Privacy Please

Here’s a quick overview of some changes I’ve made to my online life due to privacy and security concerns. I feel suddenly annoyed at all the huge corporations combing through every aspect of my online life using AI tech to what ends no one can really predict. It’s likely not good, though.

First off is Google email. I can’t ditch my gmail address as the account is required to operate an android phone. But I can stop using it. I have switched most email activity to protonmail.com, a Swiss firm that focuses on privacy and security. All mail is stored encrypted so there’s no AI sifting through it building a profile of you to sell to advertisers. There is a basic free version, and paid versions with features. Mail comes with a calendar app that is also encrypted.

Google Maps. I still use it. I do keep location off when I don’t need it. The reality is your phone’s ISP logs your location constantly and if that troubles you enough, ditch your phone. I know none of us are busy evading the law, but I’m telling you all this snooping is going to blow up in our faces one day. Snowden was right.

Next is search. I’ve used Google for a long time but now I’ve changed my default search engine in my browser and on my phone to duckduckgo.com. They use a non-nosy model to make money and do not build profiles of searchers or cache your queries. They use the content of the search itself to aim advertisers at you. Fair enough. They have a plugin for Firefox which blocks trackers. Using it about a year and completely satisfied with the service. I highly recommend.

Browser: Firefox. There are more security oriented tools out there, but this is the best balance of privacy and convenience. Stay away from Chrome if privacy is your concern. I don’t use Macs and have nothing to say about Safari. Microsoft as well. I recently got a new laptop and used Edge to download Firefox while it still had Windows 10 on it. Which brings us to:

Operating Systems. I use linux since 2006, exclusively since about 2012. Ubuntu is IMHO the easiest to get going on. Windows’ ubiquity makes it the low hanging fruit for malware, ransomware etcetera, being its market share is gargantuan and a vast number of its users are technically unsophisticated. Though the situation is much better under Win10 and kudos to Microsoft for making things better. Still, I got a brand new Lenovo and I wiped the drive and installed Pop!_OS 21.04, a nice Ubuntu-derived distro I’ve been on for a couple of years. I still don’t recommend linux to anyone. If you like to tinker with computers no one needs to tell you about it. If you don’t then stick to Windows and Mac.

VPN. Virtual Private Network. This is a networking software that routes all your traffic to a remote server and thereby prevents your machine’s IP address from being revealed to any site you visit online. Much can be revealed about you, including your geographic location, from your IP. I’m using ProtonVPN, from the same company as my email service. There are many out there to choose from. VPNs are good if you use public wifi too. Even with the VPN I would not ever log into any critical account (email, bank) when on a coffee shop or hotel wifi. Not safe.

Dropbox. Again, this is a cloud service that plows through all your stored files. It’s expensive too. They forced me to buy about a thousand times more space than I need and their service is cluttered with all sorts of enterprise features not much useful for individuals. Doing lots of photography I need the storage though, and recently switched to MegaSync for about half the money. They have software for all platforms and their web portal and phone app are very clean and sensible. Again, all files are stored encrypted so if you lose your keys your files will be unrecoverable. Like Dropbox, this is a set it and forget it service. Pick a folder in your home folder and tell it to sync every change there to its mirror image in the cloud. If you ever have to set up a new machine, just sync everything back to your drive and like magic, all your stuff is there again. On the cloud side you can archive older files no longer present on your machine and browse and search them through the web interface or the app. I organize my photos by year and everything older than this year is archived, saving disk space at home.

Facebook. I do not now, nor will I ever have, a Facebook account. I abandoned Instagram too, being owned by them. I admit I just have a bad attitude about that company for which I refuse to apologize. Mark Zuckerberg is a cheeky little prick with a frightening amount of power.

So, that’s my privacy/security update. May your days be carefree and your pass phrases be long and complicated.

Creature Feature

Took a photo-stroll through the Houston Arboretum and found the pond by the Woodway parking lot abuzz with critters. July 19, 2021.

Flame Skimmer (or Neon?)
Blue Dasher
Blue Dasher
Yellow Garden Spider
Brazilian Skipper
White Stripe Longtail (skipper)
Spicebush Swallowtail

(All IDs subject to scrutiny but I’m not saying it unless I believe it.)

Boswell & Johnson

Back in my days at the used bookstore, we once acquired an estate which included a significant library of Boswell & Johnson related material. While these items did not sell well, we did dedicate an entire shelf section to them for the shear prestige of it.

Here’s a bit I recall reading in one of the books, an exchange between the two recorded by Boswell, I believe. This is retrieved from an unreliable memory, keep in mind. I could not find a reference to it with an internet search.

Johnson, in teasing, asks Boswell about the Scott’s habit of consuming oats. “In England,” he says, “we feed oats to our horses.” To this Boswell replies, “well, that’s why England has such great horses, and Scotland has such great men.”

Anyway, this came to mind after reading Catherine Meyrick’s book review of a novel that casts these two as mystery solving sleuths. Seems like a fun read.

Black Velvet Leatherleaf Slug

Native to South America, the Black Velvet Leatherleaf Slug is by far the most stylish of mollusks. In appearance it is unlike any of our native slugs and is being monitored as an invasive species by the scientists who concern themselves with that sort of thing. It is clearly the Batman-villain of lawn sod and forest leaf mat. Sightings have been recorded in all the US gulf coast states since 2005, when it was first spotted in Florida. This one crossed my path at a nearby park here in Houston, Texas.

#Sluglife

The Visible Wavelengths III

When the plastics reach the apex of second half-life they will lose all mass and become weightless misshapen orbs of light, floating up out of the depths of the oceans to disperse and litter the skies, eventually forming a vast blanket around the planet and reflecting the sun’s energy back into space. By this time humans will have devolved into tadpoles incapable of abstraction and the petrochemical winter will blot out most of the higher life forms.

Somewhere, in a self-sustaining cryogenic chamber, one man will survive to fight back against the coming end of civilization. That man will be played by Vin Diesel. No, no. Nicolas Cage.

The Real Deal

And—I'll build you pictures
of buildings and houses 
made from pictures of concrete
and lumber and steel

With pictures of landscapes
and driveways and basements
and pictures of neighbors
to round out the deal

I can picture a dog
and a fence and a lawn
some kids playing tag
for that down home appeal 

And—I'll sell you these pictures
for pictures of money
then you'll own an estate
you can picture as real

The very first entry in Merriam-Webster’s definition for the word real is: “having objective independent existence.” Most of the other definitions have to do with authenticity as in ‘not fake or fraudulent,’ or variations to cover real property, or real income, and so on. But the meat of the subject has most to do with, ‘occurring or existing in actuality,‘ and herein lies my minor obsession. Our experience in the world is entirely subjective and all notions of objects occurring or existing in actuality is by way of the great and mighty presumption that they actually do. This is the crux of all the sciences and philosophies, not to mention our everyday experience of just being here. Things being as they are, we really have no choice, do we?

Science tells us that things are made up of atoms and atoms are made up of 99.9% empty space(1). Rectify that when you stub your toe in the dark on the way to the toilet. Things made up of mostly space ramming into other things judged empty by the same measure, but somehow result in calamity. Does this sound right to you? I’d put on my Karen hat and demand to see the manager, except there isn’t one. Okay, God. But when subpoenaed to testify, God will have to say under oath that He didn’t do it. You did. It gets more infuriating the more you think about it.

So if things aren’t justifiably called real, then what do we call them. Unreal? Of course not!(2) That makes no sense whatsoever. It is understandable though that we tend to plaster over these paradoxicalities with word play. What’s a mother to do?

~~~

(1) What’s worse is that the .1% of an atom that isn’t empty space is not solid stuff either, nor does it behave in ways that make sense in terms of everyday physics. I don’t know how physicists don’t end up in padded cells. I am grateful for the work they do though.

(2) I just used another from my lifetime limit of exclamation points.

Depicto

I love the idea that abstract art is a kind of joke in the same way that a Zen koan is a joke: you project your expectations of the familiar onto a new object and it throws it all right back in your face. This is not a thing made to look at, especially, but a thing to make you ask, “what is actually happening when I look at things?” Confounded by the lack of a subject our habits direct us to find one anyway, so people might say, “it looks like a such-and-such.” Like finding faces in clouds.

Much of Buddhist mind training centers on destabilizing this habit of clinging always to the conceptual. When you understand this, the entire facade of Modernism comes home like a punchline and then you can have a good laugh. Or you could try to sound smart and cook up some interpretation of what you think the artist is trying to say.

Photo (CC BY-SA) 2021. Wood scraps staged temporarily for the photo, with further graphic effects.

Puzzling Evidence

“You got the CBS and the ABC, Time and Newsweek, they’re the same to me…” from True Stories soundtrack, David Byrne and Talking Heads. I liked this film and soundtrack so much my friends were beginning to wonder about me. Just kidding. They always did wonder about me.