Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why my email looks funny these days.


If you get an email from me, unless you are using a privacy-enabled e-mail client like Apple OSX's Mail app with the openGPG GPG tools plug-in plugged-in, or Mozilla Thunderbird with enigmail plugged-in, or K-9 for Android, et al., you may see some strange-looking text above and below what appears to be my message.

Relax, what it means is that it is more likely than usual that this e-mail actually came from my fingers.  I had to use an additional password, which is separate from any other password, just to sign it.

That one above came from my phone.  If I send from my MacBook Air, it might look like this one below:

Again, don't fret, this is just a different blurb of text that your e-mail program is currently not processing.  I hope in the near future that all e-mail programs will be able to just tell you what is going on, which is I used a system to increase the likelihood that e-mail people receive from my e-mail address actually came from me.

A working system on your end then checks that signature text against a database to see if it matches up (after processing with my public "key") with what I have said it should be, if it checks out, it will probably call this something like a "sender-verified" message.

So, why couldn't someone just copy that text and use it to spoof my messages?  Well, if you look closely at these two images, you will see that the validation text (the gibberish) is different.  That's because the text underneath changes with the text in the message, and with some other variables.  it is unique and will only verify this particular message correctly.

This is actually only half of the system.

If you have a GPG key published, and I have a copy, I can scramble the entire message using my private key and your public key.  That then means only you and I can read it (or more correctly, only someone with our independent passwords).  This means we can share private messages using separate passwords.  You use yours, I use mine.

I communicate with a small number of people this way, and our messages, while in transit, look like this:

Really just one short sentence.

This is only readable by myself and the person I sent it to.  The recipient has to be using a privacy-enabled e-mail client (and woefully few people do these days) or I'd send all of my e-mail this way.

Bottom-line:  the extra funny-looking text in my non-scrambled e-mail just means that it is highly likely I sent that message.  You can ignore it.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

35th High School class reunion checklist.

Tell a personal story to someone from your past which reveals that you actually have no idea who you are talking to.

Check.  Done.  And I'm not telling you any more of this story.  Suffice it to say the person in question was gracious, conceded that they did resemble the person to whom I thought I was speaking, and took it all in stride and with humor.

Reflect upon how poor a predictor of people lives you turned out to be.

Done.  Yep, I missed it in both directions.  People I thought were going to turn out to be people whom I would not enjoy later in life actually are quite delightful people, and people I thought were destined for rock-stardom are ordinary.  In other cases, there are still people I enjoyed in high school whom I continue to enjoy today.  I'm sure if I did some statistical testing on my predictions I'd find rolling dice to be just as accurate.   I hope I remember this lesson.

I spotted a couple of people at the door who were in that high school rock-star category.  They were chatting with each other, I knew they had remained friends, and stayed on the fringe of the crowd (which is not what they would have done in high school).  They seemed a little anxious and unsure of themselves.

I felt compassion for them.  I was moved to go over, say hello, and welcome them.  That is a huge change for me.  That never would have occurred to me in high school.  I doubt I would have even seen them enough as real people to recognize that they were nervous.  If I had, I certainly lacked the self-confidence and or self-esteem to do anything about it.

I was much more judgmental as a teen (and at the 20th reunion) than I am today.   This judgmental mind that divides people up into categories, applies labels and acts on assumptions cut me off from knowledge that I have access to now.  Seeing how people "turned out" in contrast to how I predicted they would be makes it really clear to me what the cost of this judgmental mind truly is.  That's a valuable illustration and I intend to learn from it.

Confirm (surprisingly widely-held) theories concerning sex between particular teachers and students.

I went to a Catholic high school administered by professional clergy.  The Catholic church carries all those stereotypes about illicit sex and abuse of authority for a reason.  There's not much else to say, I only have direct knowledge of one incident, but shared observations of developments in the intervening 35 years confirms other hunches, many of which I didn't realize were so widely shared.  It's probably overwhelming how widespread a problem this actually is.  

Get socially shunned in a thoroughly adolescent manner.

Yep, it happened.  It made me sad for that person, and not in a condescending manner.  I've been there, I've done that, and I've got the extremely overpriced t-shirt, too.  Life really is too short.

Move on.

I hung on to my high school social situation for a long time.  I no longer do.  I thought that was the case before this event, but it was nice to have it confirmed.  The people who showed up all had in common that they showed up.  These people both had the opportunity to be here and the generosity of heart to take the risk and go to the trouble so we could all have this unique experience.  I am deeply grateful for that.

There is something about all this that lives on in me, some part of who I am was deeply influenced by this experience I shared with this group of people at my high school in the mid-1970's.  We were a human tribe of about 150 people who moved in unison for a number of very highly influential years.  What happened, my success and losses, were very meaningful in my life for a long time, and not always in a good way.

But the fact that I was socially awkward, profoundly insecure and savagely critical in high school doesn't define my life any more, and it no longer defines my experience of these people whom I've know in varying measures for more than 35 years.   I knew that before this evening, but it was satisfying to see that in action.   With such long periods of time between meetings, some changes are easier to see this way.

I have become the person I want to be.  I hope others did too.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Day 30 of 30: Practice is enlightenment.

I know it is cliche', but

It's only been 30 days?
It's already been 30 days?

Wow.  As I said in the Day 1 post, a substantial part of my interest in doing this was the practice of doing something new for 30 days itself.  Now I know why this deserves a TED talk.  I will not forget a number of the events that have transpired in the last 30 days for the rest of my life.  I can't say that about the 30 previous to that, or the 60 previous, or the 90.  Honestly.  That's shocking.

Of course, part of that was my object of the practice itself, putting myself first.  The way that actually manifested was I resolved daily to stop putting off something I had been putting off in favor of doing things that were more important to other people.  I didn't realize how much of my life is/was given over to doing things for others.

I wish I could give you Rube Goldberg-ish sketch of how pushing over that seemingly innocent domino everyday cascaded into an out-of-left-field introduction to a new social circle, a fantastic professional opportunity (my company is paying to train me for a dramatic break-out of my current salary range), long-overdue resolution issues concerning my financial life, to getting my health screenings and teeth-cleanings back on schedule, etc., but I can't.  I'd be making up a story, and I have other things in my life that need my attention more.  But please, I encourage you to accept on Faith that taking care of yourself is how you take care of the entire world.  It really is.

It doesn't reliably make people happy, not you or others.  You don't get applause.  I have pissed off a number of people, some of whom I don't expect to hear from for a while.  Many people around me think I'm going through a bad phase, some transition time of being an uncooperative jerk.  I made some mistakes.  I did some things I wish I had not.

My most important realization was the extent to which my friendships are imbued with patterns, habits, scripts and roles which rapidly devolve into some version of care-taking.   Care-taking is when one does something which superficially is seen as service to another but the deeper motivation is self-serving.  This is an ongoing edge of personal work in my life, but this practice caused things I had been in denial about to appear in sharp focus once again.

For example, I contacted a friend recently when I was feeling low.  I said I was scared and discouraged and wanted some friendly support.  My friend responded with a well-intentioned lecture concerning why I was in this particular situation.  This was followed-up with examples of successes in dealing with the issue under discussion from my friend's life.

I know my friend means well, but I asked for support, directly, in plain English.  I said something like "I'm scared and I need support."  I never said "I don't understand how I got in this situation."  I'm not sure what my friend's agenda was in all this, but the conversation painted my friend as a stable practitioner of emotional maturity and courage while it left me feeling isolated and angry.

This 30 day practice period got me in the habit of asking. consistently and often, "what am I getting out of this normally?" when something happens that doesn't meet my needs.  It was then, when I was on the receiving end of this well-meaning lecture I didn't want or ask for that I realized that my normal response would have been to return the care-taking!  That is, my friends do this to me because I train them to do this.  I reward this behavior.

That is, I would have dropped my agenda for getting comfort from the encounter and picked up the my friend's agenda.  Why?  To make my friend feel okay for having gone there!  This way, I get to prove (to myself, I guess) that I am the best friend ever!  I can switch gears so that people don't have to be disappointed when they fail to show up for me!  It's okay to ignore the fact that I just asked for a hug when you went to the chalkboard.   It's sort of like when I find the pizza I was looking forward to gone from the fridge and I say to myself...

"It's okay, I shouldn't be eating cold pizza before bed anyway...."  And I congratulate myself on some illusory self-restraint.


Has it only been 30 days?  Wow, a lot has happened.  I have packed a year's worth of living into the last 30 days.  A lot has happened.  In some ways I can't believe it hasn't been much, much longer.

Has to really been 30 days?  Wow, that flew by.  I will start a new 30-day practice period tomorrow.  I have not yet decided what the object of my practice will be, but I have an impulse to do something completely different, in a different area of my life.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mamas don't let your babies give up cable Internet.

I have a data problem that a resident of the USA should not have.  I'm buying bandwidth by the gigabyte.

I convinced myself from my cell phone data usage that I could marginally increase my data plan (giving up my grandfathered unlimited data plan on 3G) and discontinue home Internet altogether.  My home Internet was $99USD/month, the maximum plan with Time Warner.

My usage on my unlimted plan was just over 2GB/month.  I failed to appreciate how much of the actual traffic I was sending over the device was done while connected to wifi (and not using my data plan).  I should have checked this out.  This is where my "expertise" blinded me.

For a $15/month savings, I could get a 8GB/month data plan to share with all my devices!  They threw in a free MiFi (mobile hotspot) device!  What a wise consumer I am!  I'm playing the system and #Winning! If I could give up Time Warner I could save a cool Benjamin monthly!

Plus, 4G LTE in NYC is fast!  I was getting better throughput than I got with the maximum level with cable service from Time Warner!

I made the classic mistake of mistaking the cover for the book.  Speed is not really the issue, in fact, the increased speed just makes it easier to use more bandwidth.  I should watch myself when I use a lot of exclamation points to write about something....

16GB might not be enough this month, and that's after a real trim-back on what I stream online over the data plan.  For what I've had to pay in additional fees to Verizon for my data plan I could have the basic level Time Warner cable service.  I'm not saving money, and the service is far inferior.


Score:  Verizon 1, Time Warner 1, Me 0.

In hindsight, I should have just converted to the basic level of cable Internet, and honestly, I should have done that in the beginning.  Throughput/Bandwidth is the Internet Service Provider equivalent of the SUV.  Yeah, it's big, it's comfortable, and it encourages habits that ultimately lead to greater consumption of metered resources.

No thanks, I don't need any help with consumption of anything.  I do quite well enough on my own.

Having the MiFi is helpful, but I need to buy unmetered Internet access for home.  This will cost me about $30/month in NYC right now (because Time Warner wants me back), and now I see that I can save that much money directly by reducing my data plan at Verizon to pre-experimental levels.

So, here's the lesson.  Occam's razor.  Giving Time Warner Cable more money for greater throughput is not as good a thing for me as it is for them.  Surprise!

I am vaguely aware that people pay for metered Internet in Europe.  If my European readers would comment on such via the G+ post, I would appreciate it.  I'm curious.  Using metered Internet has really had an interesting effect on my practices, but my term under such conditions was self-imposed, and I didn't like it.  Is that a problem elsewhere?

From iPhone to phablet: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

I made the right choice.  Using the Samsung SCH-1605, also known as the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, also known as "that ridiculously huge phone," has changed the role that the phone has in my life.  I enjoy the technical parsimony expressed as a device that I can use as a VOIP terminal, an alarm clock, an Internet terminal, a technical and religious reference library, a music library, a music store, a video library, a video store, a video player for 1080i HD TV, a speaker phone, a camera, an audio recorder, a video recorder, a GPS, a task-list organizer, a location-based reminder system, a digital drawing tablet, and a guitar tuner.  Oh, and it makes phone calls.

Having it has essentially caused me to stop using my Kindle Fire, just as getting my MacBook Air caused me to stop using my iPad.  This is what I like to do with devices.  I would rather use a device that is a slight compromise, such as reading on a slightly smaller screen, when doing so allows me to eliminate another device altogether.  The Android Kindle app doesn't work as well as the OS-integrated system on the Kindle Fire, but it's good enough.  The screen is a bit smaller than I like, but it's a different thing altogether than reading on the iPhone 4.  It's big enough.  As you might can surmise, I use my tablet for reading a lot.  I read a lot.  It's important.

While it is technically true that the iPhone does all these things, doing so requires very tight integration with iTMS (the iTunes Music Service), Mac OSX-based computers, and subsequent engagement in the Apple MacOSX world for media purchase and management.  That used to be more okay with me than it is now.  I am wary of Apple now that Steve Jobs is dead.  They seem to me to be more like Hewlett-Packard and less like Google with their new leadership.  I can't imagine that insights as unique and counter-intuitive as "the customer doesn't know what they want" are being flung around the current boardroom.

Samsung is dedicated to their vision of quality and meeting customer demand.  That's a dangerous road, lots of companies stumble in head-long pursuit of sales and ruin themselves.  Samsung hasn't done that, in my view, yet.  I'm hoping they have some leadership with a larger vision than stock dividends and sales margins. I have a Samsung TV and Microwave, too.  I recommend them both.

Using Android invites tight integration with Google for media management, but it doesn't require it.  The APIs are open, you can do other things, or nothing.  I personally trust Google enough to engage it with my media management and purchases.  I've been giving the company money in one form or another for years, they have never surprised me.  They do what they say they will do, I never find that I missed some important detail in some small print later.  When changes impact me, they are in large print and I have to click check-boxes and provide my password to indicate affirmatively that I noticed the changes and declined getting further information about them to agree.  That's what I want.

I can buy applications and media content for the device from either Amazon or Google.  It is easy to manage my own content that I have converted to a suitable format.  It's very much like any other computer in that sense.  There's about 70GB of space, I can put what I want where I want it.  It's not some black box that I toss items into and use some other filter to view later.  It's a computer.  I have it set-up in a way that makes sense to me.

This is also the "weakness" of Android in some people's eyes, and I fully grant the view respect.  This is where the discussion of "quality" in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance becomes so relevant.

I have two friends, both of whom I have tremendous respect for as technical professionals.  I active seek their advice in their areas of expertise.  They are in separate industries, in separate roles.  They both regard my preference for Android as politically/dogmatically motivated.  They will both say "I want my phone to work.  It's not my hobby."

True dat.  I'm still working on getting the my new phone set-up the way I want it.  I will probably be tinkering with it constantly for the life of the device.  I didn't do that with the iPhone.  Once I had it set-up, I didn't change it for years.  But, I put it down and picked up my Kindle when I wanted to read, and I used my MacBook Air when I wanted to watch video content.  Now I do all that with the same device, and I tinker with it constantly.  Sometimes, it is not intuitive and I lose patience with it for a moment.  That almost never happened on the iPhone.

To put it succinctly for those who have not read the book, the discussion about quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance used two motorcycles as objects.  The author rode a bike which required constant attention and tinkering, but this attention to the bike cause him to experience a sense of connection with his life that he muses he might have otherwise missed.  His companion rode an expensive BMW that went to the shop when something went wrong.  His companion just wanted his bike to work.  He thought he had the better bike, the author thought he had the better bike. One of the reasons the story is so powerful is that these views are never neatly reconciled in the narrative.  Without stating so, the author thus reveals (to me, anyway) that these views can't be reconciled.  They're views, both illusory, both Truth.  Truth is illusion.

One has to get involved with their iPhone for a while to get it personalized.  The stock configuration is okay, but those who don't go beyond it are not as well-served by the device.  The stock deployment of Android is pretty, but not very substantial as a user interface.  Exploiting the full power of Android requires a near-hacker level of commitment to trouble-shooting and tweaking, but the potential is there for this nirvana of technical parsimony I have experienced.

When I have my Samsung Galaxy Note 2 with me, I am in possession of the only device I really need to pull all my technical levers personally (I need a computer for work).   When I had my iPhone with me, I had a way to stay connected, but if I really wanted to do anything other than communicate, listen to music or take pictures I needed another device.  For me, that makes this the better phone.

I can't tell you whether or not the iPhone is better for you.  I had a high school football coach first use this example (which later became almost cliche'), and it lives in my life 40 years later:
"'s like Ham and Eggs, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed."
The iPhone user benefits from involvement with their phone, the Android user benefits more from commitment.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Now Google Now

For iPhone people:  Google Now will be the one of the next reasons Apple sues Google.  Think Siri with a less creepy name.  It's really an enhancement off the search app, with panels of dynamic content coordinated with where you are, what time of day it is, and your search history.  You can talk to it.  You can use it on your iPhone.

Something happened to me one morning this week that shocked me: again, Google is making my phone do exactly what I want it to do de novo, i.e., without prior configuration.  For example, on this particular morning, I wanted my phone to tell me if I had time to stop and get some coffee and still get to work in time

As I was walking to the subway to go to work, leaving home a bit later than I had planned, I checked Google Now for my commute time.  It told me that I will arrive at work in 37 minutes (my meeting starts in 40). It further told me that the B train I will board will depart from the platform at my stop in 10 minutes.

So, I have time to get a coffee?  Hmm.  Seems so.  I decided to see if I could trust all this.

I got the coffee, the train arrived one minute late, and I arrived at work one minute ahead of the predicted schedule.  Without this service, I would have skipped getting the coffee, waiting impatiently on the subway platform while it gradually is revealed to me that I actually did have time to get coffee.  I would have been concerned on the entire trip whether or not I was going to be late, rehearsing what I would say if I was late, etc etc.

With Google Now, I knew once the B train showed up on time that I wold probably get to work on time.  I had my coffee.  Things were pretty chill.

A couple of days later, I was in the car driving to meet a friend at the airport, I pushed the mic button and said "Delta 5856."  A few seconds later the phone spoke back to me "Delta flight 5856 from Savannah, Georgia, USA will arrive at New York La Guardia Terminal C at 9:01am, 13 minutes ahead of schedule, 17 minutes from now."  

That was exactly what I wanted to know.  Google Wow.

Peripheral to my pleasant discovery of the awesomeness of Google Now is my realization that my "expertise" in riding the NYC Subway system blinded me to an important feature of the New York City Subway system.  The trains are on a public schedule.  They have open programming API's to the schedule database. They also are pretty much on schedule.

Thanks to Google Now, when I am walking towards the subway I just say "B train" to Google Now and it displays a schedule of the next three or so trains arriving at the stop to which I am physically closest.  When I walk down to the platform, I know I have a 7 minute wait, or whatever.  That's very helpful.  Very helpful.

Previously, I just regarded to subways as a haphazard and random parade of trains going by, the frequency being a function of traffic and motorman expertise.  That's actually not the case.  They aren't perfectly on schedule, but they're good enough.  

Further more, wiith Google Now I can find out easily how long it is going take me to get somewhere using the Subway system.  The Navigation system in Google Maps accounts for transfer times and all that, so when you ask about travel time from my place in Harlem to a friend's corner bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (not a simple trip) it is within a few minutes of being right.  That's really useful.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Creepy Facebook Realization

I have noticed in the past few days that the pictures of the women in ads for online dating service and sexually-oriented interest groups that come up for me on the right-pane ad column when I am logged into Facebook resemble women in my Facebook friend's list.

It's creepy enough that Facebook "knows" that I am dating, but I have declared myself as single in my profile.  I have also provided them with my age, so they know to target me in the "mature singles" demo.  Ugh.

To further illuminate the list on the right here, I follow, or am a fan, of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, and I am a fan (or whatever) of my religious organization, an American zen center.  I have no idea where the BBW thing comes from, but I do have friends on Facebook who are publicly active in that community.

All that is not really so much of a bother.  These organizations placing those ads on the right pay for Facebook.  I am not Facebook's customer, I am their product.  I know that.

What has me creeped me out is that I have noticed that the pictures of the women in the ads for these dating services resemble the women in my Friend's list SO MUCH that I have had to do a double-take to make sure that it wasn't actually someone I know.  This has happened at least a dozen times over the last month.

The two examples pictured at right: the brunette at the top, and the dirty blonde towards the bottom were new today.  I immediately recognized that they resembled two of my friends, and I check to see if those friends were women I have in my Facebook friend's list (it had been so long since I had seen them I wasn't sure).  They both are. 

I think it might have been particularly striking to me today because I haven't seen either of the two friends these two images respectively resemble in years.  So, it not only reminded me of those friends, but it reminded me I had not heard from them in a while.  Not only that, their profile pictures, in the way the photo is framed and lit, resemble the images in these ads.  That has also been true for previous iterations of this curious occurrence. 

Coincidentally, and this may be why this is all occurring to me, I have been doing some reading about facial recognition software.  Because of that reading, I contacted a friend of mine that works with this technology to ask some questions.  That turned into a long phone conversation about it.  I learned what was being done where my friend works.

Using what my friend considers mature, stable, sort of ordinary, readily commercially-available facial pattern recognition systems, it would be simple to scan the profile pictures of my friends in Facebook, match those up with a set of model photos for ads for online dating sites, and provide a feed that inserts the pictures that match the faces of the women in my friend's list into those ads.

For example, if I have a predominance of dark-skinned women with Afro-Caribbean features in my friends list I could be presented with online dating ads featuring pictures of women who also have those characteristics, or EVEN CREEPIER, they could match features to MY profile photo.  Meaning, they could only show light-skinned models to light-skinned accounts, etc.

I don't know if Facebook is doing this, but it can be done, so it will be done.  Bet on it.

Not only that, I've learned from my conversations with my friend that is is possible, today, for you to be logged into (something like) Facebook and, within seconds, have it notify you when someone in your friend's list shows up at the mall to do some shopping, just because the were scanned by a security on the way in, or used an ATM there.  My friend expects employers will start doing this routinely in place of time-keeping, starting with large companies, because of the economies of scale.

Facebook doesn't have a "can't afford it" problem on this level.  Fortunately, that software isn't commercially available (without governmental permission), yet.

Privacy is truly dead.