Good News October 2022

Autumn is settling in quickly here! I just returned from a ten day trip to coastal Alabama where the weather was dry, warm and the beaches were soft and the Gulf of Mexico was very pleasant. Now that I am sitting at home in deary rain I sure do miss the ocean!

Anyways, let’s have some good news in the world!

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Grounding Oneself

The blog has been quiet lately because I’ve been mired in a well over a month long major work effort at my job. As a software developer responsible for a platform used by thousands, I’ve had a lot of work to deliver lately. On top of the late work nights, on call times, desperate panicked calls and more; my son is fourth months old and hitting a famous growth spurt. With that growth spurt comes a major sleep regression. We haven’t slept through the night in weeks and weeks as we were doing in July.

All of this has made my wife and I feel very frayed. She’s low on sleep, I am low on sleep and our baby has advancing needs. Between work and home it can feel like too much. As a result, I am working harder to ground myself. To bring myself back to a stable baseline where I can feel like a normal person again.

Earlier this week I got some alone time to get high and play videos and boy was that a relief! NOTE that I am not suggesting one do this to run from your problems, but it was a nice opportunity to clear my head. My work has a developer is very mentally intensive and there’s this sort of burning persistent “brain fuzz” that lingers on too much intensive work combined with little sleep. Such personal time helped me get grounded again.

Furthermore I also lean on my religious practice. As its very nature oriented it helps me get outside and look at the world around me. For awhile, spreadsheets, emails and codebases fade into the background. I am not obsessing about “velocity” or SCRUM or Agile methodologies. Just me and the outdoor world.

I am also trying to make more room in my life again for events. Family events mostly but also those with friends. I am preserving more memories in the form of photos that can be easily referenced in the future. I want to preserve a legacy for myself and for my family and this also has a grounding effect as well.

Another sort of obscure one is family history and ancient places. As I grow older, my memories and experiences of the past fade more into the background. I am getting better at learning about my family, the places they spent time and also where I spent time as a kid. I am very “geo-focused” and interested in visiting different places in the world where memories are made.

Everyone is different and nothing is perfect but I am working hard and being my best self as a new father, a husband, a software developer and a citizen of the world but sometimes I need some personal grounding.

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Good News June 2022

Surely there’s a lot of bad to see in the world lately and surely its easy to find everywhere else on the internet. I’ve resolved that I’d like to post a couple of positive headlines a month in a summary on here to lighten the mood. Since they’re my areas of interest the stories will be mostly focused on science and technology with special emphasis on earth sciences, privacy and space. Without further ado:

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Surveillance Capitalism and Post Roe America

Unless you live outside of the United States, it would be impossible to ignore the news of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade. Republicans, Christian nationalists and reactionary conservatives have been pining for it since decades before I was born. Rather than lament the disastrous path that women’s rights in this country is headed down, because rant I can, I am going to focus in on a specific harrowing problem.

Surveillance Capitalism. Broadly, its the concept of using and commodifying personal data collected from our digital lives specifically for making profit. I go out of the way to make this distinction because as a technologist and software developer myself, I am not afraid technology nor the data it collects. I specifically advocate for control over my data, an understanding of who is using it an the desire for the ability to easily opt out. Bonus points for other wish list items like higher interoperability between digital systems.

Rather than bogging us down in technical jargon let’s look at the very real impact this decision has on women. Overturning Roe officially sends the decision on abortion back to the states. Based on their legislatures this means that a simple majority of states are likely to make any form of abortion de facto or de jure illegal.

With the Texas anti-abortion law allowing individuals to bounty hunt for women seeking abortions; we can see downstream impacts not only from government or corporate abuses but also individuals.

Last month, as it became increasingly clear that constitutional abortion protections would soon be eliminated, EFF warned that “service providers can expect a raft of subpoenas and warrants seeking user data that could be employed to prosecute abortion seekers, providers, and helpers.”

The online civil liberties organization also told technology firms to “expect pressure to aggressively police the use of their services,” along with new demands to hand over information to law enforcement as this data “may be classified in many states as facilitating a crime.”

Big Tech silent on data privacy in post-Roe America, The Register (Fri. June 24, 2022)

The dangers are evident even in seemingly innocent metadata. That is, the information surrounding your actual activity such as timestamps, to and from fields like emails and phone numbers, hardware models, location, length of calls etc.

Sure, anti-abortionists may not know that you sought an abortion with certainty. However, if they can subpoena Google for your location data and search history that would be enough to prove at least some basic intent. Even fewer data points could incriminate you, in fact. Perhaps you had your phone records subpoenaed and all anyone could tell was a woman making a phone call to an out of state number that is a known abortion provider. Sure we don’t know the contents of the phone call but we damn well guess. The same way we don’t know what you said on the phone to the Chinese restaurant but we can reasonably infer the service you sought.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) puts out good information about securing your digital life and I’d recommend their primer on security and privacy for people seeking abortion. They have many guides and are current on the most pressing issues facing our digital privacy and I greatly appreciate the work they do.

Well if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right? This classic argument is trotted out anytime someone complains about the gross expansion of the surveillance state. Surely, they think, nobody would ever dare come for them! America has free speech after all, right? As demonstrated above, something once legal has now become illegal in the United States. What’s next, contraception, gay marriage? Justice Thomas Clarence has said that we should revisit the court decisions enumerating the legality of those items. What else could potentially be on the docket? How much of this information such as condom purchases or, more irrevocably, people coming out as LGBTQ online is impossible to bottle back up?

America’s polarizing political climate means that elections are won on paper thin margins. Social media and our culture has exacerbated deep wounds that make us suspicious and more partisan than ever. These things present real risks to people who are vulnerable to authoritarian crackdowns. The government can function as a force for good, and its good to have a tool that lacks the specific profit motive of private companies with massive resources. However, political regimes don’t last long and the tides change very quickly. A politically friendly executive branch may only last four years and a legislature much less. Governmental organizations can take on more militaristic views, similar to police militarization which creates a general adversarial approach to the citizenry. These abuses need not even be systematic, look for example, at the LOVEINT scandal at the NSA where agents were using government resources to stalk love interests.

It’s tempting to see the private sector as the savior here but they’re just as bad. A very large number of enterprise and private IT workloads (exceeding 80%) already have some presence in the clouds of only a few very large providers: Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Oracle. An Amazon software developer was recently convicted of stealing data from Capital One. It’s reasonable to assume that there are many such cases that go undetected because they’re targeted at specific users or small customers. Verizon’s 2022 data breach report shows that over 80% of bad actors steal data for financial reasons. The financial incentives get stronger as more and more of our data is centralized in a few private firms.

There’s a lot here to doom over, and while its tempting to see the tide as totally insurmountable, I do not think we’re totally past the point of no return. In culture, data privacy is starting to pick up some steam. We’ve seen the GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California act as some simple backstops allowing us to delete more of our data from these providers. There’s simple things that the tech savvy people in our lives, myself included, can do to help. We can educate without inundating, we can set up simple alternatives or better default settings for family and friends. We can offer up discussions and opportunities to try new things. We can apply political pressure to crack down on bad actors AND beat back authoritarians at the ballot box.

In the future posts I will elaborate on some specific ways to address some of these topics. I will attempt to categorize them as beginner, intermediate and advanced in terms of complexity to implement. I am also working on some code solutions to offer to our most technical users.

These are trying times where people’s lives may be at risk and technology is going away. It’s better to embrace the good and throw out the bad, but we must be swift and discerning and vigilant.

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Summer Solstice Soundbites

Summer Solstice, also known as Litha, is less than twenty four hours upon us as of my writing. You wouldn’t know it based on the record heatwave many of us have been facing in the center of the country! Climate change continues its ravages across the world, heavily distorting the seasons in many parts of the globe but that discussion could take up many blog posts, I will set it aside for now.

As is part of my faith, seasonal transitions are a big deal because not only is the world changing around me but its a good time to reflect back and look and what’s happened. This past spring, my son was born and has been in my life for nearly two months, I traveled to Vegas and to Denver to witness a childhood friend get married to the love of his life. I’ve introduced my son to many people and began showing him the world around us. I’ve visited old childhood locations to relieve memories and focus on the way forward.

Summer is a time of tremendous abundance, warm weather, long days and celebrations. I have many of those coming up; family weddings, birthdays, children’s milestones and parties for all manner of occasions. Bittersweet good-byes to friends on their next adventures to other states and surely more things I don’t yet know about.

The colors of this season are green and yellow, for the world of growth and the sun. When I dress my altar in these colors its a reflection of what the summer means to me. It’s a remembrance of what has been in summers past and in summers to come. It’s anticipation for celebration, vitality, life and thriving in a bright and changing world. It’s a call to action to preserve our planet. The seasons are getting harsher due to human inflicted damage to our world; droughts, storms, floods and fires all becoming more and more frequent.

However it is also a time of tremendous optimism too. Something about this season refreshes me and makes me feel like we can tackle anything as both a society and me as an individual. My paternity leave is coming to an end, I am considering changes in my career to move onto the next big thing. For now, however I am feeling the spark of joy returning a bit to programming. Not to work per se, but to furthering my own skills and growing my career legacy. I am more motivated now than ever with my son in my life to provide the best for him. Somewhat auspiciously (yet ironically, given he was born in April): my son’s name is a reference to a sun sign. Surely he will also love the summer! I can’t wait for him to be old enough to enjoy our walks, playing games, swimming in pools and shooting off fireworks with his friends.

These seasonal changes are a stark reminder that time is my most valuable asset, and to enjoy every moment that I have in this world because they won’t last forever. But rather than dwelling on that, I’d rather dwell on the new season ahead of us and show my excitement and joy at what is to come.

For now I leave you with these reflections but I say blessed be and happy summer!

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Old Places and Liminal Spaces

Last week, the day before I flew out to Denver for a long time good friend’s wedding, I made a brief detour in my hometown and adjacent town. I visited the adjacent town because other long time friends have made a major decision to relocate to northern Wisconsin for a fresh start and new work opportunities. I visited the town for a suit fitting for my mother’s remarriage to someone who has basically been in my family for the majority of my life and is already my stepdad effectively.

On my journey I decided to add a few stops. It was a beautiful spring day in early June. Midday and not too warm. First I stopped by a little mystical and occult shop that I’ve picked up supplies for since I was a high schooler. I stocked up on incense of every variety so that I would be ready for a long time!

Then after that I decided to hop by a local Chinese buffet that some old friends and I used to frequent. It’s simple, moderate quality comfort food where I could sit in silence for a bit and contemplate. I was feeling nostalgic this day and I wanted to make a couple more odd trips around town to see how far we’ve transitioned out of my old life as a young man into full adulthood. Since 2004, my hometown has been in steady decline. The departure of heavy industry like Maytag and Butler sent the town into an economic spiral that its never truly recovered from, even twenty years later. The relentless march of capitalism, globalizing economies and changing consumer demands has left towns like mine, which thrived in the 90s as not much more than hollow husks falling into disrepair.

After my stop at lunch I decided to pick up a pack of Pokemon cards at an old haunt. I don’t know if I was feeling especially nostalgic or what but I felt a spiritual need to visit some old places as all these areas in my life that have changed to be nearly unrecognizable. As I’ve hinted at before, my religious beliefs are a little wishy-washy but in general I would describe myself as a Neopagan. I generally find that while I am spiritual, I am not a monotheist but rather somewhere between an animist, polytheist and pantheist. Sometimes I am more of an agnostic deist even. Lately I describe myself especially as an animist because I find that such a way of intuiting spiritual things feels the most natural to me. I think John Halstead’s website entry about animism is very illuminating for a quick rundown of what this entails.

I can write on the topic in more depth in the future but the short version is that there are natural places in my life where I have had profound moments and as I grow older, now with my son, I want to return to some of those sites and pay homage. One specifically is at my old, abandoned elementary school. A collection of trees under which, at about age ten or fifth grade, I had a sort of revelation about what I think of the universe. It’s too numinous to describe here but I remember it as if it was yesterday. My best friend was standing near me at the time when I had this thought and I even remember the direction I was facing: southwest. So I visited this location and collected some pictures.

This was a positive, reflective experience for me where I got to relive a lot of childhood memories running around with my friends imaging worlds in a way only a child can. There was a sense of sadness at seeing this place closed but also a serene sense of peace. It was nice seeing that some of the open space was dedicated to solar fields. As an environmentalist its nice to see that even in small town America, there are some real sustainability initiatives. Hopefully the trees of my childhood stand for a long time and continue to tell their stories.

One takeaway from this is that I would like to learn how to identify trees better. They live long, venerable lives and tell such stories that it seems only appropriate to learn more about them. Furthermore I am inspired to visit sacred groves and give offerings more to nature spirits to deepen my religious faith. This might seem such a strange takeaway to an outsider but for me it was a deeply fulfilling experience that left my mind at ease and my heart full. Though people move away, businesses close and things change, the memories were made here. That energy of human experience in one place remains with us so long as we remain and even afterwards, in the descendants of those people. I hope that everyone reading can find those places that put them truly in sync with themselves where they can reflect on the beauty in our world.

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Migration Complete

In my tear to move everything to docker on a fresh server, the blog is the next thing to make its way over. Now that I feel like I am getting a genuine grip of how this all works I feel more confident in hosting all of my data in these systems and migrating them in the future. Instead of arduous copying of files and databases and the misalignment that comes with that, I should be able to just mount the existing docker volume on a new server.

I will be sure to write more about my findings soon!

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Learning Docker, Part 1

Time to make the next step in my career, and growing past just working in legacy .NET Framework apps. I am finally learning how to use Docker and containers effectively. It’s taken awhile to wrap my head around what containers actually are compared to virtual machines. It doesn’t help that there seem to be a lot of different answers to this question and a lot of ways of implementing similar concepts.

Thanks to Pluralsight and a LOT of internet guides, I have slowly learned how to build up containers and bundle them together with docker compose. My plan is to migrate this site and a few other utilities to another server using only docker compose files. That way, future migrations don’t lean on me meticulously configuring servers by hand. Or so the thought goes.

The process has been a little arduous because I tend to just dive into this kind of stuff and will not settle without it being perfect. So far, there have been a lot of lessons learned around HOW to do stuff. Compose files seem to be a bit of the wild west in that there’s a lot of completing philosophies for how to actually write the stuff. You can’t just necessarily take people’s snippets and paste them in without actually understanding your container architecture. This has helped grow my knowledge because its required me to actually understand containers, images, volumes, networks and how they all interconnect.

This opportunity has exposed me to some new flashy tools that I’d take back to the non-Docker world if it applies. Especially trafeik which is api-programmable, network-aware load balancer and reverse proxy that requires a lot less file monkeying than Nginx does. You simply pass in “labels” which function as command switches to configure each of your sites to take into the reverse proxy. This way you don’t have to launch stuff on weird ports and map all of those strange ports together. As long as every container is at least joined to the network shared by the reverse proxy, it can pick it up and register it as a service.

I will continue to write new posts with my findings because its an effective method for me to retain some of this knowledge. I’ve opened a private Github repository with my compose files that I might eventually make public if they’re “good enough”. Carry on!

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Long Nights

My beautiful son was born too weeks ago! I am totally in love with him and my wife and I are re-learning our lives around his existence. This means a lot of sleepless nights and not a lot of free time. Surely it will change as we develop more of a schedule. My posting is already not terribly frequent but I will definitely keep dumping my thoughts for a long time so you’re not rid of me quite yet!

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Cloud Storage Woes

Everyone loves Google Drive, Microsoft’s OneDrive, Dropbox and the million other services that exist out there. They offer create and (mostly) cost effective ways to backup or sync files across many devices. However, even in the year 2022 I still am fairly skeptical of them.

At the end of the day, “the Cloud” is simply someone else’s computer. Sure its efficient and aggregated at hyperscale, but its still theirs. There’s no reason they can’t shut you off, its their right and they often have byzantine terms of service agreements that lay out this complete level of control. Many of these services use content scanning platforms like PhotoDNA to check for explicit material, especially child sexual exploitation material. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, in fact they’re more than welcome to scan whatever they want on their property! Furthermore they have a societal duty to keep horrific things off of their platform.

However…its hard to tell how far this scanning goes. Clearly illegal images are one thing but where is the line? Many things that are 100% legal in the United States are illegal in China or Russia. Thus comes up the battle of data sovereignty. Even of things in the US there have been reports of accounts getting shut off for licit (legal) nudes of consenting adults because it either violates the vague OneDrive Terms of Service or was flagged by Photo DNA. This is a problem because it leads to a total account shut down. What if you paid for an Office 365 subscription? That’s forfeit. So is your Xbox gamertag, email account, authenticator (2FA) and any other server you’ve linked to OneDrive. Same goes for Google or really any major cloud service provider where you keep all of your eggs.

You could always avoid uploading nudes, a pithy response but also not a bad idea. However, what about the many other types of flagged content? Are my legally purchased but digital book PDFs illegal or not? How would a content ID system understand the chain of custody for my purchase? It simply would not, and would opt for the lowest risk option for the company; account closure. If these sorts of things are a minefield whack-a-mole of which files might or might not be permitted, does it really save you a lot of effort? It’s hardly convenient to sort through your content manually to figure out what is permitted, especially if you have terabytes worth of it.

So what’s the right answer? I am not sure there is one, at least not for everyone. After all, security and privacy are a spectrum and everything must be taken against one’s personal threat model and what accept risk they are willing to take. For some people, the convenience of universal access and backups are totally worth the possibility of account shut downs (which are admittedly small relative to active accounts) but for others, that risk is extremely high if they don’t want to lose access to everything at once.

My personal answer to this is diversity: Don’t host your email, authentication and files all in a single, solitary place. Of course that’s less convenient but it gives you the option of still leveraging cloud services without the risk that losing one service cripples you entirely. I am going to write about it separately, but I also highly recommend owning your own email domain. That way, you can easily migrate to other providers without changing one of your most important internet identities.

At the end of the day, do what makes the most sense for you but I am simply offering some food for thought. I am not against cloud platforms categorically and I think a lot of the of the paranoia is unwarranted but also its much harder to recover in the modern day if you lose key accounts.

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