in plain text, it exists the so called “format flowed,” another questionable feature since, if you think about it carefully, you'll conclude that virtual wrapping is only useful for not-useful-to-read screens.  First we changed to an oval wheel, then to a square one, where will fashion lead us next to, a triangular one?  Wouldn't be actually “smart” to assume once and for all that because its screen dimensions and the lack of a physical keyboard a phone is NOT the suitable tool to read and write?  Useful in a hurry, to send some telegraphic message or to check your inbox, but not much more.

Another important consideration you may take into account.  From the ethical point of view the original message should be modified as little as possible, especially what the other wrote (eg when quoting.)

To those not familiarized with the use of a text editor (unfortunately the case of most final users) it'll be more difficult to understand this concept.  But it's enough to say that any mail client, in case it doesn't give you the option of using an external text editor which would be ideal, should at least let you insert new lines at about 72 columns while you type (and avoid the annoying format flowed.)  If not by default, this should be present as an option in its configuration.

Interesting fact.  Whether or not you break lines while composing, your message will travel through the net with all lines broken at less than 72 columns in compliance with RFC standards.  Your mail client will do this with your message before sending it, including the headers, assuming the recipient's mail client will be able to correctly show you the message in the original format.

Said all the above it's time to talk about the main reason to avoid HTML and format flowed, which is that these formats break quoted text, undoubtedly the most desirable and useful electronic email feature.

3. Correctly Handle Quotation and Avoid Top-Posting

You're aware that at least in occidental languages writing goes from left to right and from top to bottom, aren't you?  Time to time you'll clash with someone arguing to prefer top-posting because scrolling to the bottom of the message is arduous.  The day will come when to breathe will be arduous for them and they silently die.  Strictly speaking, people don't top-post but just let text pile as garbage at the bottom of each message (text they had no intention to quote or even read.)  Rather than doing that they could configure their mail client to not include the original message in the response.

Generally, quoted text is prefixed with “> ” (greater than + space.)  Every now and then you'll see someone (of those who define their personality with the attire) using other prefixes, making life difficult to the rest of users and programmers.

4. Encode Only When Necessary

To break lines (as explained in point 2) isn't the only thing your mail client must do with the body message before sending.  For compatibility reasons, mail should preferably be sent (travel the net) using only ASCII characters (American Standard,) hence, non ASCII ones must be encoded.  Your mail client should be clever enough to select the appropriate encoding depending on the density of non ASCII characters your language use.  Languages with low density of non-ascii characters use (eg Spanish) are usually sent quoted-printable encoded (source code quite readable since only the affected characters get encoded,) those with high density use (eg Russian) are sent base64 encoded (the whole text is encoded as a block, thus the source code in this case is unreadable.)  Lately I've seen some dumb mail clients (smartphone apps) using base64 to encode everything, indiscriminately, even messages using only ascii text (this saved its developer time to invest in what really counts, the bells and whistles. :-))

This preference for ASCII is not a caprice.  If you're old like me you surely remember the times when computers spoke only English.  It just the way computers evolved and believe it or not international characters support is still a work in progress as it probably will be for a long long time.  Without exaggerating, when talking about software in general, think of internationalization support as a prosthesis.

All the above said, if your mail client isn't able to accomplish any of these points change it for a decent one.  I currently use Mutt, but it's a command line application (specific for advanced Unix users,) if as most people out there you are a graphical desktop user and prefer a WYSIWYG interface, I'd recommend you Sylpheed.

Formatting Considerations While Typing

1. Separate Paragraphs With Empty Lines

It's easier and more clear for computer software to distinguish a double new line than other methods like first line indentation.  For the same reason you may put URLs (links) alone in its own line, also between empty lines.

2. Consider Using Double Space Between Sentences

As any detail that helps to distinguish text units in a more clear way, using double space between sentences (in case you're editing plain text) makes reading more comfortable.  Differentiating sentence spacing from word spacing was a common practice of many printers before 20th century, it can be observed also in manuscripts.  Did you notice the space between sentences used in this web site?  Neither HTML nor CSS give you a formal way to accomplish it, I have to fool your browser inserting “  ” (no-break space HTML entity plus normal space.)

I'll elaborate about this last point just to use it as an example of how people invest more energy in appearances than in what's really useful.  If you investigate about using a wider space between sentences, especially in book editing, you'll find whole articles distorting concepts to discourage this practice.  This is mostly because of the cosmetic fixation in book editing with making text look as a uniform colored rectangular block, by using techniques as adjustable space width to achieve the so called text justification, as well as word separation with dashes at the end of lines, widows and orphans, making sure the last line in the page surpasses half width, etc, etc.  Now, wider sentence spaces brake this homogeneous look, what makes these beauty perfectionists very nervous.  To the point that if you make them notice that not justified text is arguably more readable they'll probably run to cut their veins.

Mail Body Formatting Example

Subject: Re: Meeting with friends tomorrow

Hi Walter,

Walter Alejandro Iglesias wrote:
> Hello John,
> We are contacting our old friends from college.  Tomorrow night we'll
> organize a meeting at my home.  Of course, you're in the list. :-)

Great!  It's been a long time without seeing each other.

> Could you be here about 8 PM?

Sure.  By the way, these are my wife and children:

We took these pictures last weekend at home.  The short one's name is
Suzy (4 years old) and the taller is Lila (6 years old.)

See you tomorrow!


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