Is Western civilization collapsing?

A perennial topic for me (and many of us) is the notion that there is a deep malaise in Western civilization. There are, it seems to me, three main camps on the question, "Is Western civilization collapsing?"

1. The conservative position. "Yes. And it's a horrible thing. For one thing, elites have basically stopped reproducing. They're inviting people from foreign cultures into their countries, and they're reproducing faster than their elites. The result will be an inevitable cultural replacement after a few generations, although probably not before we go through a period of bloody civil wars. And Western traditions are not being passed down. We are becoming less Christian every year. Our universities are teaching less and less of the classics of Western civilization. Though they spend longer in school, our graduates are more ignorant of their cultural roots. We have no desire to create beauty any longer. We have nothing, really, to live for. Our heart is simply not in it any longer; we're in the death throes of this civilization."

2. The postmodern position. "Are you really even asking this question? So you think Western civilization is 'collapsing'? Well, maybe it is. If so, good! But if we're going to be honest with ourselves, we should recognize that there is much about Western civilization that deserves to die, and the sooner the better. What will replace it? Who knows? Who cares? But you must be a racist Islamophobe if you think it will be Islamic. But probably, you're just an idiot because there is no reason to think Western civilization is 'collapsing.' It might be, however, transforming, and into something better, something more tolerant, open, and multi-cultural."

3. The optimistic position. "Oh, not this again. Haven't you read Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now? Look, almost all the metrics look better than they've ever been. People always think we're on the brink of disaster even when things are awesome. The world is better educated than it's ever been. People in third world countries are moving into the modern world. Look at the Internet! Look at technology! Look at all the entrepreneurship and discovery that is happening every day! How on earth can you fail to recognize that, far from being in our death throes, we are ramping up a new global civilization with, perhaps, some new values, but which enjoys radically transformative changes for the better every year."


Here are a few notes to put these into perspective. The conservative position is a position about the health of traditional Western values and culture. It takes the view that these values and culture should be preserved, that they aren't being preserved, and that Westerners therefore are living increasingly meaningless lives.

The postmodern position is a primarily a reaction to the conservative position. It denies that there is a problem worth solving because Western values and culture are better off dead and buried.

The optimistic position certainly appears to be about another topic altogether, i.e., not about the health of traditional Western values and culture, although it pretends to be responding to conservative worry. It equates "civilization" not so much with Western traditions and values, precisely, as with the sort of globalist system of capitalist economies and the largely Western-derived education and culture that has sprouted and flowered in the 20th and especially the 21st centuries. You can see it in most of the big cities of the world. The success of this civilization is not to be evaluated (on this view) by some subjective measures of morality, or religion of course, or using sociological metrics that go proxy for these, but instead by more objective measures of well-being such as GDP, literacy rates, and longevity rates.


These positions interact in interesting ways.

  • A very strong case can be made that it is precisely certain Western traditions (democracy, industrialism, free enterprise, science, etc.) that have enabled the global success celebrated by the optimistic position.
  • The postmodern position is, too, absolutely rooted in some Western values (such as cultural tolerance and Christian charity).
  • And the optimistic position is widely (and in my opinion rightly) regarded as too optimistic; almost all of us detect some manner of deep moral malaise in Western civilization (such as dangerous populist racism, on the one hand, or the dangerous weakening of Christian values, on the other), even if we don't necessarily think of it as threatening civilization itself, and the happy talk does not do this justice.
  • And the postmodern position is surely right to suggest that Western civilization has undergone and is likely to continue to undergo radical transformations that have made the Western roots of American and European societies look positively foreign. But does that mean the collapse of civilization, or its transformation?
  • And if it is transforming and not collapsing, is that unequivocally a good thing?
  • Are important values, that conservatives perhaps talk about more than progressives, being lost? Put aside your political differences and ask yourself: might that be important? And what consequences might that have for the new global order?
  • Is it true that there must be some transcendent purpose and deep values that undergird our lives, or else (as conservatives suggest) civilization, that will cause not merely its transformation but its wholesale replacement with some other civilization that does celebrate some transcendent purpose? And if that's true, what values would replace Western ones?
  • Could something like progressivism itself constitute a global value system?
  • We already know that any such progressive value system largely conflict with traditional Christianity and some other Western values, but doesn't it also conflict with Islam?

I don't suggest any conclusion now. I just thought that contextualizing the debate would be interesting.


How I replaced Dropbox

Updated April 2 at bottom.

My main beef with Dropbox is that it's not secure, not adequately encrypted, and there's been a little too much indication that Dropbox is spying on user data.

Ever since I decided to lock down my cyber-life, I had Dropbox in my sights. It was going to be a pain to replace it, I thought, so it took a while before I got around to doing so. I finally did do so today.

The longest step of this process was deciding what I wanted to do. At first, I thought I'd set up my own lightweight cloud server using my desktop, which would sync files on all my devices, something like NextCloud. A great bonus is that this makes it particularly easy to sync things like your address book and passwords. This doesn't seem like a bad idea and is now my fallback. But I ultimately decided to pass because (a) setup might end up being very bothersome, (b) it might eat up desktop resources, and (c) I'd have to keep my computer on all the time, which seems suboptimal.

All of the problems with installing my own NextCloud—bothersome setup, resources constraints, and always-on system—are taken care of by getting my own server or, less ambitiously, what is called a NAS, or Network-Attached Storage system. I spent several hours yesterday researching all about NASes, and came close to getting either a QNAP or a Synology NAS, because they're so frickin' cool. I mean, jeez, it's actually a fully-functioning standalone web server with a zillion apps (especially Synology), and sure, you can use it to sync your files. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "This is a lot of work (and yet another giant attack surface for hackers), when all I really want is a Dropbox replacement." If I were just hacking and exploring, I would have gotten a NAS in a heartbeat, they're so cool. But I have other things to do, so...

I also semi-seriously considered getting a zero-knowledge encryption system, like SpiderOak. The premise seems solid: your files are all saved in the cloud, but 100% encrypted, and the key needed to decrypt them is only on your machine (or in your head). SpiderOak (and many other similar services) cannot scan your files because it lacks the keys to read them. I guess my experience with being hacked and seriously disaffected with storing data in the cloud generally turned me off even to this. If I don't have to trust a company (as I do if, e.g., I want to use a VPN), then I'd prefer not to.

So, how do you get cloud functionality without the cloud? With syncing apps. These use different technologies to sync your devices directly with each other, through the Internet, but not stored on the Internet, and without any one of them acting as a server to the others (so they're all peers of each other in your little device network). It turns out that there are several options available here, and I came close to going with Syncthing because it's open source (and therefore, more trustworthy) but...no iPhone app. But the next best thing is Resilio Sync, which is also based on (the UPDATE: closed-source) Bittorrent Sync. Now, the fact that it uses Tor doesn't mean your data is stored in the dark web. It simply makes use of the Tor network, which is perfectly legal and legit, that is required for accessing the dark web (something I've never even tried to do, by the way). The beauty of the system is that in transit through cyberspace, your data is end-to-end encrypted through a decentralized network. It's hard to get more secure, or that's my understanding.

Resilio Sync is pretty easy to install if you're not using Linux. It was a bit of a pain (they could work harder on the setup, I mean really, guys) but still doable, if like me you're reasonably adept with vague Linux instructions. It didn't take longer than an hour to completely set up and test (my son did it in half the time), and then I started moving folders over, one by one, from Dropbox to my new Sync folder. This was quite satisfying, not unlike that satisfying feeling of changing my account email addresses from gmail.com to sanger.io. And because Resilio updates via your LAN directly from device to device, it syncs much faster than Dropbox. Like Linux, the slightly geekier alternative turns out to be just better, all the way around.

I got the $100 one-time deal so my family could all use it. Since this is roughly what I've been paying to Dropbox yearly for the last decade or whatever it's been, I was very happy to pay this.

How does it work? Well, once it's set up, it's just like Dropbox. Create a new file in your work folder? It's practically instantly synced to any other devices that are on, as soon as you save it. (Of course, it does have to be on, in order to sync. And your phone won't sync the file and folder contents; it will only sync the index, and then, as with the Dropbox mobile app, you can download the item one-by-one.)

There is one very small change this might require to your routine. Since your files aren't in the cloud but only on other machines, before you leave one machine with files on it you might want to access elsewhere, you'll want to make sure either (a) that machine will stay on while you're away from it, or (b) you've synced before you leave while they're in close proximity (the LAN connection will make syncing faster, too).

Love it so far. Buh-bye Dropbox! Any regrets so far? Not really. While LAN syncing for me is significantly faster than Dropbox, it uses only 10% of my available LAN bandwidth, and I wasn't able to get it to go faster; I'm not sure what's up with that. I tried to fix it but didn't dare do too much, since it involved a lot of fiddly changes to settings that, it seems, need to be undone. Your mileage may vary.

Also, they didn't make Linux GUI other than a browser-based one, which is OK; it works well enough. They didn't even bother to create a tray icon, but they do have an API, so my 12-year-old son made one for them and I'm already using it. (Want the code, Resilio? I can set that up.)

Of course, if you haven't taken the Linux plunge, Resilio Sync is probably going to be a lot more usable for you—not that, at the end of the day, it isn't extremely usable for Linux users, too. And, as I've indicated, there are many, many other options available to you if you want to ditch Dropbox. You should consider them for yourself.


April 2 update:

I've been using Resilio Sync for the last two weeks, and my son and I have a few concerns. The first is one we knew about going in: it's not a cloud solution. Syncing works only if both devices are on. This means syncing isn't exactly "set it and forget it." You have to pay attention to whether something is syncing, and if you forget...you won't be synced. After using Dropbox for years, this turns out to be quite annoying.

This, in turn, means I have to worry more about losing files. I can back up files on my main machine, which is always a great idea (of course), but if I haven't synced because two machines haven't been on at the same time (or because I need to reboot Sync, which is also an annoyance), then I might still lose laptop files because I only back up my desktop.

Backing up is all the more important because it is possible to inadvertently delete a bunch of files from one machine...leading them to be deleted everywhere. That would be a disaster. It's like automatically deleting all your backups. Of course, the stuff might be rescuable in Trash, but do you really want to rely on Trash as a fallback solution?

To pour salt in the wound, if I really want peace of mind, I have to make sure the the backup program is fantastic. I can't rely on Resilio Sync as a backup program. And the default Ubuntu backup program kind of sucks (which is surprising to me). This isn't a count against Resilio, but it does make switching, if I'm going to switch, more urgent.

So it's back to the drawing board. A zero-knowledge encryption cloud solution is sounding better now, but there are two sticking points for me: (a) I don't want to have to trust an external vendor if I don't have to, and (b) I'm not confident that I know what's going on well enough to be able to say that my data is truly secure and private.

Last time, I came very close to getting a NAS, but I didn't. I'm now 90% sure I will get a NAS after all.

The reason I didn't get a NAS the first time is that it sounded like just too much trouble to set it up and maintain it, not to mention having another attack surface to lock down. But the more I think about it, the more I think it might be worth it.

After all, another rather huge advantage of a NAS is that I don't have to rely on any cloud service I don't control myself, at least for my personal purposes, for a range of purposes we now use different cloud services for. That means I can maintain my own synced contacts, passwords, bookmarks, etc., as well as supporting collaborative documents (a la Google Docs) I want to work on with others (such as a Declaration of Digital Independence). I might still have to rely on Google Docs (or something like it) for work, but at least my private life would be more locked down.

Any one of the latter advantages certainly wouldn't be enough to justify getting a NAS. But taken together, and combined with an always-on Dropbox alternative that I can "set and forget," it's looking better and better.

Stay tuned. I'm not done yet.

Another installment in my series on how I’m locking down my cyber-life.


How and why I got a VPN

As part of my ongoing efforts to lock down my cyber-life, I finally decided to investigate VPNs (virtual private networks) and subscribe to one, if it seemed to be a good idea.

Well, it is a good idea. So I got one, and it was pretty cheap.

What is a VPN, anyway?

A virtual private network, briefly, is subscription service (there are free ones, but don't use a free one) that you can connect to in order to mask your IP address, pretending (unsuccessfully if you're using a mobile connection) that you're connecting to the Internet from somewhere else, while encrypting the data that passes between you and your ISP (which can mean your data is encryped as it passes through wifi). It doesn't replace your ISP; you still need an ISP to connect to the Internet. More specifically, a VPN (typically, a for-profit company):

  1. Is runs a number of servers (computers), which ideally are located all around the world, each of which connects to the Internet on your behalf.
  2. Is a service you connect to, as a data "tunnel" to the Internet. You can set up your computer or phone so that it connects to the VPN whenever you get online (or whenever you like). All your requests to the Internet, and all the responses you receive from the Internet, are routed through one or another of the VPN's nodes.
  3. Encrypts the data exchanged between its servers and your device.
  4. Typically doesn't log your traffic (but there's no way to know this for sure) or intercept your data (unless they receive a specific court order to do so in your case).
  5. Is typically a paid service; there are free ones.

Why would I want a VPN?

So, what does a VPN do? What is it good for? What are the benefits? Why would you get one? Several things (cf. this useful intro):

  1. Foil the NSA, maybe. You connect to the Internet via your ISP at home, right? Well, since data you exchange with the VPN is encrypted, your ISP can't detect anything about what websites you're looking at or what information you're sending. Since mass surveillance (e.g., by the NSA) is typically done at the ISP level, this foils such surveillance. But maybe you trust all the fine, upstanding people who work for the government and don't care. Well, there are other reasons, as well:
  2. Make it harder for websites, hackers, and advertisers to spot you. When you connect to a website without a VPN, it typically logs the IP address that is accessing it, maybe info about your device, browser, etc. This can be used by the website to track you and for various nefarious purposes. When you connect with a VPN, websites log data from the VPN's server, which says nothing about you. This protects your information privacy and security (which you should care about!).
  3. Use airport, hotel, and restaurant connections securely. If you connect to the Internet via your airport's connection, hackers can pretty easily do nasty things with your data stream. But if your data stream is completely encrypted on its way through the airport's wifi to and from the VPN, those hackers can't touch you. Take that, hackers! This is a huge advantage to me, considering how much traveling I'm doing these days.
  4. See content as if you were elsewhere. If you want to access information that is accessible only by IP addresses from a given country (such as the U.K. or the U.S.), a VPN lets you do so. You can make it look like you're from there! E.g., I can watch Brits-only content from the BBC. That's just kind of cool.
  5. More safely do P2P file sharing. If you must, and are cheap, and refuse to pay the creators of your content, you bastard.

If you don't care about privacy or security or striking a blow against mass surveillance, then you should pass. If you do care about those things, consider getting a VPN.

WThere's one significant disadvantage about VPNs, which makes me sad, but I'll live with it: VPNs do slow down your Internet connection, but not necessarily by much. As you know (if you know how the Internet works at all), Internet traffic bounces from node to node as it makes its way from the website (or whatever) you're accessing to your device. The VPN adds one node to that trip. As long as you connect to a VPN server located near you, this trip isn't actually lengthed by much. BestVPN.com says it slows down your connection speed by 10%, but the actual amount at any given time depends on many factors. I rarely notice much of a difference, for what it's worth.

Update: after using it for a couple days, my VPN (which is reputedly one of the faster ones) doesn't really noticeably slow down my connection, even at the hotel. Except when I was connected to the U.K., and then the only problem was that I had to buffer a video once or twice.

What VPN did I choose?

I'm not telling. I spent some hours doing research. A name emerged. You should do the same and use your own judgment. Be careful not to subscribe to any shady VPNs; they doubtless do exist and it might be hard to figure out whether yours is one. There can be problems with the software as well. Unfortunately, some amount of trust is involved if you're not a specialist. I bore these requirements in mind:

  • Don't just look for claims that they don't keep logs; check that the claims have been verified (by consultants, courts, or police).
  • Bear in mind that many reviews might be paid for and so can't be trusted. It might be hard to tell which reviews these are.
  • Speed.
  • Can one determine who owns the company? Do they look legit?
  • Support for Linux.

There are other features you might be interested in, of course.

How hard was it to buy and install?

I can speak only about the one I bought and installed: it was dead simple. It was no harder to buy than any other subscription service. As for installation, I had it downloaded, installed, and working in maybe two minutes. Of course, that's just the one I bought.

Note, you don't have to install special software to use a VPN, e.g., if you're using an OS or browser that has the software built in.

There's much more to know about VPNs, which you might want to know if you're going to get into it. You're just getting a rank beginner's explanation of why he got one, here.

This is part of the series on how I'm locking down my cyber-life.


A reply to Mark Zuckerberg's "Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking"

Yesterday (March 6), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined Facebook's new "vision and principles around building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform." The essential problem isn't that they need a new app; rather, they need to reform their existing one.

Rather than acknowledging the elephant in the room—that users are deeply incensed that their privacy continues to be systematically sold by Big Tech, that ongoing security issues stem from Facebook's inherent and business-critical data-collection and -sharing practices—Zuckerberg pretends that it's important that he solves, well, a different problem:

But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room. As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.

It is as if Zuckerberg had been reminded one too many times by his advisers that people really do care, after all, about this pesky privacy issue, which once upon a time he could say with impunity was no longer a "social norm." Yeah, so maybe he was wrong. Maybe the perennial demands for a right to privacy are not a changeable social norm, after all. Maybe people really do care about their information being controlled by themselves and not by giant corporations and authorities. Yes, Zuck, well spotted. People do care about privacy after all. But he interpreted the general sentiment in the most naive, simple-minded way, and decided that what people were missing were...private chat rooms.

Because people are really upset that they don't have private chat rooms, apparently. But never fear! Zuck is here to save the day! He'll make chat rooms, and he'll make them really, really private! (Well, not really. Not even that, as we'll see.)

Throughout the 3,200-word piece, there is no explicit acknowledgment that there might be a different way to do more open and public social networking. Nothing about standards and protocols. Nothing about interoperability between independent social media networks.

Zuckerberg also shows no awareness of the real reasons we should care about privacy. No, it's not just about people being free to have intimate conversations. There's much more to it than that. It is ultimately about freedom and autonomy. It's a fundamental right. Like free speech, people who don't understand it or who want to control us are only too happy to make it conditional on their ultimately arbitrary and power-driven decisions.


Zuck makes much of WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption. It is certainly true that private messaging services should have end-to-end encryption built in, and that, no, not even Facebook should be able to listen in on our private conversations: "End-to-end encryption prevents anyone—including us—from seeing what people share on our services." Well spotted, indeed! But as we'll see in a bit, he doesn't really mean it. Are you surprised?

Does Zuckerberg propose privacy improvements to Facebook itself, the public and semi-public service that Facebook has used to exploit us, to its enormous profit? No, not really. Perhaps this is an oblique and hopeful-sounding reference: "Over the next few years, we plan to rebuild more of our services around these ideas." Sure. Maybe you will, if you're still around. We'll believe it when we see it. But of course we shouldn't believe any such oblique promises from an arrogant frat boy who deems his users to be "dumb fucks."

Later in the piece, Zuckerberg tips his hat slightly toward those of us who want to decentralize social media: "End-to-end encryption is an important tool in developing a privacy-focused social network. Encryption is decentralizing—it limits services like ours from seeing the content flowing through them and makes it much harder for anyone else to access your information."

But soon after repeating this tantalizing offer of real end-to-end encryption, Zuckerberg takes it away:

At the same time, there are real safety concerns to address before we can implement end-to-end encryption across all of our messaging services. Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things. When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion. We have a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can. We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our apps by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when we can't see the content of the messages, and we will continue to invest in this work. But we face an inherent tradeoff because we will never find all of the potential harm we do today when our security systems can see the messages themselves.

People who actually know something about how privacy works and why it's important—you can be one of them, if you read The Art of Invisibility by Kevin Mitnick or Cybersecurity for Beginners by Raef Meeuwisse—will instantly spot a contradiction here. If there is truly end-to-end encryption, then it will be impossible for Facebook "to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can." This is why some politicians and governments simply want to outlaw encryption, which would be a giant step toward totalitarianism, and absolutely insane to boot. Maybe we could make this a teachable moment for Zuck: "Look, dude, you can't have it both ways. Either you have end-to-end encryption that the authorities cannot (without superheroic efforts) crack, or you give authorities (and yourselves, and expert hackers) a back door that naturally undermines the real privacy (not to mention security) of your network. You can't have it both ways."

But no—he wants us to believe that we can. And that he believes that we can.

Truly risible.

The hard, cold fact is that, just as whispered conversations conducted far from prying ears and detection technology, in principle, cannot be monitored, so private conversations online, if they are successfully end-to-end encrypted, cannot be monitored...so long as eavesdroppers don't have the private keys, and the private keys are strong enough not to be crackable, and...and...and...

Anyway, Zuckerberg has amply demonstrated that he's learned nothing. Move along, folks—nothing to see here.

The decentralization revolution will proceed as scheduled.


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Should we be satisfied with mediocre schools?

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the conservative educational thinktank, the Thomas J. Fordham Institute--whose tagline is "Advancing Educational Excellence." Petrilli argues that it's totally okay if his children study at a school that is "often mediocre." This a breath of fresh air in regards to his honesty and candor, at least. What sort of school should he want for his children? "Not a school that is just 'adequate or average,' much less mediocre, but one that, by design, helps to prepare kids for 'life’s endless frustrations.'"

This is the attitude that literally frustrated me to distraction when I was a student in the 1970s and 80s, and which led me to homeschool my two boys. It is refreshing that Petrilli admits that his children's school is mediocre and that, out of consistency, he wants to make a virtue of not-quite-necessity by saying this is a good thing, because it prepares them for the many frustrations of life. But no, I argue that we should not be satisfied with mediocre schools, and the quality of education is an important enough thing that, barring some sort of educational revolution--not likely--then we should seek other solutions. Homeschooling is ours.

We don't regret our choice in the least. To give an example of what they're doing now, my 12-year-old son is about to read the classics of archaic Greece, Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony, and both the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. As to my 8-year-old, I read the Odyssey to him when he was five, at his request, and am now halfway through reading the Iliad to him. For his own part, he's polishing off the Harry Potter series for fun and continues to watch science videos aimed at high school students.

I ask myself: What can account for such a stark difference of opinion between Petrilli, who finds himself arguing that mediocre schools are good enough for his children, and me, when I absolutely insist on giving my children an excellent education?

Part of this, no doubt, is the difference between a conservative and a libertarian. Conservatives are generally inclined to defend the current system, warts and all, even if they are (as in Petrilli's case) committed to "Advancing Educational Excellence." The incursions of institutions on liberty and, yes, excellence naturally piss off libertarians.

But let's look at Petrilli's actual argument. He says that life is full of mediocrity and boredom; kids should learn to cope with it. I find this argument transparently weak. Have we heard any stories, much less seen hard evidence, that homeschooled kids, who do not have to deal with the bullshit of a regular school, are somehow hampered by their lack of experience with daily mediocrity and boredom? Not at all. If anything, the unremitting mediocrity of most regular schools (both public and private) beats down many kids, turning them off to learning and stifling their ambition, especially in the case of boys in recent decades.

I would argue, to the contrary, that small human beings naturally bristle and rebel at stifling mediocrity, and if this rebellious spirit, which is the same as the desire for excellence, is not beaten out of them, it will serve them very well in adulthood.

So that argument won't do, and Petrilli acknowledges he might be rationalizing:

To be sure, I might be rationalizing. To find the money to send two boys to private school would require a painful change in our family’s lifestyle; likewise with becoming homeschoolers. But the truth is that we could do it if we wanted it badly enough. So I have a strong self-interest in conflating “mediocre” and “good enough.” Maybe I’m just trying to feel better about the fact that I haven’t figured out how to get my boys into a school that’s excellent.

I don't know Petrilli, so I can't say if his refreshing candor here is correct in his case. But it does have the ring of truth to me. I think that many of us ambitious adults do place our own interests before those of our children, and perhaps this is natural for us. But others feel quite differently about the matter.


Further on my Linux journey: Ubuntu on a laptop

First, I decided to switch to Linux. I have to tell you: I'm so glad I did. It's not just the sheer relief from the knowledge that I'm not being monitored by Microsoft or carefully controlled by Apple. I'll admit, that's probably the biggest advantage to Linux for me. But I really, truly find Linux Ubuntu (that's the distro I'm using) running the Gnome desktop environment (this is actually the thing that has 80% of the "look-and-feel" we associate with operating systems) to be significantly easier to use (and faster, and less frustrating). Of course, we're all different and your mileage may vary.

But after having used it some more, and having also installed another distro, I'm not sure Linux is quite ready for grandma yet—not unless she's rather technical, is eager to commit a fair bit of new stuff to memory, or has easy and quick sources of help. I do stand by my claim that Linux is ready for prime time, but only if you use one of the more user-friendly distros. If you're a "power user," i.e., if you are not necessarily a programmer but do know your way around a computer pretty well, if following technical instructions to solve problems doesn't bother you too much, then you should really seriously consider trying out Mint or Ubuntu. The cool thing is that you can try it out before you take the leap, either with a live boot (i.e., it lives on a thumb drive; this is probably easier) or a virtual machine.

Then when I went on some trips and a month ago I had a serious moment of disgust with my Apple laptop. I mean, ugh, there were so many things I have come to dislike about the Apple scene, but after enjoying daily life with Ubuntu, when I switched to Apple while on the road, I just could not get over how damned clunky the thing is. It looks pretty and costs too much, but god, so much about it is, in the vernacular of my teen years, totally bogus.

So then I decided, OK, I'm going to dual boot on my MacBook Pro, too, i.e., run both OS X and Linux on the same machine, in different partitions. I had it narrowed down to distros like Arch, Manjaro, and openSUSE; I wanted to try something that wasn't Ubuntu, just for the experience.

Well, last week, I finally bit the bullet and put Manjaro on the machine. (This time I insisted on doing most of the hard work, instead of leaving it to my 12-year-old son, who has been using Linux daily for longer than I have.) Installing wasn't that hard, actually; it really wasn't significantly harder than installing Ubuntu. While most things worked, I ran into a series of problems I won't bore you with; suffice it to say that I ended up installing Manjaro twice and rebooted it endless times while trying different drivers and Grub parameters and stuff. I worked very diligently until an experienced Linux user told me that I shouldn't even try to put any Linux distro on a new MacBook (mine is from 2018) because so many of the device drivers are simply unsupported. That was a huge let-down. Even my Linux geek son couldn't figure out the issues. I told my wife I'd just sell it, but she said to give it to the boys since the old laptop they're sharing (another old one of mine) has a screen that often didn't work properly.

By then, I had also decided I didn't like Manjaro much (or maybe it was the XFCE desktop environment). In any event, I had enough hours on Manjaro to have learned that mastering two different flavors of Linux at once was going to be a serious pain without any compensatory advantage.

So I ended up shopping around and getting a decent Windows machine, a Samsung Notepad 9, and did a clean install (i.e., wiped Windows entirely) of Ubuntu again. I mean, if I'm going to learn Linux properly, might as well do it completely in one distro before branching out too much. The installation process was pretty painless—seriously, so much easier and more pleasant than setting up a new Windows machine.

So now I'm 100% Linux (and 100% Ubuntu with Gnome), and I'm not looking back. I'm so done with Windows and Mac. Now I'm just looking forward to implementing yet more ways to lock down my cyber-life.

(Wait...100% except for my phone and tablet. At present there is no non-heroic way to own a Linux phone, but I'm still keeping an eye on the Purism Librem 5 and might well take the plunge...)


The meeting of the Larrys

Today I was on Larry King Now (his Hulu/YouTube/RT program, similar to the old CNN "Larry King Live"). I was on a half-hour panel about blockchain with XYO's Markus Levin and Eric Tippetts of NASGO. It's due out March 1.

Here are some pictures:

Larry and the panelists

The two Larrys (Larries?)

Everipedia (Sam Kazemian and moi) meets the master of interviewing

Striking a Larry King-esque pose


How to decentralize social media—a brief sketch

The problem about social media is that it is centralized. Centralization empowers massive corporations and governments to steal our privacy and restrict our speech and autonomy.

What should exist are neutral, technical standards and protocols, like the standards and protocols for blogs, email, and the Web. Indeed, many proposed standards already do exist, but none has emerged as a common, dominant standard. Blockchain technology—the technology of decentralization—is perfect for this, but not strictly necessary. Common protocols would enable us to follow public feeds no matter where they are published. We would eventually have our pick of many different apps to view these feeds. We would choose our own terms, not Facebook's or Twitter's, for both publishing and reading.

As things are, if you want to make short public posts to the greatest number of people, you have to go to Twitter, enriching them and letting them monetize your content (and your privacy). Similarly, if you want to make it easy for friends and family to follow your more personal text and other media, you have to go to Facebook. Similarly for various other kinds of content. It just doesn't have to be that way. We could decentralize.

This is a nice dream. But how do we make it happen?

After all, the problem about replacing the giant, abusive social media companies is that you can't replace existing technology without making something so much more awesome that everyone will rush to try it. And the social media giants have zillions of the best programmers in the world. How can we, the little guys, possibly compete?

Well, I've thought of a way the open source software and blockchain communities might actually kick the legs out from under the social media giants. My proposal (briefly sketched) has five parts. The killer feature, which will bring down the giants, is (4):

  1. The open data standards. Create open data standards and protocols, or probably just adopt the best of already-existing ones, for the feeds of posts (and threads, and other data structures) that Twitter, Facebook, etc., uses. I'm not the first to have thought of this; the W3C has worked on the problem. It'd be like RSS, but for various kinds of social media post types.
  2. The publishing/storage platforms. Create reliable ways for people to publish, store, and encrypt (and keep totally secret, if they want) their posts. Such platforms would allow users to control exactly who has access to what content they want to broadcast to the world, and in what form, and they would not have to ask permission from anyone and would not be censorable. (Blockchain companies using IPFS, and in particular Everipedia, could help here and show the way; but any website could publish feeds.)
  3. The feed readers. Just as the RSS standard spawned lots of "reader" and "aggregator" software, so there should be similar feed readers for the various data standards described in (1) and the publishers described in (2). While publishers might have built-in readers (as the social media giants all do), the publishing and reading feature sets need to be kept independent, if you want a completely decentralized system.
  4. The social media browser plugins. Here's the killer feature. Create at least one (could be many competing) browser plugins that enable you to (a) select feeds and then (b) display them alongside a user's Twitter, Facebook, etc., feeds. (This could be an adaptation of Greasemonkey.) In other words, once this feature were available, you could tell your friends: "I'm not on Twitter. But if you want to see my Tweet-like posts appear in your Twitter feed, then simply install this plugin and input my feed address. You'll see my posts pop up just as if they were on Twitter. But they're not! And we can do this because you can control how any website appears to you from your own browser. It's totally legal and it's actually a really good idea." In this way, while you might never look at Twitter or Facebook, you can stay in contact with your friends who are still there—but on your own terms.
  5. The social media feed exporters/APIs. Create easy-to-use software that enables people to publish their Twitter, Facebook, Mastodon, Diaspora, Gab, Minds, etc., feeds via the open data standards. The big social media companies already have APIs, and some of the smaller companies and open projects have standards, but there is no single, common open data standard that everyone uses. That needs to change. If you could publish your Twitter data in terms of such a standard, that would be awesome. Then you could tell your friends: "I'm on Twitter, but I know you're not. You don't have to miss out on my tweets. Just use a tweet reader of your choice (you know—like an old blog/RSS feed reader, but for tweets) and subscribe to my username!

The one-two punch here is the combination of points (1) and (4): First, we get behind decentralized, common social media standards and protocols, and then we use those standards when building plugins that let our friends, who are still using Facebook and Twitter (etc.), see posts that we put on websites like Steemit, Minds, Gab, and Bitchute (not to mention coming Everipedia Network dapps).

The exciting thing about this plan is that no critical mass seems to be needed in order to get people to install the envisioned plugin. All you need is one friend whose short posts you want to see in your Twitter feed, and you might install a plugin that lets you do that. As more and more people do this, there should be a snowball effect. Thus, even a relatively small amount of adoption should create a movement toward decentralization. And then the days of centralized social media will be numbered. We'll look back on the early days of Facebook and Twitter (and YouTube!) as we now do the Robber Barons.

We can look at a later iteration of Everipedia itself as an example. Right now, there is one centralized encyclopedia: Wikipedia. With the Everipedia Network, there will be a protocol that will enable people from all over the web to participate in a much broader project.

I would love to see the various competitors of the social media giants settle on a common standard and otherwise join forces on these sorts of projects. If they do, it will happen, and the days of privacy-stealing, centralized, controlling, Big Brother social media will soon be behind us. We'll return to the superior and individually empowering spirit of the original Internet.

We have to do this, people. This is the future of the Internet. Even if you've given up social media, we should build this for our friends and family who are still toiling in the digital plantations.


18 things about Apple that suck

Apple, why dost thou suck? Let me count the ways:

  1. iTunes, the worst software in the world.
  2. The App Store is a centrally managed walled garden. I can't run apps Apple hasn't approved of on my phone, and on my own computer, I have to give special permission to run programs Apple doesn't like.
  3. iCloud is turned on by default.
  4. Apple brags about how committed to privacy it is, but gives us no credible way of verifying its claims.
  5. I'm forced to use Apple's default software for several features in iOS such as Siri search.
  6. Because Siri works only when you're online, I have to share my voice commands to my phone over the Internet, commands which Apple records, processes, and saves for a long time.
  7. Frequently, Apple's idea of "easy to use" software requires that I take extra steps, and is not particularly easy to use.
  8. Lack of sufficient customization options everywhere. Apple knows best.
  9. OSX is based on BSD, which is FOSS, but OSX is proprietary. They're contemptible free riders.
  10. Steve Jobs is dead and mere mortals now run the company.
  11. The company makes some really dumb decisions like getting rid of the 3.5mm audio jack.
  12. Apple encourages too many push notifications, which, I've decided, are an attention-hogging evil.
  13. Siri isn't very good.
  14. If they were a decent company, they wouldn't practice planned obsolescence, and they sure as hell wouldn't do it so aggressively.
  15. Apple Stores just really, really suck in many ways. That'd be another whole list.
  16. They're overpriced. No, not because they're premium products. When I say they're "overpriced," I don't mean they're expensive. I mean that they are poor value.
  17. Their CEO thinks he has a divine mission to censor wrongthink.
  18. They use a new proprietary image format (HEIC), if you want to airdrop yourself something from your iPhone to your MacBook. Idiots! Ugh, like I'm totally going to get rid of my Mac OS and this is the main reason why!

Much of this can be chalked up to the whole wretched, arrogant "Apple knows best" mentality. Why do we still give these people our money?


My Facebook #DeletionDay goodbye message

Here's what I posted as my last long message to Facebook.


Folks, as previously announced, tomorrow will be my #DeletionDay for Facebook. It'll be the last day I'll post here, and I'll begin the process for the permanent removal of my account. (Among other things, I'll make a copy of my data and my friends list.) I'm sorry to those who want me to stay, but there are too many reasons to quit.

Let me explain again, more tersely, why I'm quitting.

You probably already know that I think this kind of social media, as fun as it undoubtedly can be, undermines relationships, wastes our time, and distracts us. I also agree, as one guy can be seen saying on virally-shared videos, that social media is particularly bad for kids. All I can say is, it's just sad that all that hasn't been enough for me (and most of us) to quit.

But in 2018, it became all too clear that Big Tech—which is now most definitely a thing—is cynically and strongly committed to using social media as a potent tool of political control, which it certainly is. They like having that power. For companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple, reining in wrongthink is a moral imperative. And they're doing the bidding of the Establishment when they do so. It's very scary, I think.

The only thing that gives them this awesome power over us and our free, voluntary conversations is that we have given them that power. But notice the thing that empowers them: we give them our data to manage. It's not really ours. They take it, sell it to advertisers, repackage it, and show it back to us in ways they control. And they can silence us if they like. That's because we have sold our privacy to them for convenience and fun. We're all what Nick Carr aptly called "digital sharecroppers." I now think it's a terrible deal. It's still voluntary, thank goodness; so I'm opting out.

Another thing is that I started reading a book called Cybersecurity for Beginners (no, I'm not too proud to read a book called that) by Raef Meeuwisse, after my phone (and Google account and Coinbase) were hacked. This finally opened my eyes to the very close connection between privacy and security. Meeuwisse explains that information security has become much more complex than it was in the past, what with multiple logins, multiple (interconnected) devices, multiple (interconnected) cloud services, and in short multiple potential points of failure in multiple layers.

[Adding now: Someone recommended, and I bought and started reading, another good privacy book called The Art of Invisibility by Kevin Mitnick. Mitnick is a famous hacker. Meeuwisse is a security professional as well. The Mitnick book is much more readable for savvy Internet users, while the Meeuwisse book is a bit drier and might be more of a good introduction to the field of information security for managers.]

The root cause of the increased security risks, as I see it (as Meeuwisse helped me to see), is our tendency to trust our data to more and more centralizing organizations (like Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple). This means we trust them not only to control our data to our benefit, but also to get security right. But they can't be expected to get security right precisely because social media and cloud services depend on their ability to access our data. If you want robust security, you must demand absolute privacy. That means that only you own and control your data.

If we were the gatekeepers of our own data (if it were delivered out of our own clouds, via decentralized feeds we control, as open source software and blockchains support), then we wouldn't have nearly so many problems.

Maybe even more fundamental is that there are significant risks—personal, social, and political—to letting corporations (or governments) collectivize us. But precisely that is what has been going on over the last ten years or so.

It's time for us to work a new technological revolution and decentralize, or decollectivize, ourselves. One reason I love working for a blockchain company is that we're philosophically committed to the idea of decentralization, of personal autonomy. But it's still early days for both open source software and blockchain. Much remains to be done to make this technology usable to grandma.

While we're waiting for viable (usable) new solutions, I think the first step is to lock down your cyber-life and help create demand by just getting rid of things like Facebook. You don't have to completely unplug from everything; you have to be hardcore or extreme about your privacy (although I think that's a good idea). You can do what you can, what you're able to do.

I won't blame or think ill of you if you stay on Facebook. I'm just trying to explain why I'm leaving. And I guess I am encouraging you to really start boning up on digital hygiene.

Below, I'm going to link to a series of relevant blog posts that you can explore if you want to follow me out, or just to start thinking more about this stuff.

Also, I hope you'll subscribe yourself to my personal mailing list, which I'll start using more regularly tomorrow. By the way, if you might be interested in some other, more specialized list that I might start based on my interests (such as Everipedia, education, libertarianism, or whatever), please join the big list.

Also note, especially if your email is from Gmail, you will have to check your spam folder for the confirmation mail, if you want to be added. Please move any mails from me and my list out of your spam (or junk) folder into your inbox so Google learns I'm actually not a spammer. :-)


There, that's me being "terse."