Here's a list of short thoughts that are too long for
tweet toot but too short
for a post.
On old computer hardware
I spent the last month of my life fixing the computers of my family. That meant
installing Roblox on a tablet with 1Gb of RAM, fixing antivirus on Windows 7,
dealing with Alexa in Spanish, and trying to find cheap ink for printers with
DRM. Fun fact: HP uses DRM to forbid you from importing ink, and then stopped
delivering ink to my family's city.
Modern hardware can have a long, long life, but this won't happen if software
developers don't start optimizing their code even a bit. Sure,
Barry Collins may
not have a problem with an OS that requires 4Gb of RAM, but I feel I speak for
tens of thousands of users when I say that he doesn't know what he's talking
On new computer hardware
I know that everyone likes to dump on Mark Zuckerberg, and with good reason:
the firm formerly known as Facebook is awful and you should stay away from
everything and anything they touch. Having said that, there's a reasonable
chance that the moment of VR is finally here. If you are a software developer,
I encourage you to at least form an informed opinion before the VR train leaves
I wasn't expecting to enjoy
Ready or not as much as I did.
I also wasn't expecting to enjoy a second watch of Inception almost
as much as the first time, but those things happened anyway.
I was however expecting to enjoy
Your name, so no
I also got on a discussion about Meat Grinder,
a Thai film that is so boring and incoherent that it cured me of bad movies
forever. No matter how bad a film is, my brain can always relax and say
"sure, it's bad, but at least it's not Meat Grinder".
I hold a similar opinion about Funny Games, a movies where even the actors on
the poster seem
to be ashamed of themselves. At least here I have the backing
of cinema critic Mark Kermode,
who called it "a really annoying experience". Take that, people from my old blog
who said I was the one who didn't "get it".
Michael Lewis' book Liar's Poker is
not as good as The Big Short,
but if you read the latter without the former you are doing yourself a
disservice. I wasn't expecting to become the kind of person who shudders when
reading that "the head of mortgage trading at First Boston who helped create the
fist CMO, lists it (...) as the most important financial innovation of the
1980s", and yet here we are.
I really, really, really like Roger Zelazny's A night in the lonesome
is why I'm surprised at how little I liked his earlier, award-winning book
This immortal. I mean, it's not
bad, but I wouldn't have tied it with
Dune as Hugo Award winner of 1966
for Best Novel. I think it will end up overtaking House of Leaves in
the category of books that disappointed me the most.
And finally, I can't make any progress with Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's book
Where wizards stay up late because
every time I try to get back to it I get an irresistible urge to jump onto my
computer and start programming. Looks like Masters of Doom will have to keep waiting.
My favorite song that I discovered this year so far is Haunted by Poe.
Looking for some music of her I learned about how thoroughly lawyers and the US
music industry destroyed her career.
This made me pretty angry until I read that her net worth is well into the
millions of dollars, so I guess she came out fine after all. And since the album
was written as a collaboration with her brother while he was writing
"House of Leaves", I guess I did get something out of that book at the end.
Here's a thought that has been rattling around in my head for the last 10
years or so.
My first word processor was WordStar,
but I never got to use it fully. After all, what use does a 10 year old have
for a word processor in 1994?
I then moved on to MicroCom's PC-Flow
for several reasons. First and foremost, it was already installed on my PC.
Either that or I pirated it early enough not to make a difference - in either
case, it had the major advantage of already being there.
Second, it was "graphical" - it may have been a program for flow charts, but
that didn't stop me from writing some awful early attempts at writing music that
are now lost to the sands of time and 5.25 floppy disks. And third, because it
printed - not all of my programs played nice with my printer, but this one did.
The end result being that I wrote plenty of silly texts using a program designed
for flow charts.
The late 90s were a tumultuous time for my computer skills. At home I had both
MS Office '97 and my all-time-favorite Ami Pro,
while in high school I had to use a copy of
Microsoft Works that was already
old at the time. The aughts brought Linux and StarOffice,
which would eventually morph into OpenOffice and LibreOffice. Shortly afterwards
I also learned LaTeX, making me care
about fonts and citations to a degree that I would never have imagined.
And finally, the '10s brought Google Docs and MS Office 365.
But the least said about them, the better.
The point of this incomplete stroll through memory lane is to point out the
following: if there's a way to mark a text as bold in a document, I've done it.
Cryptic command? Check. Button in a status bar that changes places across
versions? Check. Textual markers that a pre-processor will remove before
generating the final file? Check. Nothing? Also check.
If you ever need to figure out how some piece of software expects you to mark
something in bold, I'm your man.
And precisely because this function kept jumping around and changing shape throughout
my entire life, I have developed a mental model that differentiates between the
objective and the way to get there. If I have a reasonable belief that a
piece of software can generate bold text, I'll poke around until I find the
magic incantation that achieves this objective.
But my story is not everybody's story. Most regular people I know learned how to
make bold text exactly once, and then they stuck to that one piece of software
for as long as possible. For them, text being bold and that one single button in
that one single place are indistinguishable, and if you move the button around
they'll suddenly panic because
someone has moved their cheese.
I have long wondered what's the long-term effect of this "quirk" in our
education system. And forecasts are not looking good: according to The Verge,
students nowadays are having trouble even understanding what a file
Instead of teaching people to understand the relation between presentation and
content, we have been abstracting the underlying system to the point of incomprehension.
The fact that Windows 10 makes it so damn hard to select a
makes me fear that this might be deliberate - I'm not one to think of shady men
ruining entire generations in the name of profit, but it's hard to find a better
explanation for this specific case.
Based on my experience learning Assembly, pointers, and debugging, I believe
that the best cure to this specific disease is a top-down approach1
with pen and paper. If I were to teach an
"Introduction to computers" class, I would split it in two stages:
First, my students would write their intended content down, using their own
hands on actual paper. They would then use highlighters to identify headers,
text that should be emphasized, sections, and so on. At this stage we would only
talk about content while completely ignoring presentation, in order to
- ... yes, you might end up using bold text both to emphasize a word and for
sub-sub headers, but they mean different things.
- ... once you know what the affordances
of a word processor are, all you need to figure out is where the interface
has hidden them.
We would then move on to the practical part, using a word processor they have
never seen. We would use this interface so the students get a rough idea of
what the interface looks like in real life.
And finally, my students would then go home and practice with whatever version
of MS Office it's installed in their computer. If at least one of them
tries to align text with multiple spaces only to feel dirty and re-do it the
right way, I will consider my class a success.
Would this work? Pedagogically, I think it would. But I am painfully aware that
my students would hate it. And good luck selling a computer course that doesn't
interact with a computer. It occurs to me that perhaps it could be done in an
interactive program, one that "unlocks" interface perks as you learn them.
If I'm ever unemployed and with enough time in my hands, I'll give it a try and
let you know.
 A top-down approach would be learning the concepts first and the
implementation details later. Its counterpart would be bottom-up, in which you
first learn how to do something and later on you learn what you did that for.
Bottom-up gets your hands dirty earlier, similar
to Mr. Miyagi's teaching style,
while top-down keeps you from developing bad habits.
I have been too busy to blog the last month and a half, so I thought I'd take a
bit of time to talk about my new project, unsignedch.ar.
Ever since I started taking care of this server I have been worried about the
projects I host here - the more scripting languages I install, the higher the
chances that someone will find a vulnerability and use my server for mining
Therefore, I have started a new side-project: a new server where I will host
all of my coding experiments, knowing full well that I can reinstall the whole
thing whenever needed.
The server is currently under construction, but if you're interested in a sneak
peak you can access my current draft of a git tutorial following
this link. If you have comments on that
draft, feel free to reach out to me.
Last time I talked about GMail I
mentioned that my account was blocked for sending about 100 e-mails despite
following Google's best practices for doing so. On July 23 I got my access back,
and I though I would update you all on how that happened since.
Note: This article is rather long because there's plenty of e-mail content.
If you don't care about the details, you can jump to the end for a timeline and
some final thoughts.
After getting my account blocked on March 27, I contacted Google support.
Following an automated message receipt, I received this message:
Hello Google user,
Your account has been disabled due to unusual activity being detected. We
take security seriously and want to make sure that only you have access to
How do I regain access to my account?
Sign in to any Google product. If your password is accepted, you'll be asked
a set of questions to verify that you are the owner of your account. Once
the verification is complete, you can safely continue using your account.
What if my password doesn't work?
If your password is rejected, please visit the [Account support page]
and answer all of the prompted questions as best as you can.
If you remember my previous post you
might know that none of these suggestions is useful. I replied with a message
saying exactly that, but I got no response.
Here's an interesting fact: while Google has no obligation to keep me as a
customer (or, in this case, product),
they are obligated by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to give me
a copy of my personal data. And even though Google provides a tool for
downloading a copy of your data, the tool is
useless if you can't log in. With this in mind, and with the help of the My
Data Done Right tool, I sent the following
letter (yes, letter) to Google's Data Controller on April 28:
To Whom it may concern:
I am invoking my right to data portability as specified in Article 20 of the
General Data Protection Regulation. In particular, I am requesting Google
Ireland Limited ("Google") to either provide me with a copy of my e-mails and
other personal data in a structured, commonly used and machine-readable format
or to grant me access to existing tools such as Google Takeout so I can do it
I am the owner of the GMail email address <redacted>@gmail.com. For the
past two weeks Google has blocked my access to my account and refused all
methods of verification. I have provided the correct password, the correct
verification e-mail address and a valid telephone number, none of which
worked. Both the "Google Takeout" tool and the "Data Access Request Form"
mentioned here are unavailable to me for this reason.
I request that Google either restores my access so I can use Google's tools
myself or that Google provides me with a copy of my data following the
GDPR's Right to Data Portability. I can provide further means of verifying
my identity if necessary.
Why a letter? Three reasons:
- Because I knew a human would have to process it.
- Because I wanted a paper trail in case I decided to hire a lawyer (I paid
extra to send it via registered mail).
- Because signing as "Dr. Martín Villalba" with blue pen sends the signal
that I'm an annoying person and that we would all be better off if they
simply fast-tracked my request.
On May 4 I got the following reply from Google's Data Protection Office:
Thank you for contacting us.
It sounds like you're having some problems with your account.
- If you can't sign in to your account: Learn how to [recover your account]
- If you're having trouble recovering your account: Try these tips to get
[your account back].
After following the steps above (once again, they didn't work), I made a
- What I should have replied is "this is not an account recovery request,
but rather a data access request. While giving me my account back is one way
of fulfilling that request, that's not the purpose of my letter".
- What I did end up replying was telling them that I tried all of those
options and none of them work.
Why was that a mistake? Because this is the reply I got on the same day:
Thank you for contacting us.
Please note that this team does not handle account recovery related
questions. Please refer to our prior email for more information, as well as
follow these steps to recover your account [g.co].
As we are not able to further assist you, we are closing this inquiry.
True to their word, they closed the inquiry and never replied again.
Having learned from my mistakes, on June 1st I sent a second letter to politely
remind them that it's been more than 30 days since my request. Why?
Because 30 days is the period granted by the GDPR to fulfill data access
requests like mine.
To Whom it may concern,
I am the owner of the Gmail address <redacted>@gmail.com. I have contacted you
on April 28th to request a copy of my personal data as it is my right under
Article 20 of the General Data Protection Regulation. It has been more than 30
days since my original request (Internal Ref. <redacted>) and yet I have
received neither a copy of said data nor access to a tool where I could download
I request once again that you provide a copy of all my data (including the
content of my e-mails) in a structured, commonly used, and machine-readable
format. As a reminder, I have no access to the "Google Takeout" tool and none of
the options suggested in the following links grant me access to the data I
request. Therefore, I cannot accept suggestions of using these websites as a
To reiterate: this is not an account recovery request - it has been more than
two months since Google revoked access to my account and I consider it
deactivated for all practical purposes. Instead, I only request a copy of my
personal data. For purposes of identification I am still in possession of the
current password and the recovery e-mail address, but I would be willing to
provide further proof of identity if necessary.
And then I went back to living my Google-free life.
On July 16th I opened my e-mail and found this:
Thank you for contacting us.
The information you seek may already be available to you via a number of
secure online tools we provide to all users to access data. Sign in to your
[Google Account] to get an overview of the ways you use Google’s services and
access that data. Here are some other actions you can take:
(... long e-mail redacted ...)
To which I replied
Dear Sir or Madam,
thanks for your reply. As I explained before, Google has blocked access to
my account. None of those tools work for me because I cannot sign in and no
one replies to my account support emails.
Seeing as your office is in charge of data requests, I reiterate my request
that my data be provided to me. Suggesting apps I cannot use are not a
satisfactory response to my request.
On July 22nd, and coinciding with the anniversary of the most expensive hyphen
I finally got a step closer to my goal.
We understand that you can’t sign in to <redacted>@gmail.com. You can
file a claim and start the process to get back into your account.
To recover your account:
File a claim with the [Google Internal Escalations link].
This is a special link, so please do not share it with anyone.
Important: This link creates a claim so the Google Accounts team can
investigate, but doesn't guarantee you'll get your account back. However,
please make sure we have the relevant information to investigate.
Here's what I told the Accounts team:
my case ID is <redacted>. As a reminder, this is a request for a copy
of my personal data - while access to my Google account does fulfill this
request, I am just looking for a copy of said data in any electronic format.
And guess what? On July 23 I finally got what I was asking for:
To recover access to <redacted>@gmail.com, reset your password.
The link to reset your Google account password expires in 7 days. If your
link already expired, reply to this email to get a new link.
- March 27: my account is blocked. I fill an online form, but I only get a
- April 28: I sent my first letter.
- May 4: I receive an e-mail misunderstanding the problem. My ticket is
- June 1: I sent the second letter.
- July 16: I receive an email suggesting I use Google Takeout. I reply that
this doesn't help because I can't log in.
- July 22: I receive a link to escalate my issue.
- July 23: I regain control of my account.
I'd like to once again thank the My Data Done Right
people for providing letter templates that I could use and, more important, the
mailing address of Google's Data Protection Office. If you are in the EU and
you have data access problems, make sure you pay them a visit.
If you don't have as much time as I do, then a lawyer might help you speed up
the process. I imagine a certified demand letter from a lawyer might have gotten
me a quicker resolution, but now we will never know. Feel free to get your
account banned and let me know afterwards how it goes.
And finally: take control of your data. Make sure that what happened to me
can't happen to you. You don't have to administer your own e-mail, but you can
definitely use a provider with reasonable customer support.