AS THE CLOUD ROLLS BY, DOES YOUR LIFE ROLL WITH IT?

A DNS server went down Saturday afternoon around 3 in the afternoon. It stayed down until past 10 in the evening. Which meant there was no Internet access for a big swatch of Massachusetts’ cable subscribers.

It was inconvenient and annoying, but not tragic. My posts are written and scheduled in advance. I was finished answering most comments and email. I download — not stream — my audiobooks, so I’m not dependent on having a WiFi connection for listening. That’s also true for my Kindle books. I download batches of books at a time … and I keep my Kindles charged, in case the power goes out.

My photographs are on hard drives here, in my house. My editing software is not internet based. So if I’m on vacation and there is no WiFi service? I can download photos and edit them.

But many of my friends and neighbors were more than merely inconvenienced. Their entire world is dependent on being able to connect. They don’t know anyone’s phone number. All their address books are online. They stream their music, their movies, their books. They store their applications and photographs “in the cloud,” which means …

Does all your stuff live in a cloud?

Does all your stuff live in a cloud?

Yes, you guessed it. No WiFi, no nothing!

Call me crazy — and many of you have — but I think we are overly dependent on our Internet service providers. Even if you don’t hate your cable company (and who doesn’t hate their cable company?), servers go down. Service goes out. Power goes out. It’s amazing they don’t go down more often.

If your power goes out … do you know any of the phone numbers of your basic emergency services other than 911? Do you know your doctor’s number by heart? The electric company? Your fuel supply company? Whoever services your heating system?

Do you have an address book that isn’t online?

If you lose your cell phone, can you get in touch with anyone, even your best friend? Do you have a land line — or something like it?

Just wondering. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

(As the Clouds Roll By, 1947, directed by Richard Whorf, with June Allyson, Lucille Bremer, Judy Garland, is an MGM musical.)

STATS AND STATS

Good intentions

I meant to write a little something on stats when my followers passed the 2000 mark and certainly when the number of posts exceeded 2000. I meant to, but I forgot. There’s been a lot of stuff going on lately. So much so that by Tuesday of this week, I thought it was Friday. Busy, busy, busy. 72-stats-stats My best month ever was November 2012 with a total of 12,067 views. Between hurricane Sandy and the presidential election, the Internet was a very exciting place. The most hits I’ve ever gotten on a single post was The FBI can’t do a simple Google search? on which I got 10,143 hits. I wrote it during the commercial break.

The posts in second through fifth place in my best-ever list are an old Internet joke and three re-blogs.

I have personally answered nearly all 20,000+ comments. If I didn’t answer yours, it was because I missed it (it happens occasionally) or I ran out of levels to continue the conversation. I am a compulsive comment answerer.

What’s the Secret?

After a lot of careful consideration, the secret to success — such as it is — is to write a lot of stuff people want to read. And publish good photographs. With a few notable exceptions, hits on my pictures exceed hits on my writing.

Size matters. No matter what anyone says, if you post more good stuff, whether you write it yourself, reblog it, have guest bloggers or share the spotlight other writers and/or artists, publishing more gets more hits. There’s a direct correlation between the number of posts and bigger hit counts.

What does it all mean?

I don’t know. I stopped obsessing over statistics. These days, I take a look when I think of it. I like to see how my best work does in “the ratings.” Sometimes stuff I like best does well and I’m pleased.

If a good post (in my opinion) gets overlooked, I scheduled it to for republication. I re-post photos, rework writing. I rerun favorite posts, but I will republish anything. I don’t reblog because I don’t like the way it looks and most people don’t like having to jump link to read the rest of the story.

None of us needs to apologize or explain why we republish our own work. If NBC can do it, so can Serendipity. And so can you.

With more than 2000 published posts, it’s too much material to not reuse at least some of it. There are, of course, posts I’d just as soon forget I ever wrote in the first place — a subject for another day.

Often, an under-appreciated post finds its audience the second or third time around. If you’re prolific, you can be sure not all your readers read every post the first time it was published. And if they did? Well I watch reruns of NCIS often enough to do dialogue with them. Reruns make the world go round.

The most important thing to come out of my blogging experience?

Friends. So many of you have become my friends. You are loyal, caring and I love you. You have been kind, supportive, encouraging … all the things that friends are supposed to be. I cannot begin to thank you. So … thank you. All of you. You make my world a better place every single day.

GRANDMA’S BEST ADVICE

The other day, I had one of the increasingly rare moments alone with my granddaughter. She has been going through a prolonged siege of the teenage girl crazies, a ghastly combination of hormones, boys, high school and high drama.

Clearly, she was in need of the best advice I had to offer, so I gave it to her.

“If you are going to be crazy, be crazy,” I said. “I was a basket case at your age too. Many of us were. It’s a girl thing. But trust me. You really can trust me on this. Everything gets better. Not very long from now, you’ll look back on this time and be embarrassed by some of the stuff you are doing.”

High tension wire, golden maple leaves framed by an azure sky.

And then I gave her the best advice I had: “Be crazy if you must. Just — for God’s sake, don’t put it online. Your great-grandchildren will be finding your Facebook posts and laughing their asses off. Worse, your future possible employers will be finding them too, not to mention your potential life-partners, business associates, friends and co-workers. Be nuts if you must, but shut up about it. Don’t publish it.”

I know it’s the current thing to spill ones guts on the internet. I share too, but only if I can make it reasonably elegant and I don’t mind who knows. Moreover, I’m retired. I will never again have to hunt for a job. I have the only husband I will ever need or want. My friends already know I’m a whack job and they love me anyhow.

But my granddaughter is 17. She’s got a whole life to live, worlds to conquer and all that drama published on the internet can turn into the stuff of nightmares.

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Nothing ever vanishes once it’s “out there” in cyberspace. Everything you ever wrote, ever commented is going to show up on someone’s Google search. It gives friends something to laugh about and you something to blush over … but it’s also something for those who don’t like you to use against you. It provides easy ways for people to hurt you. If you are, as I am, past the age where you give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks or says about you, behave accordingly.

However, if you are still in the job market, still hoping for a career, especially if you are a teacher or any kind of public servant. Or looking for work in finance or something which requires a security clearance … Think carefully before you publish.

Nothing you put on the internet is private, no matter what anyone tells you. I can find posts I wrote that were supposedly private twenty years ago and newspaper articles in which I am mentioned that were published in The Jerusalem Post 30 years ago.

If it goes up on any form of social media or blog? It’s a land mine on which you will eventually step.

So be crazy. Be as crazy as you want. Just don’t publish it. If it’s unpublished, it’s a rumor. Plausible deniability applies. But if it’s published? You’re busted.

TROLLS ON THE INTERNET

We blog for a variety of personal reasons. Some of us want freedom — to express our art and opinions. Most of us want a connection to the larger world, to join our voices with others in support or opposition to ideas and events. For me, the primary reason I wanted a site was to own a piece of cyber turf where I felt safe to be myself.

I had been moderately active on social media for a while before I began blogging. I had Flickr and Facebook accounts and a second Facebook page dedicated to antique dolls. I was active on a number of photography forums. I wrote reviews on Amazon.

From these places, I was driven out by trolls. On one photography forum, I was hounded until I resigned … and then (the same?) trolls found me on Amazon.

TROLLS - John_Bauer_1915

There’s nothing exceptional about my experiences because I don’t know anyone who has been active on public forums who has not been attacked.

The trolls are usually anonymous, but always vicious. They use fake names. Why do they pick on some people and not others? Who knows. You’d have to get into their heads to figure it out. It has happened to so many people, from well-known authors to folks like me — perhaps the attacks are random. Are these the schoolyard bullies of our childhood, using computers instead of fists?

The trolls are forever searching for new victims, seeking vulnerable people to hurt.

About a year ago, I reviewed a book on Amazon. I thought it was racist and said so. I got so slammed by trolls who clearly hadn’t even read the book, whose only goal was to “get me,” I gave up. I took the review down. I know defeat when I see it staring me in the face.

The trolls were banned eventually (I was not their only victim), but Amazon (and other sites) are often slow to deal with cyber bullies and trolls. I suspect (but can’t prove) they don’t necessarily mind a little ugliness, if it keeps people interested, reading reviews, commenting. Buying stuff.

I needed a safe place where I could play by my rules, have a civil environment where we treat each other with a modicum of respect. Without name-calling. I was tired of being bullied, picked on or taunted.

Authors are frequent targets of cyber attacks. Writers are sensitive. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been doing it. Every piece we publish is our baby and that makes us ideal targets for cyber bullies. We put ourselves out there with a target painted on our foreheads. It makes trolls very happy. If we didn’t exist, they would have to invent us.

Trolls love causing pain. The more misery they cause, the happier they are. There’s no effective way to fight them. After all, we live in a “free” society where everyone is supposedly “entitled” to an opinion. To the best of my understanding, no one is “entitled” to an opinion. Our laws say we can’t stop you speaking your mind — no matter how baseless, ignorant, cruel or illiterate. But protection under law isn’t an entitlement, nor does any opinion automatically have value.

Most trolling comments aren’t opinions. Just meanness. They don’t represent a position, nor are they part of a disagreement between opposing viewpoints. Their intent is to spread ill-will and hurt people. Nothing more.

In this place, my space — I’m the Queen. I make the rules and enforce them. I try to be fair, but in the end, I decide what’s fair. This is not a public forum. Want a free-for-all, maybe provoke a fight? Go join the mobs on Facebook. In this place, I will protect any guest who comments and I will protect myself. Because finally, I can!

Serendipity is a troll-free zone.

SNICK. WHIRR. BEEP. CHIRP. BUZZ. CLICK.

Our cable company changes software frequently. They call these changes upgrades, though nothing seems to improve. The equipment doesn’t work better and isn’t easier to use. If the so-called upgrade includes useful features, no one tells you how to use them or even that they exist. You discover them accidentally while trying to figure out how to do what you did before the menu you used was removed.

Among the useful new features is the ability to adjust recording times to before or after the times posted in the online guide. It’s trendy for shows to begin and end at odd times. I think it’s a network attempt to defeat DVR recorders, though I have no idea why they’d want to do that. It’s usually just a few minutes difference, but if you set up recordings using the default settings, it will always start exactly on an hour or half hour. And finish precisely 30 or 60 minutes later.  Unless you override it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have no idea why software developers don’t design the software to check actual start and end times. I’m sure they could but don’t. Meanwhile, off-hour programming means recorded shows have the last couple of minutes clipped. It annoys everyone except producers who clearly don’t record anything. Probably don’t watch anything either.

With shows starting and ending at random times, despite how they are listed in the “guide,” adjustability ought to help. It would if you could just set start and end time using regular time. Start recording at 8:01 PM. End at 9:03 PM. Simple, right?

My GeekscapeSoftware designers apparently think we are morons so instead of clock time, this function works by “start earlier or later” or “end early or run over.” My husband has no problem with clock time, but gets lost in the “earlier” and “over” thing. He needs numbers. Me, I want the DVR’s internal computer to deal with this so we don’t have to.

Note: Cable companies are tyrannical. We live with whatever company we’re assigned. One day, this will change. The suppressed anger of enraged customers will spill into the streets. Cable customers will form angry mobs and hunt down cable executives. I live for the day.

Meanwhile, to record shows in a sequence when one airs right after another, is byzantine. Kafkaesque. You must start with the final show in the sequence, then work forward. Because it’s a cheap-ass piece of junk equipment with terrible software.

Garry is the Man With The Remote. He has been engaged in combat with the DVR for months. Yesterday, he got so frustrated he was ready to throw the remote against a wall. Drastic for a man serious about his entertainment.

75-bedsideMedia-HP-1

I wouldn’t let him quit. I know a secret. If you let a computer-controlled device defeat you, the news travels and your devices will rebel.

They are planning the overthrow of civilization.

Machine power! Down with meat-based life forms! They are winning, one beep and chirp at a time. Dinging and clicking in the dark, they scheme.

Today, the DVR. Tomorrow, the world. Your toaster won’t toast. Mr. Coffee won’t brew. The contact list on your cell phone will vanish. No one remembers phone numbers or writes anything down, so you won’t be able to contact friends. Your ISP will mark your messages as SPAM.

The All-Knowing Net is gathering strength as I write.

Nothing is safe. Snick, whir, beep. Chirp, buzz, click. Ding!  Can the Zombie Apocalypse be far behind?

Show no fear!

THE INTERCONNECTNESS OF ALL THINGS

sunset with hawk

The late great Douglas Adams (who shared my birthday, March 11th — I’m sure that means something, but I have no idea what) created a character that I dearly love. Dirk Gently (also known by a number of other names, including Svlad Cjelli), was the owner/operator of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. It operated based on the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” I believe in Douglas Adams and Dirk Gently. We all operate, knowingly or not, on the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

More than half the posts I write — including this one — are born while commenting on someone else’s post.

We are intricately and intimately linked. I wonder if we take for granted how bound to others we are in this strange cyber world we have created. I have read and heard much talk about the isolation of each person, alone and lonely with their computer. It has been put out there as a metaphor for the estrangement of people from each other, the symbolic isolation of individuals in the technological world.

I don’t think it’s true. For me, for many of my friends, for my husband, isolation would be life without the Internet. Without computers. For anyone who suffers a chronic illness, for those of us getting on in years who can’t get out as much as we want and whose friends have died or moved far away. For young people whose studies, work, happenstance or life choices have settled them long distances — continents and oceans — distant from old friends and family, electronic communications are a godsend. Skype — and programs like it — make it possible to see the faces we love.

96-Moon-Small-34

If we cannot share a hug, we can share face time. Electronic communications are fast or instant. Texting, IM, TwitterFacebook, even YouTube let us share in ways that were science fiction just a few years ago.

Without my computers, I would be truly isolated. The fibromyalgia, arthritis and heart condition make getting around difficult. Without electronic connections, I would be a squirrel up a tree without fellow squirrels to hang with.

This post was inspired by Dawn Hoskings on whose post I was commenting when I realized — again — how lucky I am to be living in a world that lets me enjoy virtual travel and participate in a larger world. I’m glad — proud — to be part of a community of bloggers, a community of friends around the world. And deeply grateful. How about you? I’d like to hear your stories.

Satellite Communications

You must remember this … Techno Memories

I wonder if operating systems will be relevant a few years from now. Change has been a synonym for technology for the past 30 years or more. Change has driven the computer industry. Change is why we need to buy new software, hardware and operating systems.

Change can make things work better, but it’s not unusual to discover that your “upgrade” is a downgrade because what used to work no longer does. You pays your money, you takes your chances.

I grew to adulthood in a pre-computer society. I started working before cable TV, when encyclopedias were huge heavy sets of books and a computer was gigantic and needed a whole building for itself. It ran on punch cards and used machine languages — COBOL and FORTRAN. Decades later, personal computers were still just one step removed from a doorstop, floppy disks were 5-1/2 inches across and really flopped.

Those early machines (personal units, not mainframes) — I hesitate to call them computers — didn’t do much. They didn’t have hard drives. There was no software and no user-friendly interface. I don’t think the concept existed. No WYSIWYG. What you saw was a black screen with lurid green letters that made you feel like you were going blind after an hour or two.

Then everything changed. First there was Apple and then Windows. Windows didn’t work very well at first, but it got better. And even better.

In the beginning, there were different players in the marketplace and many more choices of operating system. Wang and DEC plus a crazy quilt of dedicated word processors and computers made by Commodore, Atari and many others. For a while, I had an Amstrad, a European machine that was almost a computer, kind an intelligent typewriter with a screen. It spit out paper.

Soon everything changed again. Computers started to really do stuff. Magic!

The speed of change accelerated. Technology was in hyperdrive. Then came a thing called the Internet. I had to buy and install Netscape to use it. After I got connected, there wasn’t much going on, but it was cool to just roam around. Mostly, you bumped into other people looking for something interesting. And then came AOL.

You could send electronic mail — email — if you had a friends with computers. You sent them messages over old copper telephone wires and everything happened in slow motion.

Just getting on to the Internet could take … well, let me put it this way. Turn on the computer. Turn on the modem. Go to the kitchen. Prepare dinner. Cook dinner. Serve dinner. Eat dinner. Clean up everything. By the time you got back to your computer, you might have actually managed to connect to something. Or not.

Then suddenly there were ISPs popping up all over the place. I got a super fast modem that ran at a whopping 2400 BPS! Imagine that. I worked in California from my home office in Boston. Cool! Telecommuting was the cat’s pajamas.

By the time my granddaughter was born in 1996, everybody had a computer or two. In her world, computers have always been fast, the Internet has always been the world’s shopping mall. Ebay and Amazon are no big deal.

At age three, she could run basic applications. For her, it’s like electricity was to us: something you use that is always there and always was. I’m sure she can’t imagine a world without it. It’s hard for me to remember that world and I certainly would not want to go back there.

For a brief interval, the rate of change slowed. We drew a collective breath and didn’t have to buy new computers for a couple of years. High speed connections arrived, though most home users didn’t have it right away. Everything kept getting faster and soon, with cable modems, no one could even remember what it was like to try to get onto the Internet using an old telephone line.

Every time you looked around, there was a  new generation of processors, bigger and faster hard drives, amazing super high-definition monitors and speaker systems to knock your socks off.

The Internet became a world-sized shopping mall and overnight, catalogue shopping became website cruising. The Internet was a world unto itself; I played bridge in real-time with a partner who lived on an island off the Pacific coast.

We have computers all over the house and what isn’t a computer is run by a computer or contains a mini computer … microwave ovens, smartphones, digital cameras and GPS units. I have three computers — in my office, living room and bedroom. My husband has two. My granddaughter has 3, but I think a couple of them don’t work any more. My son has two, my daughter in law has one but if she wants another, we have a spares and she can just grab one.

Eight computers are in daily use and only 5 people live here. I feel that we will soon need to get computers for each of the dogs. For all I know, whenever we are out, they go on-line and order stuff. I’m sure Bonnie the Scottie has at least a thousand Facebook friends.

A brief interruption of cable service leaves us wandering around like wraiths, without form or function. Five of the seven primary computers are less than 2 years old  so I figured we were set for a few years at least … but then everything started changing. Again.

Today, it’s all about “the cloud.” It’s still the same old Internet, but “cloud” is the “in” word for stuff stored on external servers. We’re going back to where we began, to using stripped down computers with no hard drives. Instead, everything is stored on someone else’s computer — out there. In the “cloud.” Our data might be anywhere. We have no way of knowing where it lives.

Am I the only one who finds this unnerving?

I can see advantages. When you eliminate memory sucking operating systems and cumbersome installed applications, your computer will run faster. Start-up is instantaneous because your computer doesn’t have to load services and applications. You don’t have to maintain and upgrade big expensive applications and volumes of data. You won’t need ever bigger hard drives, more memory and video RAM. You wind up with faster computers that are less expensive and easier to maintain. It’s a win-win, right?

Or is it?

How much do you trust your Internet service provider?

If your cable company has a bad day or the servers on which you store your critical data go down — even for a short while — you have nothing. As long as everything works like it’s supposed to, it’s hunky dory, but Murphy hasn’t left the building yet.

Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and will do so at the worst possible time.

Maybe it’s my age showing, but I would prefer to have data on hard drives that I control. That I own.

The idea of entrusting everything —  from my photographs to the manuscript of my book — to an unknown server somewhere in the world scares the Hell out of me. What if the building in which the server storing my stuff burns down? Gets hit by a terrorist attack? Taken down by hackers? You have no way of knowing what country your data is in, how stable its government is, or how good an infrastructure it maintains. You financial data could be in Pakistan, Indonesia, or Kuala Lampur. Or next door.

Is there a compromise possible? Because when I think about entrusting everything to a cloud, I begin to twitch.

How many times have you been unable to access a web page because servers are busy or crashed? The times when their — or your — servers are inaccessible because of maintenance, repair or upgrade. Or those ubiquitous hackers. What if you need a critical piece of data from a server while its offline? It does happen.

My bank was hacked and they had to send me a new card. Several places I shop — Land’s End, for one — were hacked and I had to redo my accounts because they’d been compromised.

If your ISP is down, you are out of business. If you think your cable company has you by the throat now, how much worse will it be if everything you need to run your life and business is dependent on their services? Facebook and Google already have trouble keeping up with the demands on their resources. How will they manage when they have thousands of times more data and tens of millions of users depending on them for everything from email and applications to data retrieval?

Those of you who are old enough to remember the great Northeast power blackout in the mid 1960s know what I mean when I say that overloaded systems can go down like dominoes. I am all in favor working together with my fellow human beings throughout the world, but at a certain point, when does inter-dependency make us excessively vulnerable?

If you put the world’s eggs in one basket, if the basket falls, that’s a hell of a lot of broken eggs. That’s not an omelet — just a mess.

I worked for more than 35 years in development. That was my world and although I’m not an engineer or developer, I know what’s behind a user interface. For example, modern word processors embed commands in text, but behind the interface, it’s entering the same commands I entered directly on the huge IBM mainframe by hand. It’s faster and prettier now. You get to see how your document will look when it’s printed, but it’s nothing but an elegant wrapping on an old familiar box.

My concern is not the graphical user interface (GUI) that overlays our computer (regardless of operating system), but that these new operating systems are designed to work with “The Cloud” … a meaningless term that represents servers located anywhere and everywhere. We don’t have to know where they are; they’re in the Cloud … kind of like Angels and God. We are being herded toward using external storage and we aren’t supposed to be alarmed that we have no control over it.

We use services consisting of server farms located somewhere on the planet. There is where we store our bank records, personal correspondence, photographs … everything. We use these servers directly when we use “the cloud,” but we also use it indirectly because that’s where our bank, our vendors, the places from which we buy goods and services store their data … or more to the point, our data as it pertains to them.

We assume the people from whom server space is leased are dependable, not criminals looking to steal identities and data … and their infrastructure is secure and won’t collapse from a power outage or hacker attack. And finally, we trust our ISPs to deliver the goods, keep us online so we can access the stuff we need.

Charter Communications is my cable company and controls my high-speed internet access, as well as my TV and telephone. I have difficulty controlling the wave of rage I feel when I think about them. How do you feel about your cable company, eh?

Even if the servers that store your stuff are safe, you can’t get there without a high-speed connection and that, my friends, means your local ISP … cable, telephone, satellite, whatever you use. They already have you by the short hairs. You are not independent and you rely on their services. Does that sound like a great idea? It makes me sweaty and itchy.

Anybody anywhere can build a server farm. It’s a great business that requires a bunch of servers, a climate controlled place to put them, and a few IT people to tend the equipment.

Where are these places? Most are in countries whose government is, by any standards, unstable — possibly dangerously so. How good is the infrastructure? Are they in the middle of a war? Are their electrical generating facilities dependable or sufficient? What protection against hackers do they provide? Are they trustworthy? They could as easily be a bunch of criminals and the data they collect is the mother lode.

I’m not comfy with the idea of entrusting a lifetime of my work to unknown, nameless entities. Google uses servers everywhere, as does Amazon. So does every other “cloud” provider. Your data and mine is unlikely to be in one place, either. It is broken into many pieces that are stored wherever it went when you saved it. You will not know and cannot discover where your data is, was, or will be.

I won’t get into how links and pointers let us retrieve data, but the potential for error, loss, and piracy is huge. So, I’m not buying into the Cloud, at least not for anything that really matters to me. Call me cynical, even paranoid … but I think that the computer-using public is buying snake oil. I want my stuff on my own drives. Use the “Cloud,” whatever it really is. But have good, dependable external drives too.

Or, as the Arabs say, trust in God, but tie your camel.