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.

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.

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.

April 24th, 2021 (Bird Photos)

Significant fallout on Saturday as heavy rains fell the night before. Drove to Galveston early and spent the day gathering migrant bird sightings and photographs. The east end of the island was blanketed with Baltimore Orioles and scores of other species. April had been comparatively weak until now. Bird postings to decrease in frequency henceforth.

Painted Bunting
Indigo Bunting
Gray Catbird

Indigos and catbirds are a safe bet each spring, the catbirds were especially numerous. Happy to get a decent shot of the male Painted Bunting, much less seen than its brilliant blue cousin.

Wood Thrush

Underexposed photo of subject in the shadows, not taken in moonlight! I love all the thrushes.

Northern Waterthrush
Yellow Warbler

I took a break mid afternoon and then checked out the East End Lagoon and Apffel Park, both packed with migrants. Parked by a mud hole along Apffel Road and it was like attending the theater. Yellow Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Baltimore and Orchard Oriole.

Yellow-breasted Chat

The chat did NOT want his picture took, no sir.

Summer Tanager
Blue Grosbeak

Imagine stopping to rest after a great journey, exhausted and sopping wet, and then people line up to take your picture. I was happy that the weather did not give strong headwinds this time as this causes extreme fatigue and fatalities. Rain is enough to bring them down at landfall. Given clear skies and a tailwind, they generally head further inland to more isolated fields and forests. Pretty much the story of this April with so many inactive birding days.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Black-throated Green Warbler

Happy to log a female, which I had never seen before.

Warbling Vireo -or- Philadelphia Vireo

My take is warbling, but I could be wrong. Opinions welcome, please comment below.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Five-lined Skink (male, breeding)
Houston Ship Channel

I drove down before sunrise to avoid the traffic and to enjoy the feast of color and light that greets us most every day on the gulf. Thanks, as always, for looking!

All photos (CC BY SA) 2021, Galveston, Texas. Corp Woods, Lafitte’s Cove, & East End locales.

Craig’s List

So I recently listed an item on Craig’s List out of a desire to sell that item and within a day I got a response from someone who asked, and I quote, “what is the is the least you would be willing to sell this item for?”

I thought about this for a minute and realized I had not even considered what that figure might be. With this, all my anticipated haggling moves were thrown to the mat in one deft judo move. This put me on high alert. I’m dealing with a pro here, I must tread carefully.

It reminded me of that time I was playing Texas Hold’em and was considering going all in, but was doubtful about what the other players were holding and asked, “so what’s everybody got, because I have pocket kings and think this might be the moment I’ve been waiting for.”

Those who even bothered to respond denied holding anything. Well, sure. Poker is a game where liars go to hone their skills. And Craig’s List is a body of water so polluted with scammers that when you do hook a prospect, it is with the sinking realization that the envelope is destined to be light.

We met in a public place and she examined the ukulele, verbally producing a comprehensive list of its defects, many I myself had failed to note. The amount settled upon was 60% of my asking price, and I felt by that time lucky to get it. I was right about one thing. She was good.

As she drove off I noticed that her car was nicer than mine. A lot nicer. But that’s okay. I once raked a fat pot bluffing pocket kings. Win some, lose some.

OMG Shoes!

Money is to the celebration of life what bilge pumps are to leaky boats. Staying afloat is a calculation made in the abstract, dollars being nothing more than IOUs that get passed around from one climber to another in the strange belief that debts are actually being paid.

I’m working on my 2020 taxes and find a weird sense of satisfaction at having earned little in a year that was the proverbial drawing board where I had to tape down the schematics and rework my life. Circumstance maneuvered me into an early and underfunded retirement, a kind of rug yank that left me and a certain global pandemic both finding our footings at the same time. Now I’m a pensioner with a paltry monthly allowance, like some punk being taught a sense of responsibility by well-meaning parents.

Good luck with that, let’s get some shoes!

Tangents

When people die suddenly in numbers and the reports start coming in, they always count the bodies as ‘lost souls’ but nobody really knows who or what up and took off, or how or where. There are beliefs about such matters, and they are codified in considerable detail. We are corralled into a struggling span of life with just enough awareness to get suspicious about the bigger picture and start crafting explanations.

A body with the life gone out of it begs a certain question. Convinced that everything has to have a location we consign the absentees to heavens and hells, based on our own prejudices. It’s the best we can do without actually knowing what is going on. Sometimes we allow that the souls stick around out of confusion, broken heartedness, or vengeful hankerings. We like this idea because it suggests maybe you don’t have to actually go and you can stick around in some form, maybe even harass some prick who richly deserves it.

It’s a fun game this speculation. We do that more as children because it has the mark of serious business and when we are young we look ever ahead to being older. Then we grow up and settle for one answer or another that seems to comfort that nagging doubt that so intrigued us as youngsters.

°

I recently had an oracle tell me that I had in a previous life worked as a carpenter for the Romans, making crosses for their executions. I listened intently as she went into some detail. How I wound up in this meeting is a long story, but I can assure you it was not paid fortune telling session.

The Romans were busy in those days quelling insurrections and what not, and I had plenty of work. I was occasionally drafted into their horrid processions as cross bearer for the poor wretches who had been too whipped and torn to lug their own tree trunk. There’s a special indignity to that part, like digging your own grave.

So I served in that capacity too, though all I wanted was to shape wood. I had no choice, there’s no bargaining with authoritarians. The condemned would limp behind me as I marched along, quietly thinking about ways to make cross timber less weighty. The Romans liked the cross bar fat and heavy. Cruelty seems to serve some purpose when you witness it like that first hand. The grizzled spectacle drew crowds. They reviled me as the rightful representative of the prisoner and cursed me, spat at me.

Naturally, when I first learned of this incarnation of myself I rushed to the conclusion that I was the Messiah. Silly egotistical bugger that I am. Sometimes I think we never really grow up, we just suppress our childishness to the extent it interferes with all the serious things need doing.

°

Once, when the Buddha had taken birth in one of the hot hell realms, he and another fellow were tasked with moving loads up the side of a steep, fiery mountain. His mate became exhausted and was repeatedly whipped by the cruel attendants so Buddha decided to carry his load for him. This inkling of kindness infuriated these brutes so much that they went mad and beat him to death right on the spot.

°

It is early in the AM, Thanksgiving Day, 2020. I remind myself that gratitude is itself a kind of happiness, and that there is always something or someone you can identify that is completely worthy of gratitude. Even though the world is a ball of shit. That’s quite something, isn’t it? Happiness at your fingertips and all you need do is change your mind.

We really should, however, end this charade of pardoning a ceremonial turkey as we mindlessly slaughter a billion others. An honest tradition would have the president chop off its head. Why do we lie to ourselves like this?

Zen Curious

The archer's faulted for its lack
Subgenius craves it—calls it slack

Potter shaping mound of clay
Seeks wabi-sabi, so they say

Outnumbered by the many foe
Kung Fu's the only way to go

The Koan reaches eager ears
Throws a wrench into the gears

Like pyramids, real power now
Though no one knows exactly how

An author knows this very well:
Slipped in the title, book will sell

That certain something thought of when
You don't know what to call it: Zen

Just for fun, search “Zen and the Art of” and see all the various suggestions offered by your search engine. (I recommend DuckDuckGo as a privacy oriented search alternative to the big guys. I do not use Google anymore.) Turns out that Robert Pirsig was riffing on another book’s title when he published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: which was Zen in the Art of Archery, by German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel, published in 1948.

Kyūdō: Bows are called Yumi (, lit. “Bow“)

Something striking to me about Western culture is that it’s thoroughly grounded in materialist orthodoxy but is endlessly fascinated with the ‘Mysteries of the East’ like Zen and martial arts. Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Kung Fu.