Tag Archive | technology

Managing our personal technology, time, and attention

Photo of commuters on a train in the 1960s, everyone reading a newspaper with the caption: “All this technology is making us anti-social.”

“All this technology is making us anti-social.” (click to embiggen)

When I first started reading this article: A Phone Setup That Will Make You More Mindful I thought it was heading toward being a rant about how horrible technology is, making us ignore people around us and such1. I almost stopped reading it, in fact. But the screenshot early on of the home screen showing a simple landscape with a single question intrigued me. As I continued to read it, it became clear the author wasn’t anti-technology, he’s just a strong advocate for you controlling the technology, and not the other way around.

Now, before I get into my own comments on this topic, a disclaimer: my use case probably doesn’t match your use case2. I’m not suggesting that anyone use their tools the way I use mine. My talking about the tools I use and how I use them is in no way meant as an indictment of anyone who uses different tools (or none at all) or uses them differently.

I’m not rearranging my whole phone according to his recommendations after reading it4, but the article did make me think about how I let things on my phone distract me from other things I want to do—often things I meant to do on the phone itself. What I have done is cleaned up my notification settings. There were a number of apps I didn’t really want to see alerts from cluttering up my Notification Center and the Earlier Today list. It’s funny how every time I noticed those unwanted alerts before I would think, “I need to remember to go turn those off.” To be fair, the reason is usually that I would tap another alert that I did want and go read an urgent email or message. By the time I’d handled that, I would have forgotten about the annoying alerts.

Rinse and repeat.

This article has made me consider rearranging my homescreen. There are a few apps that I use many times a day that aren’t on the first screen. The app where I record and track my blood sugar readings, meals & snacks, and insulin doses, for instance. I put in on the second page because it’s color is the same another app I use multiple times, and I kept clicking on the wrong one. The article’s suggestion of having a first screen with no more than six apps that you use frequently got me thinking: is the reason that these two are confused because they are surrounded both buried among 22 other icons, many of which are only tapped a few times a week?

Right now all of the apps I have on the phone fit into only two screens. I pull that off by having a lot of apps in folders. My reason for doing this is that back when I had three to five screens worth of icons I would spend a lot of time swiping back and forth trying to find things. I figured just have two screens would cut down on that. Except I swipe back and forth between them a few times sometimes when trying to find an app.

So, I am thinking of rearranging my screen.

I’ve always had a problem with rabbit-holing. I’ll be getting ready for work, for instance, and notice that the empty tube from the middle of a used toilet paper roll is sitting on the counter. I’ll grab it and carry it out to the kitchen to drop in the recycle bin, where I might decide to grab a sip of coffee or water. I’ll pour some coffee into my much from the coffee maker and spill a little coffee on the counter, which prompts me to grab a rag, and the next thing I know I’ve wiping down the whole counter, and noticing that the stove could use a quick wipe, and say, there’s a couple of dishes in the sink that should go in the dishwasher, but…

And then ten or fifteen minutes later I’m finally heading out of the kitchen, but I forget that I was going to the bathroom and head into the bedroom to pick out clothes to wear, at which point I realize I haven’t actually showered yet. So I head toward the bathroom again.

Which eventually leads to a moment when I glance at a clock or my watch and freak out because it’s a lot later than I thought it was.

This tendency to be easily distracted did cause me to be sent for evaluation for hyperkinetic impulse disorder5 in school more than once. But each time they decided I didn’t have it6.

For now, I’ve turned off the badges on things like the Mail app that I check regularly, anyway. And greatly reduced the number of apps that show notifications.

I already have a lot of apps in folders, and for anything that I don’t check real frequently I use search to find them. I’m not quite ready to go as far as this guy: Beautility, My Ultimate iPhone Setup, but I certainly understand his reasoning!

I’m thinking of this as an extension of the project we started last year when we learned our old building was going on the market and knew moving was likely. We’ve been reducing and de-cluttering and taking long hard looks at all the stuff we have. A lot of things were gotten rid of because we seldom (if ever) use them7. So thinking about how I have my phone (and other devices) set up is probably a good next logical step.

Let’s see how this works!


Footnotes:

1. The modern equivalent of the infamous “milkman’s cheery whistle” style essay: where a pundit laments modern society in general by waxing nostalgic about one particular thing the author thought was wonderful.

2. This is a great phrase my friend Duncan introduced me to. People have different workflows, opinions, and uses for the tools they use. We can legitimately like something without being a mindless fanboy or apologist. We can just as legitimately dislike something without being a hater3. I think it’s a much better approach to think of things this way than to angrily ask, “Why would anyone use X?” And so forth.

3. However, if you only comment on someone else’s blog post to call them a fanboy, sheep, or some other disparaging term because they like a product you don’t, particularly if you include a blanket statement such as, “I don’t use products by so-and-so and never will,” you are acting in a way 100% indistinguishable from a hater.

4. Yet!

5. This was the name given to what is now commonly called ADD/ADHD back in the day. The modern name (and definition) wasn’t adopted until I was in my twenties.

6. I could get into a long and very boring discussion of standard deviations and what constitutes a symptom as opposed to a quirk in different people’s perspectives. But maybe some other day.

7. And I’m not just talking about the embarrassingly large amounts of things we found boxed up in the back of closets that had been there so long, we literally had forgotten the closet was that deep8. An example: about a year or so before Ray died, he found a silk jacket during one of his thriftstore runs with his mom. It was a beautiful dark purple and dark teal (a color combo I was really into), it was in very good shape, silk lining as well as a silk outer shell, it was a nice, light weight that would be perfect for the mildly chilly parts of our falls and springs, and it appeared to be my size. It fit me well across the shoulders and was more than roomy enough for my belly. But the sleeves were about four inches short. But it was gorgeous! And it had clearly been expensive. The label wasn’t in English, and the size was odd enough that we strongly suspected it might have been custom made made for another short, round guy, right? Anyway, other than the sleeves, it was perfect. But because of the sleeves, I almost never wore it. I wore it when a few times we went out back when Ray was alive, because it made him happy to see me in it, and I just never talked about the sleeves. Then for about 19 years after his death, the jacket lived in among our coats and jackets in the closet. Every now and then, when the weather was chilly but not actually cold, I would pull it out and put it on—and then remember the sleeves as soon as I lifted an arm. So I would take it back off and hang it up. Because Ray had bought it for me. And it was gorgeous and still in great shape and so on. During the unpacking, it (with a lot of other old jackets and coats) were hauled off to Value Village. I hope that someone who it actually fits found it and wears it and keeps warm while looking great.9

8. Though that was a thing!

9. Then there’s a complete different phenomenon: after we did the purge of the coats, one of the coats I kept was a long cloth raincoat10 that I had bought many years ago at a fancy men’s store. We had several formal functions we were going to that year, and a coat that I could wear over my suit seemed like a good idea. And it worked great and I looked good, and it was awesome. And then it spend most of the next 14-15 years hanging in that same closet. I wore it more often than the silk jacket, but I kept thinking that I should save it for appropriate occasions11. I didn’t get rid of it in the purge, I kept it. Then when the weather started turning cold and wet, I started to pull it out, but immediately had the thought, “But shouldn’t I save this for—?” Fortunately, I also immediately remembered that the whole point was that we decided only to keep coats/jackets that we actually wear. So during this, the wettest time of the year, it has worked well to keep me warm and dry. And what’s the point of owning such a coat if you don’t wear it, right?

10. It’s a microfibre cloth, and water beads on it rather than soaks in. So it really does keep you dry, but with out the crinkling and squeaking and other odd noises you get with plasticized and rubberized fabrics.

11. Whatever that means.

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Confessions of a gadget addict

This is not a photo of me with my very first iPhone... it isn't, really, but...

This is not a photo of me with my very first iPhone… it isn’t, really, but…

I fully admit to being addicted to gadgets. I spend a lot of my time at home writing, reading, and researching on a Macbook Pro, but I also own one of the big Mac Pro Towers with an Apple Cinema Display for a monitor, and I own an Asuratek Ultrabook that runs Windows 7. Plus I have an iPad Pro with the Apple Smart Keyboard, upon which I do a surprising number of tasks that previously required a laptop, plus my iPhone and Apple Watch, and did I mention my Kindle? And that doesn’t even get into the more than half-dozen iPods of various models that I load up with music and rotate through the car. Plus there is a dizzying array of accessories for all of the above. The number of different types of headphones I own (even after purging a whole bunch during the move) is enough to make most people’s heads spin.

Sometimes I try to rationalize this by pointing out the my husband has more computers than I do… and more iPads, and… and… but that’s really deflecting.

Now one thing that I will say in my defense is that many of these things were not paid for at full retail. Most of the iPods, for instance, were picked up used, some of them with more than one previous owner before I got them. And, as I explained in Confessions of a penny pinching packrat, my childhood and early adulthood spent living (barely) paycheck to paycheck taught me to hang on to things. When I buy a new appliance or gadget or whatever the old one is seldom disposed of. Instead it is held onto as a backup in case the new thing breaks. Often older computers and such are passed on to friends and family who need them, and when that isn’t the case, I can frequently find away to sell them or trade them in to get a discount on something else we need.

But, I also love tools that work well, and I especially love tools that work well for particular tasks. The headphones I use for commuting, for instance, need to meet several requirements: they need to be wireless and feel comfortable and not awkward when worn with various hats and scarves and such that I need in various types of weather. They also need to be able to hold up to rain. Because of some issues with my inner ears, they can’t be in-ear. The models that meet those requirements don’t usually have fantastic sound fidelity. But I don’t necessarily want that, because I don’t want headphones to block out traffic noise, and so forth, because since I take a bus, a part of my commute involves walking on sidewalks along busy city streets. So I need to be able to hear what’s going on around me.

That means that the commute headphones aren’t ideal for other listening situations. So I have a pair of wired noise-cancelling headphones that live in my desk drawer at my office, so on those days that I need to block out conversations going on in the cubes and halls around me, I can. And also, if I’m going to listen to music while working, I’d like the quality of the sound to be a bit better than what I’m willing to settle for during my bus ride and walking, right?

Then I have a nice pair of wireless headphones to use at home for listening to music or podcasts while I’m writing or editing. And again, I prefer them to have better music quality than the commute headphones. Unfortunately, it is often the case the wireless headphone with great sound, have inferior microphones. So if I’m trying to have conversations or gaming sessions with friends online, I need a headset that has good sound and a good microphone, which winds up being a wired headset.

And then… well… so the nice bluetooth and wired headsets I mentioned in the above paragraph basically live with my laptop. So there is another set of headphones, wired, that some years ago used to be the primary for listening to music on the laptop, that have been handed-down to the desktop Mac Pro, so that when I use that machine, I can listen to my music without disturbing my husband on the other side of the computer room. And there is a pair of really nice wired noise-cancelling headphones that permanently live in the On The Go computer bag, so that when we’re at cons or whatever, I’ll have a good set on those occasions I need them…

…and then there is a small stash of some older ones that still work well enough in a pinch, and usually one or two pairs of still in box backups for the commute headphones, because when they die, they tend to completely die, and I need a backup right away, right?

It’s a little harder to explain how the primary laptop, iPad, desktop, and Windows-based laptop all fit some of my use cases but aren’t the best tool for some of my other tasks. I mean, I have the Windows laptop because occasionally I need to process a file in software that is only available on Windows. And some of my old backups were done on Windows, since I used that operating system for many years. My new laptop is, in theory, pretty water resistant, but I’m still a bit reluctant to take it outside when rain is likely. And now that we have such a nice veranda, I spend a little bit of pretty much every day out there either writing, reading, or chatting with friends. So the iPad is a better tool for that location, since it is much much much more water resistant than the laptop, right?

I also, whenever possible, I spend my lunch break at the office writing or editing my own fiction, and that happens on the iPad. Which is much tinier and easier to transport along with my lunch and stuff than the laptop.

This is a long way of saying: what works for me, works for me, but may not meet the your needs. Likewise, what works for you may not meet my specific needs at all. And it’s okay if some of us spend more of our time and resources on different things than other people.

You do you. I’ll do me. Okay?

Worry about you and other revelations for a Wednesday

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Apple announced more than one new phone yesterday, and like most years, a certain percentage of current iPhone owners are debating which one to upgrade to as our older iPhones are now more than two years old. More than one person I know is still hanging onto the same iPhone they’ve owned for three years and not sure that they will upgrade this year or wait a bit. But Apple haters all act as if all of us blindly rush out to buy the newest one every year. We don’t, but hey, if your life is so hollow that you need to make fun of other people’s choices of what goods and services to use, I guess that’s what you have to do.

But the really funny thing for me is how many of the haters are making fun of the cost of the high end Apply phone (not the shiny new iPhone 8 that the vast majority of us will buy, but the premium model that literally most of us can’t—not just because of the price, but because of manufacturing limits, but I’ll come back to that) are also comparing it to a particular Samsung Galaxy, about which others were asking just last month: Why does Samsung think you’d be willing to spend nearly $1,000 on a Galaxy Note 8?. Seriously, you can’t complain about price by comparing it to a phone that is just as expensive.

The answer to the question isn’t about either company being greedy—it’s about first the fact that some of those components simply cost more. The OLED screen currently used in the Galaxy Note 8 and that will be in the iPhone X costs at least $100 more each at wholesale than the screen used in the iPhone 8 and comparable screens on other Samsung phones that are less costly than the Galaxy Note 8. And that isn’t the only more expensive component either phone has.

But there’s another factor that a lot of people don’t get: manufacturing scale. The last few years, Apple has sold, on average, 800,000 new iPhones a day. In order to meet the demand, not only do they have to manufacture phones close to that rate, but all of the components that they buy from other companies have to be manufactured by those other companies at that rate. Samsung, currently the only source of the high-end OLED screen mentioned above, literally can’t manufacture them fast enough to meet that kind of demand. And that isn’t the only component in the premium phones like that. So part of the reason that both Samsung and Apple are charging nearly 1000 bucks for their highest-end phones is because they want most of their customers to buy the other models, the ones that don’t have components which can’t (yet) be produced at that quantity.

It's the same thing every September. Y'all concern yourself with how other people pay for their iPhones. Worry about you.

Embedding the screenshot of the quoted tweet in case the original goes away…

So, chill. You buy the phone you want, or stick with the one you have already, and don’t be a douche making remarks that are far less clever than you think they are about other people’s choices and preferences. As more than one person has observed: asshole is the failure mode of clever.


I had a couple more posts about writing ready to go up this week. One was kind of a sequel to Monday’s Confessions of a writing tool addict—good intentions paving the way, while the other was a follow up on a much older post: Trust the reader to keep up. But then on Tuesday morning I read an essay that made me want to rethink some advice that I give out all of the time, but that I suspect I don’t follow as much as I think I do. And even more importantly, it makes me want to rethink some of my assumptions. You should really go read Celcilia Tan’s essay, “Let Me Tell You” at Uncanny Magazine.

Anyway, I unscheduled my two posts. I may rewrite them and post them eventually. Or I may just scrap them and start over. Tan’s essay has got me thinking about several things.

And an old and dear acquaintance reminded me that this excellent music video exists, that that in addition to being a good song, the lyrics speak truth:

Propellerheads feat: Miss Shirley Bassey – History Repeating:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

“Oh, it’s not that bad!” and other adventures in being human

This picture of a “vintage alarm clock” was as close as I could find to the old clock on line, but this looks a bit more modern than that one.

This picture of a “vintage alarm clock” was as close as I could find to the old clock on line, but this looks a bit more modern than that one.

There are many little aspects of our move that I haven’t written about. Not that every little anecdote is worth a blog post, but we had a few discoveries/epiphanies during the course of the packing and sorting and reducing and hauling and unpacking and replacing that are at least a little amusing. For example, there’s the matter of our alarm clocks. Way, way, way back when Ray and I first moved in together, we had two alarm clocks. Since Ray’s job at the time sometimes required him to get up earlier on some days than others, while I generally tried to catch the bus at the same time every day to get to the office by 9-ish. So we each had an alarm clock on each side of the bed.

Both were digital alarm clocks with that formerly ubiquitous red LED display, though Ray’s was a large print display, because without his glasses, even if he picked up a regular alarm clock and held it so close that his nose was almost touching the display, he still couldn’t read the numbers. My alarm clock was a clock radio, and I always set it to start playing NPR about a half hour before I needed to wake up, then the alarm when I had to get out of bed. Because I was less likely to be a Grouch Monster™ when the alarm went off if I’d been eased into waking up by the radio. After Ray died, I kept both alarm clocks. For one thing, while my eyesight had never been quite as bad as Ray’s, I liked the fact that I could read the large print clock from the far side of the bedroom when I didn’t have my glasses on.

When Michael moved in with me the year after Ray died, he already owned an alarm clock. And since he also had a job where he needed to get up at different times each day for work, it made sense to have a separate clock. But we didn’t get rid of my second clock. Instead we moved the clock radio to the far side of the bedroom, which I found made it less likely that I would hit the snooze alarm a bunch of times and oversleep. Over the years, the clock radio had to be replaced a couple of times. And Michael’s clock’s display went wonky and had to be replaced, but the large print clock which had been Ray’s just kept chugging along.

Or at least, that’s what I told myself.

I don’t know how old the clock was, because Ray already owned in when we started dating in 1990. But that means it was at a minimum 27 years old this spring when Michael and I were packing. Not surprisingly, after 27+ years of use, some things didn’t work as well any longer.

  • One of the features the large print clock had which was innovative and unusual in 1990 was a battery compartment in the bottom of the clock so that if you kept fresh batteries in there, the clock wouldn’t lose time during a power outage. The clock wouldn’t actually stay lit up or sound its alarm when it was on battery back up, but you didn’t have to reset it once the power came back on. Now it is pretty standard for electronics to have a in-built mini rechargeable battery for this purpose, but back then it was unusual. The battery backup stopped working years ago. You don’t want to know how many times I changed the batteries and cleaned the contacts in the battery compartment, or shone a flashlight into it while I peered through a magnifying glass trying to fix it before I admitted to myself that the memory chip or whatever it was that the batteries powered must have failed.
  • A couple years after the battery backup stopped working, the alarm became inconsistent. You could set the alarm, and when it came time for the alarm to go off, the clock would try to sound an alarm. But sometimes all you got was a click and a single weird little chirping noise. other times the buzzer would sound, but it wasn’t very loud. Other times it chirped and chirped and chirped until you turned the alarm off. Very rarely did the buzzer just buzz loudly. But since by this time I had a clock radio that had two alarms in addition to the radio, I didn’t really need the alarm on this clock any longer. But the large print display I still had a use for.
  • More recently, the power cord had gotten twitchy. By which I mean, if you bumped the power cord, it would temporarily lose power. And because the battery backup wasn’t working any longer, that meant that basically if you sneezed in the vicinity of the clock, the display would go dark until you jiggled the cord again, and then you had this enormous blinking 12:00 on the screen. Now, I’m not saying the cord was frayed or otherwise showed any sign of the sort of wear that would make it a fire hazard, I think the iffy connection was actually inside the body of the clock on one side or the other of the rectifier (this is the part inside most electronic devices that converts the household 110-volt alternating current into the much lower voltage direct current that circuit board and chips and such use). So this didn’t represent a fire hazard, just an annoyance.
  • Cosmetically, the faux-gold coating on some parts of the plastic bezel around the display had been wearing off. The labels on some of the switches and buttons necessary to setting the time had faded to the point of being difficult to read, and there was a half-inch-long crack in one corner of the display.

When I actually type these things up, it seems really ludicrous that I hung onto the clock as long as I did, right? And it is ridiculous. But it’s not that unusual for people to let small annoyances like this build up to a ridiculous point and try to keep muddling along. How many times have you known someone in a relationship which had obviously soured or become awful over time who didn’t notice the thousands of little ways they were walking on eggshells to keep the peace?

Yeah, part of the reason I was more willing than was reasonable to overlook the growing list of problems with this clock is because it had belonged to Ray. And I am a sentimental fool, so of course I don’t want to get rid of something that had any fond memories attached. And yes, the alarm clock did have fond memories associated with it. Not to get too graphic, but it was the only light on in the room the first time we made love, after all. But the other part was the human tendency to make-do with something because it seems easier to keep the thing we’re familiar with than to replace it.

As it was, the clock radio, though many years newer than the large print clock, was also beginning to develop some issues, and the alarm clock on Michael’s side of the bed had a crack in the display that made it difficult to read from some angles. And so Michael bought a brand new bedroom clock for the new house within a day or two of the move. And he found a single clock that replaced the functions we had actually been using on the three old ones. The main display shows time, day, date, and the temperature in the room. It has a radio, multiple alarms, alarms you can specify for different days of the week, and it has an adjustable, focusable laser display that projects the time on the ceiling or a wall in very large print so I can read it in the dark (and it doesn’t have to be that dark, just dim in the room) from across the room without my glasses.

It’s a very big improvement, it wasn’t expensive, and one little clock takes up a lot less space than the three old things we had before.

Change doesn’t have to be bad!

We’re living in the future, but a lot of people don’t get it

An magazine ad from 1968: Western Electric is crossing a telephone with a TV set.  “What you'll use is called, simply enough, a Picturephone set. Someday it will let you see who you are talking to, and let them see you.”

An magazine ad from 1968: Western Electric is crossing a telephone with a TV set.
“What you’ll use is called, simply enough, a Picturephone set. Someday it will let you see who you are talking to, and let them see you.”

Some years ago I was attending a meeting of the committee that ran one of the local science fiction conventions. I had just joined the staff, and it was my first full meeting. One of the topics debated that day was a proposal that the committee obtain an email address that several committee members could check, because people kept asking why they didn’t have an email address. The only means that were available to the public (and thus people who might want to attend the convention) for contacting the organization was to either mail a physical letter to the club’s post office box, or to leave a voice mail message via a phone number that didn’t actually ring a phone. A system that was troublesome because if you didn’t check the voice mail box often enough, it would fill up with messages and no one could leave a new message.

During the debate, one person admitted that he had voted “no” each previous time the question had come up, but he had recently realized that it was as inconvenient for him and his friends that he didn’t have an email address of his own, as it had been inconvenient for he and his family that his elderly great-aunt refused to get a telephone. He wasn’t the only member of the committee to admit that they had been resisting adopting that “new technology.”

And this was a bunch of sci fi nerds.

Admittedly, it was sci fi nerds in the 1980s. Personal computers were still complicated gadgets that cost more than a car (the first IBM PC/XT had 128kilobytes of RAM and cost $5000, that’s the equivalent of $12,000 in 2017) and often had parts you had to solder together yourself. But my point is that even people who think they are forward thinking and tech savvy often have big blind spots about technology.

Such as the current dismay I keep seeing expressed online because so many politicians on both sides of the aisle have been talking about rural broadband. “Is this really a pressing need?” As a matter of fact, yes. It is nearly impossible in the modern era to apply for a job if you don’t have access not just to email, but a robust enough internet connection to fill out the often very-poorly scripted online applications. When my husband and I were recently looking for a new place to live, not only were the only reliable places to find available properties online, but often the only way to inquire about a property was to fill out a web form. Even after that point, we had to each fill out applications for background checks via a different website and system than we’d used to contact the property manager.

(click to embiggen)

The primary means to access services such as unemployment insurance, disability benefits, and so forth, is over the web. And that means needing more than a basic internet connection, you have to have a decent amount of bandwidth, or things time out. When new medical equipment is handed out, they doctor’s offices don’t have the time to show you how to use it, they give you a web address to access videos online. That’s how I learned to properly inject myself with insulin (including how to troubleshoot the injection pin and so on): they sent me to a webpage to watch the videos and read the warnings and disclaimers myself.

Internet access, particularly high speed/high bandwidth access, is no longer a luxury. Society, both businesses and institutions, have embraced the new technologies. Just as phones ceased being a luxury decades ago, then cellphones ceased being a luxury about a decade ago, and now smart phones have also crossed that line. For a number of people, particularly poor people, their smartphone is their only reliable way of accessing the services they need to get and keep their jobs, to take care of their kids’ needs, and so on.

Douglas Adams observed in an article in 1999:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Which is accurate, but also just a bit dated. Technology doesn’t just move forward, but the rate at which things change accelerates. Adams’s rules could use a couple of additions. For instance, we might add “Any new and exciting thing creating jobs when you’re in your 20s is a dying, obsolete industry by the time you turn 40.”

And there are the people who don’t understand how mass production and the commodification of products makes things that once were terribly expensive available for a fraction of the cost. This comes up a lot in relation to iPhones, in particular. In certain circles it is popular to hold up the ownership of an iPhone by someone who is struggling financially as proof that the person is only struggling because of bad priorities. This doesn’t take into account the many, many ways that someone can obtain slightly older versions of currently expensive gadgets extremely cheaply. We’ve already established that have a phone, specifically a mobile phone, has become a necessity in our modern society. Getting a refurbished unit of some previous year’s model or a non-refurbished unit of a model from a couple of years ago for free or close to it as part of a cell phone contract is quite common. And then there are various sales and special offers one can find.

That doesn’t even get into the hand-me-down process. Lots of people, when they upgrade a device such as a phone or tablet or laptop, rather than try to sell it somewhere, wipe their data and give the device to a friend or relative who can’t afford a new device themselves.

Luxuries aren’t what some people think they are. Sadly, the people least likely to understand this also don’t realize that being able to look with condescension on others for having or wanting nice things is a form of luxury on its own.

Defining my existence as inappropriate; why should that worry me?

“Sick of your heteronormative bullshit.”

“Sick of your heteronormative bullshit.”

Not long before my 16th birthday we moved to southwest Washington and began attending the church where my maternal grandparents were members. My new Sunday School teacher was a middle-school librarian in his day job. This particular church had all Sunday School classes segregated by gender (which was fairly typical for Southern Baptist Churches3) and by age, so it was a bunch of guys ranging in age from about 14-18 years old. One Sunday morning shortly after we joined the church, the teacher was telling an anecdote from his public school job, and he mentioned the novel Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret?. “Some of you may have heard of it,” he said.

Without thinking, I nodded my head and said, “Yeah, it’s a pretty good book.”

The teacher turned on me as if I had just transformed into a rattlesnake and was switching my tail ready to strike4. He had the most appalled look on his face. Then the expression changed to very amused condescension, “Oh, Gene! You would never have read this book! It’s a book for girls, and is completely inappropriate for a boy!”

I shrugged and said, “If you say so…”

He shook his head, chuckling even more condescendingly, and then went back to his story.

But I had read the book, several years earlier. I had gone through a pretty intense Judy Blum phase6, see. It started with the novel, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t which was, among other things, about a boy dealing with puberty and significant changes in his family’s financial situation. I had loved the book so much, that I proceeded to read everything else of hers I could get at the public library (or through inter-library loan) in the small Colorado town we had been living in at the time. Sure, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret is a book about (among other things) a girl going through puberty and all that entails. But it’s also a book about one’s relationship with the faith they were raised in, and learning to make adult decisions about what you yourself believe.

The idea of boy’s toys and girl’s toys and boy’s books and girl’s books is pretty messed up when talking about small children, but it seems to me it is much more messed up when talking about teen-agers8. Some people will immediately point out that the teacher may have been so appalled because he thinks of menstruation as a sexual topic9, and good Christian boys who are not yet married10 aren’t supposed to know anything about sex. As if that argument is any less BS than the idea that a boy could never possibly read and enjoy a book that some people think of as a girl’s book.

It’s all heteronormative BS. My church insisted on separating girls from boys in Sunday School classes in part to supposedly thwart sexual improprieties12. But heteronormative BS is not limited to members of fundamentalist evangelical churches.

YouTube's completely BS explanation for why they're restricting videos that just happen to be made my Queer people. (Click to embiggen)

YouTube’s completely BS explanation18 for why they’re restricting videos that just happen to be made my Queer people. (Click to embiggen)

YouTube is hiding some videos touching on various topics related to the LGBT community17. Not sexual videos. Among the videos that have been found to be hidden the Restricted Due to Mature Content label are: trans people showing how to apply make-up, a gay vlogger talking about 8 LGBT African-Americans who ought to be remembered during Black History Month, music videos without sexual content that happen to have been made by queer musicians, some coming out videos, and so forth.

Before anyone tries to lecture me of all people that this doesn’t constitute censorship (which I never said it did), let me explain. YouTube is privately owned, yes. But it offers a service to the public, and therefore must abide by the legal and ethical obligations that comes with offering a public accommodation. They incur those obligations whether or not they charge fees for the service. Among those obligations is one that is sometimes referred to as truth in advertising19: if you represent that your product or service does a thing when it does not, you can face penalties. YouTube claims that it is simply labeling content of a “mature or inappropriate nature” so that other users who choose to surf in restricted mode will not see offensive20 material. They also keep referring to it as a voluntary program.

“8 Black LGBT Americans Who Inspire Me” is not mature content. How to apply foundation, eyeliner, and lipstick is not mature content. “How I Came Out to my Family” is not mature content. Nor are any of those inappropriate.

It is also misleading in the press release to say the program is voluntary. Yes, whether or not a viewer choose to see content that has been labeled “Restricted” is voluntary. Whether a creator’s material is thus labeled is not. Neither are the creators informed that their material has thus been labeled. They have to log into YouTube as a different account and set that account not to view Restricted material and then try to view their own videos to see which ones have been labeled “Restricted.”

So I’m exercising my free speech right to call BS on YouTube. This isn’t a misunderstanding on our part. It is a discriminatory business practice21. It is more of the same old heteronormative BS where anything that admits that queer people exist is treated as if it is pornography, even when they are doing something as innocuous as sharing make-up tips22.


Footnotes:
1. By “we” I mean my mom, my oldest sister, and myself. Dad had remarried and was living in Utah by that time, with where my step-mom was had just given birth to the youngest of my half-siblings2.

2. It is worth pointing out that the precipitating event of my parents’ divorce was the discovery that Dad had been carrying on an affair with the woman who became my step-mom for years.

3. Many years later that particular church decided to allow a mixed gender Sunday School class, but only for the people over 65 years old. And members who happened to be that age but didn’t want to attend Sunday School in a mixed gender setting were allowed to attend the adult men’s or women’s class, instead. When my grandmother told me about it, she actually tittered and made a comment about how radical it was to let men and women discuss the Bible in the same room. My step-grandfather then commented that, “Well, I guess at our age they don’t expect anyone will misbehave.” From which you can correctly infer that one of the things at least some Evangelicals believe is that you can’t put people of the opposite gender in rooms with closed doors without the very real risk that sexual hijinks will ensue.

4. Which may seem like a really strangely specific metaphor, but because one of the churches we had briefly attended during my nomadic childhood had included some members who were into snake handling5, I actually had seen another man in a church have the exact expression as this teacher did when a rattlesnake in a jar that most of us didn’t realize one of the members had snuck into the church, suddenly got very tired of being trapped in said jar.

5. Snake-handling: A practice in certain Pentecostal and Evangelical churches inspired by a literalistic reading of Mark 16:17–18. Handling venomous snakes without being harmed is seen as a sign of one’s faith and possession of the Holy Spirit.

6. To be fair, many years later, when I mentioned something about Judy Blum during a conversation at work, at least one of my co-workers gave me a rather startled look and asked, “You read Judy Blum when you were a teen-ager?” When I said that I had and mentioned a couple of my favorites7, her response was a very emphatic, “Wow!”

7. Deenie, It’s Not the End of the World, and of course Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.

8. Although, attitudes like this teacher’s make it easy to believe the story that gets shared around from time to time of the adult male legislator with a wife and teen-age children who didn’t know that menstrual blood flow was an involuntary biological function.

9. It’s a biological function that occurs in members of one sex, yes. And it is related to the reproductive cycle, yes. But it’s biology. And sometimes a health issue. Fully functioning adult members of a society ought to have at least a passing knowledge about the health issues of their species, regardless of whether they experience it themselves.

10. I should mention that two of the guys sitting in that Sunday School room with me that morning would, in less than two years time, each have a rushed marriage to their respective girlfriends who would each give birth to their first child only a few months afterward9.

11. A situation which studies have shown again and again and again would happen much less frequently if kids are given accurate information about sex, sexuality, reproduction, et cetera.

12. Because sex (and flirting and dancing14) can only happen between people of opposite sexes, right16?

13. There is no thirteenth footnote.

14. An old joke which was much beloved by my college debate coach (though I’ve heard it from others before and since): “Why do Baptists condemn sex other than missionary position15? Because they’re afraid it might lead to dancing!”

15. It’s true, even married people are not supposed to do anything other than very vanilla sex. Which is the inspiration of a similar joke: “Why do Baptists say it’s sinful for a woman to smoke cigarettes? Because they’re afraid it might lead to oral sex!”

16. Which is ridiculous. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only queer boy sitting in that Sunday School classroom that morning. Not that I had any romantic or sexual relationship with the other guys, just that I and two others each came out of the closet years later. One of them I’ve run into a few times since, as he lives in Seattle, now, too. Last I heard, the other was living in San Diego.

17. YouTube faces social media storm over LGBT-blocking ‘restricted mode’

18. You can read a bit more of YouTube’s side here: YouTube apologizes for blocking LGBT videos. Note that the headline is completely false. YouTube’s statement is not an apology for blocking the content. It says the word “apologize” but it’s for our supposed confusion at not realizing that they’re restricting LGBT content for reasons and not because of other reasons. Except we aren’t confused, we understand perfectly.

19. The principle is not limited to advertising. Any communication about the use of the product can be subject to this scrutiny.

20. Oddly enough, a lot of videos spouting off white supremacist, racist, and anti-queer bigotry (often making the kinds of hate speech which YouTube’s user guidelines says are not allowed) are freely available on the service without the Restricted label. So it is reasonable to conclude that the service is applying a definition of “offensive” that tilts cartoonishly far in one particular political direction.

21. Restricting or denying service due to the sexual orientation or gender identity of the people producing it, which is clearly the case in the vast majority of the identified videos.

22. And if you think that it’s universally offensive for people of some genders or some gender identities to wear make-up, then please explain why we keep having to see the horrific spray-on tan of our deplorable president.

Shiny new toy: my new Macbook Pro

I was trying to take a picture that showed the Touch Bar the first night after my laptop arrived.

I was trying to take a picture that showed the Touch Bar the first night after my laptop arrived.

I replaced my 5 1/2 year old Macbook Pro with the sparkly new Macbook Pro with Touch Bar. I’ve been using it for about a month and a half and thought I’d share my impressions. Note: I’m just a queer sf/f writer (who happens to have worked in the tech industry for more that a quarter of a century); I’m not a professional technology reporter, I’m not making any money from this blog and certainly not any money from Apple. But I own and use a lot of Apple products and have been using computers for over thirty years. So take this review accordingly…

Read More…

Hacking and phishing and spying, oh my!

thesecurityawarenesscompany.com/

thesecurityawarenesscompany.com/

I’ve got a slightly different weekend update than usual, today. Neither of these are related to specific stories I posted yesterday, they’re all stories that I came across later in the day Friday that should be shared fairly quickly. The first one is not just your typical phishing attack story, though:

Wide Impact: Highly Effective Gmail Phishing Technique Being Exploited The tl;dr version: this particular hack involves the hackers sending emails from a hacked account, to people in that account’s contact list. So it starts with you getting an email from someone you already know. But it’s much more clever than that! They take text from previous messages that person has sent, and it isn’t random. They find messages where the person has sent attachments, and they construct the new message from it. So if it’s someone you know, the phrasing of the subject and the text sound like something that person would write. The attachment in the new message is merely a screen capture, and it hides a link to their fake Google login in page. So you click on the attachment from a friend, and you’re told to view the attachment you need to log in to Google, and they get your username and password. And within seconds, they’re going through your account and sending more hacked messages to your friends.

They’ve even constructed the login page so that if you take the precaution of looking at the address bar in your browser before you start to sign in, you see “https:accounts.google.com” so you think you’re at the real Google. You’re not.

Once they’ve got your password, they can read all your email and do other things to your account.

The linked article has screenshots and advice for how to recognize this kind of attack, as well as steps for what you can do to see if you’ve already been hacked. Check it out!

And this one is less about hackers: Security backdoor found in end-to-end encryption system used in WhatsApp. The Guardian reports that security experts have found that since buying WhatsApp, Facebook has added a back door. In updates, Facebook denies that his is a backdoor to government agencies and claim they will fight any attempts from governments to access accounts.

Which is meaningless.

The existence of the backdoor means that when Facebook loses that fight (because of court orders, for instance) that the backdoor will be used to read the supposedly secure communications. The original design of WhatsApp and similar end-to-end services didn’t have a backdoor because if one exists, it will be exploited eventually. Also, Facebook’s description of the service currently lies and says that they can never read the messages. With the backdoor there, yes they can.

Joy.

While we’re on the subject of cyber security: Cellebrite, a Major Dealer of Hacking Tools, Has Itself Been Hacked. This is one of the companies that makes tools that allow people to hack your phone. After indulging in a moment of schadenfreude that these hackers have been hacked, we then have to worry about what is in that 900GB of data that was stolen from them. Since the dump “contains what appears to be evidence files from seized mobile phones” among other things, who knows whose personal information has been stolen. Supposedly Cellebrite only sells their tools to law enforcement agencies and the like, but it has been previously shown that those agencies include some very shady regimes. And in the case of their mobile hacking devices, those things could be resold or stolen from those agencies and be in anyone’s hands.

And let’s do one more: E-Sports Entertainment Association hacked; profiles of 1.5 million customers exposed. The leaked data includes real names, phone numbers, and birthdates. Very useful for identity theft. Not much you can do about it once the information has been stolen.


ETA: Several people are questioning the Guardian story about Whatsapp: The backdoor that never was, and how to improve your security with WhatsApp. The argument seems to be that while there is a security problem, it isn’t technically a backdoor. The article I linked has information on things you can do to avoid your Whatsapp messages being compromised. I’m going to leave it to the security experts to argue this out.

Blogging sites of yore and related news

Image from a 1944 US Navy Training Film.

Image from a 1944 US Navy Training Film.

In case you haven’t heard, the owners of LiveJournal have been moving the servers to Russia. A Russian company bought LiveJournal many years ago (because in those areas formerly part of the Soviet Union, blogging means writing on LiveJournal), but had left the servers in the U.S, which means that your data on those servers was covered by U.S. law. That is no longer the case. I know lots of people abandoned LiveJournal ages ago, but I still cross-post my blog there, and it is still the case that at least two long-term friends always read my posts by clicking over from LiveJournal. During the first couple of years that I was hosting my blog here at my own domain (FontFolly.Net), about half of the clicks to my blog each day were referred from LiveJournal.

I also want to point out that at least one prominent sci fi writer (George R.R. Martin) still does all of his blogging and otherwise communicating with fans over the internet through his LiveJournal. I know of several others who have domains of their own who still cross post to their LiveJournals, as well.

A lot of people are archiving their LJ posts so as not to lose those years of journaling. Since the owners have also removed HTTPS security on everything but the payment page your LJ password is slightly less secure. There are ways to mitigate that, but if you have a LiveJournal account you ever log into, you should make sure that the password used there isn’t used anywhere else. I’ve used a password manager for years, but not everyone does that. I highly recommend 1Password which is available for PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. I have friends who use and swear by LastPass. Both get stellar reviews.

Anyway, years ago (after the debacle where the previous LJ owners conspired with or were duped by some rightwing anti-gay groups into deleting hundreds of journals for bogus reasons; never mind that when it was brought to light LJ restored the journals and claimed it was all a misunderstanding) I migrated all my LiveJournal entries to DreamWidth, which is a much smaller company and doesn’t have an image hosting service. And now my actual blog is hosted at FontFolly.Net, with cross-posting to Dreamwidth, LiveJournal, and Tumblr. And I babble on Twitter.

Since I’m not the sort of person that the Russian government is out to shutdown, I think the main danger to me of the move of the LJ servers to Russian soil is that eventually the owners of LJ will decide that the U.S. journals aren’t generating enough revenue to justify keeping them. We’ll all get deleted at some point and I’ll lose contact with some people who only know me from there. So if you are someone who likes reading my rambles and rants and such, follow me on DreamWidth, at FontFolly.Net and/or Twitter. And ping me to let me know who you are so I can follow you back as appropriate.

Note: you don’t have to have a WordPress blog to follow FontFolly.Net. One of the options will just send you email updates when I post something. And it’s not me sending the emails, it’s an automatic WordPress thing, so you only get anything if I actually post a blog entry.

I may turn off comments on LiveJournal and/or delete older entries. I haven’t really decided.

There’s some features of LiveJournal (and Dreamwidth) that I really wish were easily available from my blog. The ability to post things that are only visible to a pre-defined list, for instance. There are ways to get something like that elsewhere, but only slightly similar functionality. And the main reason LJ’s worked so well is because it was not uncommon at the time, particularly if you were a geeky person, for the majority of your friends and trusted acquaintances to already have an account on LJ. Another thing I really liked was the ability to go look at journals being followed by someone you followed. I found some interesting writers I might not have ever even heard of otherwise that way.

This is related to another thing I’ve been thinking about/wrestling with recently. So I’ve been trying to motivate myself to work more diligently and methodically on finishing the galley edits to the first novel in my Trickster series and publish the darn thing. One thing I find that motivates me is to have a deadline that other people are expecting something from me. The more concrete the something is, the more likely I am to deliver. So I had been contemplating trying to use Patreon for that. Give myself a monthly task of posting a revised scene or similar, right?

My reason for considering Patreon is not about money, but rather the fact that Patreon has tools in place to restrict access of information. If I post a chapter on my blog, that puts it out there in a published format which may have implications for the later publication of the finished work, for instance. Lots of people publish excerpts and samples of works in progress, I know. I’m just not sure how much of that I want to do. So having an option to restrict it to only certain people (similar to when I bring excerpts to my writers’ group for comment) is appealing.

It’s been suggested that I just start a writing blog (whether it be a subset of my existing blog or separated) where I set myself deadlines, post reports, and maybe just ask people if they would be willing to look at something at give me feedback from time to time. And that might end up being what I do. As I mentioned when talking about my yearly goals, just giving myself the assignment to post once a month about my goals did seem to help me stick to them better the two years that I did that.

I’m still thinking about how to go about this. And I’m always open to ideas.

Let’s talk about writing tools

Sometimes I still write by hand...

Sometimes I still write by hand…

When I dropped off my phone to get the battery replaced, I thought I’d need to spend about an hour someplace, and figured it would probably be spent sitting at Starbucks with my iPad. But because there were a lot of repairs already queued up when I arrived, it was going to be a bit over two-and-a-half hours. So I set my watch for a half hour outdoor walk and intentionally meandered the long ways around the shopping area first, only heading to the coffee shop after. If I didn’t already know how addicted to my technology I am, the times I started to pull my phone out to take a picture of something cute or send off a message to my hubby drove the point home.

Once I got my coffee and found an empty seat (outside, the inside of the coffee shop was packed, and so loud!) I went to dig out the pocket notebook that usually hangs out in my iPad bag. I had expected to find a mechanical pencil there, because I tend to have writing implements tucked away in just about every bag, pack, jacket, and coat I own. I hadn’t expected to find my favorite mechanical pencil!

My friend, David, has a business making pens, pencils, and other things out of wood–often fancy and exotic wood. I’ve bought more than a few from him, but my fave, hands down, is a thick pencil made of tiger wood, with pewter-colored metal bits, and it holds a 2.0mm lead. Your typical mechanical pencil holds only a 0.5mm. I use those when I have to, but I constantly, and I mean at least once a paragraph, break such thin leads when I write. The next standard size up, 0.7mm, is slightly better. For years I collected pencils that required a 0.9mm lead because I didn’t break those very often.

I apparently press really, really hard when I’m writing, especially if an idea has seized me and I’m trying to get it down. Or if I’m writing a scene with lots of dialogue. My theory is that, since I learned to type at age 10 and routinely type at over 100 words a minute on computer keyboards (and even then, when the muse is on, it feels like my fingers just can’t keep up with my brain), that my hands are simply trying to make the pencil put words out as fast as a keyboard can, so the fingers get a little frantic.

Another friend once theorized it’s because I used to play bassoon, saxophone, and similar instruments (at one point in school I was in two orchestras and four bands at the same time), and my fingers are like mini athletes or something.

But my money is on the impatience.

My favorite tiger wood mechanical pencil was in the some pocket as my high tech Apple Pencil, which I found amusing.

My favorite tiger wood mechanical pencil was in the some pocket as my high tech Apple Pencil, which I found amusing.

I’ve argued many times that the fundamental tool of a storyteller is the sentence, rather than the word. But other tools are important. Most of my life I’ve carried pencils, pens, and notebooks everywhere, because I never know when an idea, or a scrap of dialogue, or something else I need to get down before I lose with will occur to me. Now that I’ve gotten used to always having my iPhone with me (and for several years before that an iPod Touch), the need to always have paper and a writing utensil is less urgent. A lot of scenes for my stories have been tapped out on either the iPod or iPhone. For many years in an app called WriteRoom. WriteRoom of iOS was my fave because it was simple but also had its own online shared repository years before Dropbox existed. Unfortunately, the developer came to the sad conclusion that he couldn’t make enough money selling that iOS app to cover his living expenses while fixing bugs and making updates, so he retired the software to concentrate on Mac products.

Even though I can now run full versions of my favorite combination word processor and writing project manager, Scrivener, on my iPad and iPhone as well as the Mac (and PC if I really wanted), sometimes I still like to be able to pull out a physical pad of paper and scribble some thoughts down. I don’t know if it’s the feel on the pencil in my hand, or what, but my brain seems to work from a slightly different perspective when doing that. I dove done some brainstorming on the iPad with the Apple Pencil, now that I have that. It isn’t quite the same, but that may be a matter of my finding an app that matches the way I think.

Writing tools are very personal. I have favorite dictionaries, as well as favorites in software, paper, and pencils (pens are an entirely different conversation). And yes, sometimes my inner procrastinator fixates on one of the tools as a why to avoid working right now. In truth, all of those things are simple a means to get the ideas transferred from my imagination into a format that other people can read and (if I’ve done it right), evoke similar ideas in their imaginations. It’s important to remember that the story is the goal, not the package it comes in, or the means by which it gets to the audience.

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