Living without privacy.

Some time ago, I reactivated my inactive Facebook account. I hate Facebook and pretty much everything it stands for. Even though I totally support social activity, I think Facebook is probably the worst example of how to not implement something. I think it encourages a belief in activity that’s mostly meaningless and superficial, and it completely wipes out any kind of privacy you might have. So, why in the world would I reactivate my own account?

First of all, I’ve set all privacy and application settings to the most restrictive. Second, I’ve made sure I don’t have any friend linked to my account. Why the latter? Because one of the most restrictive privacy settings you can have still allows friends of friends to see you. Which is completely absurd. If you only want to be known to a specific, small set of people—it’s impossible to do that on Facebook. If any of your friends is friends with somebody else, those other people can see you too. Last, I never post anything on it.

The single reason I have an activated account is so I can post the occasional comment to Toronto’s event blog site, BlogTO. BlogTO relies on authenticating users with a Facebook identity provider. This means they don’t need have to implement their own database of users and passwords and can, instead, rely on Facebook for authentication. But, after I increased the security of my web browser, I discovered I could no longer post comments—or even see any existing comments.

I gradually discovered the settings that are required to both create and view Facebook-authenticated comments on BlogTO:

  • Prevent tracking activities by known sites – This setting must be disabled. Unless you allow Facebook (and every other known site in the world, as there seems to be no granular control over the setting) to track you, the Facebook Comments Plugin will simply not be displayed. This means you can neither post a comment yourself nor see comments that anyone else has posted.
  • Allow popup windows – If you don’t enable this setting, the Facebook authentication dialog box that BlogTO activates will simply never be seen. With just the above setting, you’ll be able to see other comments but never post your own. However, you can at least limit the sites from which you allow popups to just BlogTO and any other site of a similar nature where they are required for needed functionality.
  • Allow all cookies – If you don’t enable this setting too, something strange happens. The Facebook authentication dialog box will repeatedly, in a loop that never ends, appear and disappear again. I’m sure this has something to do with third-party cookies. Again, however, there is no granular control by which the browser can be told to only allow third-party cookies when visiting a particular site. As with tracking activity, it’s a setting that must be applied globally. In this case, however, cookies can be set to expire after a single session so at least they don’t follow you from session to session. (And, with cookies anyway, there is granular control—allowing cookies to be kept for specific sites that are frequently visited and where that makes a difference.)

So, what tracking activities are now taking place by Facebook and every other website I visit that implements them? I have no idea. I should probably investigate and determine exactly what the implications are. I have some assumptions (such as websites determining the geographical location of the computer I’m using to browse and post from) but it could be more than that. The fact that I don’t care enough to immediately investigate is telling. I’ve made reasonable efforts to maintain my privacy as much as possible but, even for me, there is a line I don’t cross between functionality and security. Sites are tracking me in some way—and any BlogTO posts I make are still accompanied by a little picture of myself as well as the fact that I’m associated with Trent University—but I don’t care enough to get rid of those things. Just think of the millions of people who care even less and use a fully unrestricted Facebook every single day?

A True Story by Paul Villard.

When I was quite young, my family had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember well the polished oak case fastened to the wall on the lower stair landing. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I even remembered the number – 105. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother talked into it. Once she lifted me up to speak to my father, who was away on business. Magic! Then I discovered that somewhere inside that wonderful device lived an amazing person – her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing that she did not know. My mother could ask her for anybody’s number and when our clock ran down, Information Please immediately supplied the correct time.

My first personal experience with this genie-in-the-receiver came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the toolbench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be of much use crying because there was no one home to offer sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver and held it to my ear. “Information Please,” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two, and a small clear voice spoke into my ear. “Information.” “I hurt my fingerrr-” I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience. “Isn’t your mother home?” came the question. “Nobody’s at home but me,” I blubbered. “Are you bleeding?”. “No”, I replied. “I hit it with the hammer and it hurts”. “Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it on your finger. That will stop the hurt. Be careful when you use the ice pick,” she admonished. “And don’t cry. You’ll be alright”.

After that, I called Information Please for everything. I asked for help with my Geography and she told me where Philadelphia was, and the Orinoco–the romantic river I was going to explore when I grew up. She helped me with my Arithmetic, and she told me that a pet chipmunk–I had caught him in the park just that day before–would eat fruits and nuts. And there was the time that Petey, our pet canary, died. I called Information Please and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was unconsoled. Why was it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to whole families, only to end as a heap of feathers feet up, on the bottom of a cage? She must have sensed my deep concern, for she quietly said, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.” Somehow, I felt better.

Another day I was at the telephone. “Information,” said the now familiar voice. “How do you spell fix?”. F-I-X.” At that instant my sister, who took unholy joy in scaring me, jumped off the stairs at me with a banshee shriek-“Yaaaaaaaaaa!” I fell off the stool, pulling the receiver out of the box by its roots. We were both terrified–Information Please was no longer there, and I was not at all sure that I hadn’t hurt her when I pulled the receiver out. Minutes later, there was a man on the porch. “I’m a telephone repairman. I was working down the street and the operator said there might be some trouble at this number.” He reached for the receiver in my hand. “What happened?” I told him. “Well, we can fix that in a minute or two.” He opened the telephone box exposing a maze of wires and coils, and fiddled for a while with the end of the receiver cord, tightened things with a small screwdriver. He jiggled the hook up and down a few times, then spoke into the phone. “Hi, this is Pete. Everything’s under control at 105. The kid’s sister scared him and he pulled the cord out of the box.” He hung up, smiled, gave me a pat on the head and walked out the door.

All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Then, when I was nine years old, we moved across he country to Boston-and I missed my mentor acutely. Information Please belonged in that old wooden box back at home, and I somehow never thought if trying the tall, skinny new phone that sat on the small table in the hall. Yet, as I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversation never really left me; often in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had when I know that I could call Information Please and get the right answer. I appreciated now how very patient, understanding and kind she was to have wasted her time on a little boy.

A few years later, on my way back to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about half an hour between plan connections, and I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister who lived there now, happily mellowed by marriage and motherhood. Then, really without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information Please.” Miraculously, I heard again the small, clear voice that I know so well:”Information.” I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying, “Could you tell me, please, how to spell the word ‘fix’?” There was a long pause. Then came the softly spoken answer. “I guess,” said Information Please, “that your finger must have healed by now.” I laughed. “So it’s really still you. I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during all that time….” “I wonder,” she replied, “if you know how much you meant to me? I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls. Silly, wasn’t it?” It didn’t seem silly, but I didn’t say so. Instead I told her how often I had thought of her over the years, and I asked if I could call her again when I come back to visit my sister when the semester was over. “Please do. Just ask for Sally.” “Goodbye Sally.” It sounded strange for Information Please to have a name. “If I run into any chipmunks, I’ll tell them to eat fruits and nuts.” “Do that,” she said. “And I expect one of these days you’ll be off for the Orinoco. Well, good-bye.”

Just three months later, I was back again at the Seattle airport. A different voice answered, “Information,” and I asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?” “Yes,” I said. “An old friend.” “Then I’m sorry to have to tell you. Sally had only been working part-time in the last few years because she was ill. She died five weeks ago.” But before I could hung up, she said, “Wait a minute. Did you say your name was Villard?” “Yes.” “Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down.” “What was it?” I asked, almost knowing in advance what it would be. “Here it is, I’ll read it-‘Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean'”

I thanked her and hung up. I did know what Sally meant.

Paul Villard

Originally published June, 1966 Readers Digest; reprinted with permission in the December 1999 issue of the Singing Wires newsletter, TCI club.

Overcoming the 3 pings of death.

Many years ago, I bought myself an all-in-one espresso machine—a Delongi Magnifca. I’ve used it all the time since to make myself café au laits. Several years after I bought it the grinder broke. I took it in and had it repaired. Just a few years ago the milk frother unit broke. I decided not to get it repaired that time—as I didn’t want to be without it—so, instead, I bought a standalone Breville milk frother. It worked really well.

When I was still working in the office, I’d have a couple of café au laits each Saturday and Sunday—and just regular coffee when I was at work.  Now that I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home, my drinking habits have changed. I have a café au lait once each morning and another one at night a little while before I go to sleep. (I’m lucky enough to not be affected by caffeine in the same way as most people—it either never affects me at all or it actually acts as a bit of a sedative.)

Over the years, the frother unit would beep 3 times occasionally when I tried to start it. After either wiping it or reseating it, it would work normally. I’d read about this in Amazon reviews but it didn’t bother me that much. Until a couple of weeks ago. No matter what I did it just kept beeping. I finally discovered the problem wasn’t with the unit itself (which costs around $130) but the little frother “disc” that sits inside—and which only cost me $6 from the Breville website (the cost of shipping was $12, if you can believe it).

This is actually a disc used for cappuccinos. If you pour the milk as soon as the machine is done, you’ll get a café au lait. For a cappuccino, you let the milk sit a bit—so you pour a thinner milk at first, and thicker foam ends up at the top. While I waited for the replacement unit, I swapped this disc out for a latte-producing disc, that essentially just heats the milk without frothing it nearly as much. I’m not really sure if there is some method of cleaning these things that would have let me prolong its life, but I figure buying a new one of those little discs every 2-3 years isn’t so terrible.

Here is a pictorial version of this story:



The elusive Seamonkey.

The browser I use is SeaMonkey, which is the “original” browser from Mozilla. Although Mozilla is better known for Firefox, the two share the same code base. Because I used to be quite involved with QA and code triage work on SeaMonkey, you can still see my name “in lights” if you go to the URL “about:credits” in any of the Mozilla browsers. (This may be my sole objective claim to fame.)

There haven’t been any Windows nightly builds of SeaMonkey since November of 2015. I finally got curious and decided to take a look. Apparently, official nightly builds have stopped because they are moving over to Visual Studio 2013 – among various other things. But I managed to find a link to “unofficial” nightly builds, and am now running a 64-bit Windows build from February 8th. Just a recent build is nice (I always maintain a bit of a bleeding edge life when it comes to technology) but grabbing a 64-bit version was an unexpected surprise.

Windows 10.

An in-place upgrade to Windows 10 at work went amazingly well. But due to some short-sightedness on my part, followed by a bit of insanity on Microsoft’s part, my upgrade at home failed utterly. After two days I ended up with a clean install (Windows 8 that was then immediately upgraded to 10), and having to reinstall all of my applications. I can’t really fault what happened at home as it was an edge case.

So far, I like Windows 10 a lot. I liked Windows 8 – and Windows 10 is simply “even better”. With one exception. It feels like there are frequent updates. These are downloaded automatically and a reboot scheduled, which is fine. But unlike every other version of Windows I’ve worked with, it seems that more often than not my systems become “unstable” pending the reboot.

Sometimes I can’t pin anything to Start. Other times, other “strange” behaviour takes place. Just this morning I got a bunch of video related error messages – because my video drivers had been updated overnight. But none of this should happen. Essential changes to the OS should only be occurring on a reboot. So long as you don’t reboot, there should be no observable affects on the use of your desktop.

I’m hoping this is something that will be smoothed out in the future. It’s possible I’m only experiencing this because nothing has been officially released yet and I’m simply suffering from “early adopter syndrome”.

Say hello to Mr. Rip Van Winkle.

Well. Two years since that last post when I said I was still alive. I’ll tell you what happened. I started playing Runescape, and it ended up taking all of my free time. When I had time to spare – I’d play it rather than post something new here. But it’s well past time that I started updating things.

There’s a lot that’s happened in the past two years. There’s actually too much to put into a single post. I’m going to have to make individual entries. I’m going on vacation to Oregon to visit my aunt Donna. I haven’t seen her in over 30 years. But we started texting each other, and get along very well. I’ll be gone for a week, and I can’t way. (Just three more days to go.) I’ll see about getting some more updates here when I get back.

I’m still alive.

I’ve had a lot of things go on that have made me forget about updates here for a while. We sold our condo and bought a house, started renovations on the house which still aren’t fixed, spent over 3 weeks on a business trip in India, my computer died on me (twice) and had to be repaired, and I also installed Windows 8 on it (twice). I’m hoping to start publishing some updates soon.

The Witcher 2.

For several years, I was addicted to a computer game called The Witcher. It was a great first person fantasy game with real time combat, good puzzles, and a very good, and in depth, virtual world that lent itself to exploration and character interaction. Michelle would come into the study and say, “Oh, Fabio,” because of the long hair of the protagonist. I’m pretty sure that I’ve played through it about 5 times now, only the first time having no idea about anything in the game other than what I discovered as I went. (On subsequent playing I had read about all of the things I’d missed and made sure to do things right.)

I was excited when The Witcher 2 came out because, by all accounts, it was just like the first one but a lot better. I’ve only just started to play it but I’m already disappointed. I just can’t get used to the new interface. It’s just difficult to use. This is not because I have a poor video card and am simply having problems with the game being slow on my system – rather, I just don’t like the new interface elements. It’s not only different (and in a bad way) from The Witcher, it’s also different from almost every other “first person shooter” game I’ve played. I shouldn’t have to fight with manipulating mouse, keyboard, and onscreen elements – I should end up immersed in the game itself, and not even really be aware of the fact that I’m “controlling” things. Yet, that’s not the case with The Witcher 2. Instead, I end up cursing at the game mechanics the entire time I’m playing it, and I don’t really look forward to sitting down and seeing what happens next because I know that I’m not going to have a good experience.

I even have problems with the simple visuals. I’ve read a lot of reviews about how stunning the game is. Being constantly distracted by having to fight with the game engine aside, I haven’t even really found that to be the case. One of the problems is the lighting. Either everything is too dark – even in mid-day it doesn’t seem as if there’s enough light – or, if I turn up the brightness, it’s too bright and details get lost in glare that’s been introduced.

As of this moment, if I were to give the original game a score of 10, I’d have to give this game a score of 6 – and that’s if I’m being generous. I’m actually quite amazed that I haven’t read a single negative review in line with what I’ve experienced. A lot of people mention problems with the menu system. Personally, it doesn’t bother me. (Even though the mouse pointer is far too slow when navigating the menus. Not when actually playing mind you, just when using the menus. I find this very odd and, frankly, rather surprising as something as simple as that should never happen. I’ve tried several suggestions to fix this, all to no avail.) For me, it’s the actual game play, and not menu system navigation, that’s important. Strangely, nobody in their reviews mentioned the problems that I’ve had. The game is fast and responsive – it’s just … “klunky” (for lack of a better word) and hard to control. I spend far too much time correcting what I’ve done and trying to point at the right thing, or go to the right place. The difference between the original game and this one is like night and day, and I wish that I could have the old game engine back – although with the game design changes (such as new combat mechanics, etc.) that have been made in the sequel.

I’m really hoping that it will grow on me, but I’m afraid it won’t.

Another game that intrigues me is the upcoming Legend of Grimrock. I stumbled upon it when looking at a review of Minecraft – also an interesting game, but not one that’s to my personal taste. LoG seems like something very simple and fun. Perhaps just the thing for me to get over my disappointment with The Witcher 2.

Everything happens for a reason?

That’s a saying that Michelle likes to use a lot. We’ve had some debates over it in the past and, ironically, her boss, Reverend Dr. Derek Anderson, takes my side; he disagrees with the saying just as I do (although I haven’t sat down to talk with him about his reasons for doing so). The saying seems to imply that there’s a destiny for everybody, and the problem that many people have with that is they believe that fate is in conflict with free will. I don’t actually think that’s the case. I think it’s possible you could have people who are completely free to choose what they want to do – yet the universe is set up in such a way that the actions of everybody are still predetermined. It wouldn’t be that they are forced or compelled to do something, or that their decisions don’t matter. Think of somebody videotaping the next 10 minutes of your life and the choices you freely make. After those 10 minutes, they rewind the tape and play it back. You know exactly what’s going to happen because it’s already happened. But that doesn’t invalidate what you did at the time that the recording took place. What if the universe is like that? What if it’s already all been recorded and we’re just playing things back? Would you feel any less surprised by the way things turn out?

I’m also not sure that the saying has to imply that there’s a destiny anyway. Look at somebody playing a game of chess. They move a piece from one square to the other. The movement of that piece is “what happened” (and there’s also a reason for it having happened) – but it’s not the case that they necessarily knew, 3 moves back, that they were going to make that move; nor is it necessarily the case that they know what’s going to happen 3 moves into the future. Looking at things in that light dispenses with a set destiny, because the player is making things up as they go along, but it also challenges the idea of free will even more than the first position. (Because the piece is being moved rather than being allowed to move on its own.)

My personal opinion is that things just happen to you by chance. I think that we’re able to influence events to some degree, and our actions can cause some sets of events to be more likely to occur than others, but I don’t think that anything is a given. Nor do I believe that there is some outside, sentient force specifically governing everything that we do and making us do things towards some purpose that remains unknown to us. (I have no reason to believe that – and I would find it to be the most terrifying thing of all if it were true – because I won’t want anybody or anything directly controlling me.) Which is not to say that I don’t believe there’s some kind of positive “life force” that everything living is a part of. While I’m not going to try to articulate that here, I do believe that we are all part of the same energy and that this energy is synergistic and positive.

The above aside, though, what I really object to about this saying is (to me) its hypocrisy. People only say it when something good happens, either spontaneously (winning the lottery) or after something bad (being fired then finding a better job). I think of it as a kind of trite emotional band-aid – but one which is only applied after the fact – and one which is really just a crutch for having faith in yourself and being positive in your own right, rather than assuming that there are good things planned for you. (Ultimately, you need to be the captain of your own ship – otherwise you’re not really living, you’re just existing and going along for the ride.) The fact that it’s hypocritical seems obvious to me when nobody takes it to its logical conclusion (as an objective statement) by saying it when something bad happens. I get struck down with flesh-eating disease and am told I’m going to die by morning. Nobody is going to cheerfully tell me, “Oh, well. Everything happens for a reason!” Nor did anybody go around saying that to Holocaust survivors, or people who suffered any number of other tragedies. To actually say that, in those circumstances, would be considered the height of insensitivity. But if you can’t say it in those situations, at times when people need to feel hope more than any other time in their lives – when they’re right at the brink of despair – then what’s the use of having it has a “happy catchphrase” in the first place? Instead, in those cases, what’s normally said is, “We’ve been through bad times before, and got through them, we’ll get through this too.”

So, not only do I not actually agree with the statement in general, I don’t actually see the point in using it at all. I’d rather say, “Can’t life be amazing sometimes?”, or “I’ll never get over how connected everything is,” or “It sure is a small world,” or just, “Wow!”

New beer.

There’s a new brewery that’s opened up in Toronto: Spearhead Brewery. It’s always good when we get more variety. Even more impressive is the number of pubs that will be serving it (I assume) on tap. In addition to some of our favourites, C’est What? and “The Academy Of Spherical Arts, there’s a lengthy list of others that we haven’t even visited yet, but will need to add to our Toronto list – not just for this beer but in general.