Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Surveillance State of the Web (And A Better Alternative to Chrome?)

surveillance-1-fotoliaI don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting increasingly creeped out by the constant surveillance that we’re all under, particularly in the Google/FaceBook environment. To summarize but a few of the highlights:

  • Your physical movements are being constantly noted and aggregated via your phone’s GPS and location services–even when you seemingly opt out of those services.
  • Even if you’re not logged in to Google or FaceBook (or Amazon, or Microsoft), the tech giants are actively tracking your movements around the web by the use of omnipresent ad tracking cookies which their ad networks serve up on almost any major site you visit.
  • Every time you sign in to a site using social sign-on (that “Log in with FaceBook” or “Log in with Google” code that so many sites–and yes, even ComicBase and Atomic Avenue–use to allow you to avoid adding yet another password to your no-doubt huge list) your login is noted on FaceBook or Google’s servers–and the IP and tracking cookie information allows them to know that you’re the same person who visited any site where one of their ads appears–and now that formerly anonymous site usage is tied to a verifiable identity.
  • Everything you say within range of your Smart TV or Alexa speaker can be recorded and saved on their servers when they’re activated.
  • Every search you type in a search engine or browser is recorded, logged, and aggregated–along with your IP and device information.
  • Every time you call out “Hey Google” or trigger Siri, Cortana, or Bixby, your voice and search are recorded and stored.

And as if this wasn’t enough to complete the panopticon of your life, Google Chrome, the dominant web browser in the world today, recently released a change which automatically logs you in to help “sync” your information between devices.  Of course, keeping all your bookmarks current is the visible benefit to you–but firmly establishing your identity and correlating everything you do while using a web browser or mobile device is the true benefit to Google.

Unless you’re a noted crime figure, it’s likely you’ve never been under anything like the level of surveillance that you’re under today, courtesy of our web browsers and our smartphones. Note also that it’s enormously difficult to escape any of it, even using tools like VPNs, since there are so many redundant mechanisms and tripwires scattered around the web–all with the common mission of aggregating who you are, where you are, and recording as much of what you do and where you go as possible.

And it’s worth noting that all this is just the stuff that we personally signed up for by installing our various tech gadgets and apps, and by clicking through the “Agree” buttons on all those end-user licenses we never read. At the same time, actual law enforcement (and even private companies) are participating on a more global scale to monitor our every movement using everything from both fixed and roaming license-plate scanners and facial recognition, easy-pass toll devices, car GPS transponders, and wholesale processing of entire networks of internet and cellular data — no search warrants required, so long as a particular individual isn’t being targeted. All the information just sits there until it’s needed, which ever-cheaper storage ensures can be a long time indeed.

A Few Countermeasures

To start at the end: I don’t believe there’s a practical way to keep any real sort of privacy in today’s world, but there’s much you can do to at least staunch the river of information you’re constantly sending to the tech companies. Call it pure cussedness on my own part, but even if the battle to escape a surveillance state is a losing one, I see no reason to staff up my own Stasi command post with the personal mission of spying on myself.

It’s been months since I uninstalled the constantly-snooping FaceBook app from my mobile devices, and try to make sure I “log out” whenever I (more and more rarely) visit the FaceBook web site. But this is merely Orwell’s equivalent of blocking the hidden camera in the television when Big Brother has dozens of other listening devices hidden around your house, as well as thousands dangling from street lamps.

Also, do yourself a favor and take a trip over to the Google Privacy Settings and FaceBook Privacy Settings–particularly the deeper “Profile” and “History” sections. After you get over the shock of seeing that both sites can meticulously trace that road trip you took in 2015 down to pictures of the lunch you had at that out-of-the-way cafe, do yourself a favor and delete it all, and turn off as much of the tracking as you can. Then come back every month or so and do it all over again, as you’ll discover that any number of things you did–as simple as putting in a direction request in Google Maps, or buying concert tickets to a show–will continue to add new information to your personal dossier. I’d personally never assume that anything deleted is gone forever–backups often exist, after all–but it’s a start.

Log out of Google, Bing, and other search engines whenever possible, and turn off their “sync” options. Yes, it’s less convenient to check your favorite news sites this way, but remember that–as currently implemented–anything you sync, like your web history–is also synched to Google’s servers.

(And speaking of Google’s servers: all those saved passwords are being backed up too–and the passwords to your local wifi networks are apparently saved as clear-text on Google’s servers. Even when data is encrypted, however, it’s a safe bet to assume that the people doing the encrypting have a copy of the keys.)

 

Giving the Brave Browser a try

brave-logotype-full-color

Since the recent Chrome sign-in fiasco (which Google is currently backing away from slightly), I’ve decided to see what else I can do to stem the flood of personal information to the Silicon Valley tech giant. On a recommendation, I recently gave the Brave browser a shot, and I like what I’m seeing so far.

Built built a crew led by ex-Mozilla chief and Javascript inventor Brendan Eich, it’s a browser that embraces the clean design of early Chrome, while combining it with very smooth and user-controllable privacy settings which seem to do an excellent job of blocking intrusive ads, tracking cookies, and the like. Best of all, by getting rid of all this surveillance foo, it seems to load and display pages noticeably faster than any of the more established alternatives like Chrome, Safari, and Edge.

Eich and the crew over at Brave also seem to be rethinking the whole online ad ecosystem. Since the ability to block ads also threatens to undercut the financial basis that supports the sites you use, they’re trying to rebalance the financial incentives by letting you directly support sites you visit using cryptocurrency-based “Basic Attention Tokens” or BATs, which act to funnel your voluntary donations to the sites you view the most. I’m not sure how I feel about the whole scheme at this point (and I’m more than a little skeptical of cryptocurrencies in general), but I do appreciate that the Brave crew is thinking about the overall problem, and I applaud their view that we ought to be moving beyond the place where we, the web’s users, must effectively become the product to be sold in order to provide all the great “free” new and information the web provides.

For now, however, I’m giving Brave a spin, and so far I’ve been impressed enough to make it my default browser on both my desktop and mobile devices. Here’s a decent video review of the whole thing by ThioJoe.

Advertisements

Uh Oh…

High Court: Online shoppers can be forced to pay sales tax

https://apnews.com/332abb7455cb4b60b2effc0852ff3c89/High-Court:-Online-shoppers-can-be-forced-to-pay-sales-tax

For anyone but the very largest retailers (think: Walmart, Amazon), this has the potential to unleash an absolutely ruinous storm of neverending tax paperwork on us from literally every state (and possibly county) in the country–all of which would likely require their own filing processes, tax rates, rules, and potentially auditing facilities.

We got a tiny taste of this when we used to exhibit at the Chicago Comic-Con, where our (then California-based) company had to apply for an Illinois sales permit each year and do separate sales tax and use filings (as well as deal with the inevitable bureaucratic foul-ups and notices) just for the purpose of being able to sell during a 3-day comic book show. Imagine every small company with an internet presence having to do this every quarter for virtually every tax jurisdiction in the country.

This is bad news for small businesses (meaning anyone without hundreds of millions in annual revenues). I can’t wait to see what inventive solutions the government will now cook up to make the problem even worse…

Things I Can’t Live Without: Drawer Boxes

There are some times when you just need to stop and say “Thanks!” to the people who invented and brought to market some of the amazing things that make your life awesome.

I’m reminded of one of these people–Rich over at Collection Drawer Company–every day I go down to the garage to file comics, or pull a comic order from Atomic Avenue. Rich is the inventor of a thing called the “Drawer Box” — basically, a two-part comic book box which consists of a “shell” which holds the box’s place in a stack, and a “drawer” (much like a heavy duty long box without the top) which holds your comics, and slides into the shell. The net effect: comic boxes you can stack six rows high, while still letting you access any one of them just by pulling on the handle of the appropriate “drawer”.

As soon as I saw Rich demonstrate the drawer boxes at Comic-Con about a decade ago, I knew I needed to put in a large order to store my 50,000+ comic book collection. In the years since, the boxes have shown remarkable durability with near daily use, and they’ve–well, I was about to write “saved me countless hours”–but the real real truth is “made it possible” to work sensibly with my comic collection. Simply put, there’s no way I’d be able to keep a collection of this size–or even a tenth of the size–in any sort of order if I couldn’t easily get to any comic in question without needing to constantly rearrange and restack boxes.

Instead of having a nicely organized collection where I can access any comic in 30 seconds or less, I’d have long ago tired of the sheer work or lifting boxes out of each other’s way and started dumping all my new comics at the end in a set of “to be filed” boxes. From there, it’s a short step toward, “well, I think that comic’s in here someplace” which inexorably leads to, “man, do I have a problem here!” Because let’s face it–not being able to quickly lay your hands on an item in a large collection is virtually identical to not having that item at all.

The sheer density that the Drawer Boxes afford is remarkable. All 57,000 of my books (and counting!) can be stored in two “aisles” (one against a wall, the other with back-to-back drawer boxes, like the way you’d store books in a library) in my two-car  garage. The boxes are just five high, allowing me to easily reach any comic without a ladder, and I can store other assorted shipping boxes and other garage foo on top of the boxes as well.

Are there any downsides? Well, the initial investment–around $10/box plus shipping–less if purchased in pallet quantities–seems considerable. But it’s negligible when considered in light of the comics they hold, or the long, tortuous hours moving boxes around in order to access your collection that they save you from having to cope with.

The two major pieces of advice I’d give to someone considering Drawer Boxes to hold their collection would be to:

  1. Absolutely use the “box locks” (plastic fasteners which can hold a row of boxes together–it not only solves any potential tipping issues, but also makes a massive difference in the stability and longevity of the boxes. Yes, it’s a pain to install them (After a lot of practice I average about a minute a box to get the four locks snapped together), but it’s absolutely crucial if you want things to hold up over the long term.
  2. Do everything you can to ensure the straightness of your stacks, and to protect the ends of the stacks from tipping or getting off center. Most of the load-bearing strength of the shells is in the verticals, and it’s important to keep those aligned with each other (again the box locks help here greatly). Beyond that, there’s the danger of tipping: Stacking your boxes against, or between two walls is the obvious answer, but for times when you need to leave a stack open, I’ve found that box-locking groups of four or more boxes at the end ensures that the whole thing can’t move or tip.

If you’ve got a serious comic collection and haven’t tried Drawer Boxes, I’d strongly urge you to give them a shot. Due to the weights involved (they’re made of heavy-duty corrugated cardboard which isn’t the lightest thing in the world), expect to take a hit on shipping unless you’re lucky enough to live near a reseller who carries them. If not, my advice would be to contact Collection Drawer Company directly and put in a large order–enough to justify freight shipping–as it’ll dramatically cut down on the overall cost vs. smaller shipments which would go out via UPS.

You can reach Collection Drawer Company at www.collectiondrawer.com or just give them a call at 303.368.7873. Rich and his crew are a great bunch, and they’ll take good care of you.

 

The Analog Studio Fire Sale

music_gear

When our house in San Jose didn’t immediately sell when we put in on the market, I decided to take the heartbreaking step of demolishing the 3-room recording studio I’d painstakingly built in my garage, restoring it to a plain-old two-car garage. Whether due to chance, or (I prefer to think) since it opened up my home as a potential purchase to folks who had no idea what they’d do with a recording studio, the home sold soon afterward.

Although Carolyn and I definitely worked hard to cull the herd of our possessions before making the move to our new home near Nashville, most of my former studio gear made the trip–even though I don’t have a studio in the new house. As I try to piece together my new office and work area, however, I’m starting to think that I made a mistake in hauling most of the analog studio gear across the country.

Starting tomorrow, everything from my treasured 32-channel Mackie mixing board, to my vintage Kawaii R-100 drum machine, to a rack full of effects processors is going up on eBay. And my old studio furniture–custom-designed for my control room–is heading for the dump. The mere thought of doing this is killing me, but I’m increasingly convinced it has to be done.

Music Gear vs. Technology: Fight!

Whereas classic instruments and microphones can hold or even increase in value over time, the same is almost never true of electronics. Many a musician gets a thrill playing with the controls of an original Linn drum machine, or listening to unforgettable sounds of a Roland D-50 or Korg M1 synthesizer. But now, modern musicians can simply load up the sounds and characteristics of these old pieces of gear into their DAW (digital audio workstation) instead of maintaining a private museum of vintage gear.

My rackmounted effect units weathered the test of time even less well. The effect processing powers have improved massively in the past many years, to the point where even famous effects–e.g. a Lexicon reverb–can no longer compete with the algorithms and processing that powers a modern computer-based DAW.

Perhaps more to the point, my analog effect units are starting to no longer fit into the modern recording process.

Most older rackmount effect units typically processed analog signals (such as the input from a microphone or guitar), giving out an altered signal (i.e. adding reverb) over the rack effect’s (analog) outputs. If you wanted multiple effect processing on a signal–e.g. adding a delay, some reverb, and a chorus effect to a guitar tone, mixing it in with the bass and drums, then routing the result a compressor to smooth out the dynamics of the resulting mix–you’d accomplish all this by patching the whole signal chain through numerous effect units, effects returns, and submixes, adding a little bit of distortion each time the signal had to be converted between analog and digital.

In the modern world, once a signal is digitized, it’s typically processed entirely in the digital realm, where it’s immune to the noise that comes with analog combining, as well as multiple trips between the analog and digital worlds. Instead of chaining together several rack units using patch cables, a DAW lets you create a virtual patch bay allows the musician to chain together as many digital effects as they want, while keeping the resultant output entirely digital–right up to the time it’s mixed, mastered, and pressed on CD or distributed over the internet.

In a world where you can do all this digitally, why use analog effect units at all? Possibly the best reason comes down to the ease of doing a simple effects chain by just plugging in cables and twisting knobs. But when sound quality is critical, or the effects chain gets complex, digital wins hands down. My old rackmount effects have some good tricks up their sleeve, but at some point they become John Henry working against an infinite number of steam shovels.

In a new home, without a dedicated performance room and control room, I’ve got to be able to do the entire recording and performance job in a relatively compact space. Switching entirely to a digital recording chain just seems to make the most sense at this point, even though I’ll definitely miss the immediacy and tactility of working with dedicated sound and effect units vs. the rather abstract nature of a DAW.

So, it’s with real sadness that I’m preparing to bid farewell with what are truly some of my most cherished possessions. If you’re the sort of person who loves classic gear, check out eBay in the weeks ahead for some real bargains.

 

Viva NashVegas!

nashvegas

After weeks of pulling box after box out of POD storage container after POD storage container (6 in all!), we are now officially moved to our new home just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

I’ll likely be living in the midst of U-Haul and comic book boxes for several weeks yet, and a small army of contractors are just now wrapping up the initial work to install the myriad data cables and electric runs our masses of computer and studio gear requires. It’s been back-breaking work (including the moving and stacking of some 320 comic book boxes comprising my 50,000+ comic collection!) but I think I see some cracks of daylight at the end of the tunnel.

As far as the town goes, I am becoming mightily impressed with the Nashville area, and Tennessee in general. The music scene is beyond belief–I even managed to take in a couple of shows already (including She Wants Revenge at Exit/In–a legendary nightspot in town).

Tennessee’s a beautiful place to be sure, but probably the most striking thing is how darn friendly everyone is. I’m even on a first name basis with most of the checkout staff at the local Home Depot…although the fact that I’ve been in there 3 times a day for the past month may have something to do with that.

But despite all the chaos, I am managing to type this on an actual computer, on an actual desk (instead of the the “laptop at Starbucks with the ever-colder coffee next to me” routine I’ve spent the past month with), and with any luck, I should be able to make some forward progress on some of the bigger projects I’ve had to sideline since we started the effort to sell our house move some seven months ago. So Viva, NashVegas–I’m really looking forward to all the adventures you have in store for me!

Lighting Out for the Territories

(Both classic and modern allusions in headline)

After 26 years in California, my family decided it was time for a new adventure. So we sold our house, and last Sunday all piled in my Ford Escape and rolled out of our driveway in San Jose for the last time on a one-way trip across America–most likely ending around Nashville, TN–from where I’m writing this post in a local Starbucks.

Carolyn’s been blogging our moving adventures over at her blog (daftmusings.com) — so check it out if you’d like lots of color commentary on the Great Bickford Road Trip (including all the weird things we ate at the Texas State Fair–fried Jello, anyone?)

In the meantime, we’ve had a great time seeing old friends as we made our way across the southwest, through Texas, and now, Tennessee. We’ll be looking at houses tonight and tomorrow with the very nice realtor who introduced us to Nashville Hot Chicken, and will likely be settling down if we can make something happen here and all the other factors work out right. At least, that’s “Plan A”.

“Plan B?” Well, it’s a big, amazing country with a lot of wonderful people and places in it. And I have to admit, it’s sort of thrilling to have all the possibilities wide open. I’ll do my best to keep everyone updated as things develop…

Control Through Fear

It seems as we approach the election, that the favored strategy of the media–once again–is to try to excuse one deplorable candidate’s innumerable faults by peddling the story that at least they’re not as SCARY as the other candidate.

Is your favored candidate a lifelong Washington power-broker who’s voted or connived to start multiple wars? For the media, this presents no problem: All they have to do is simply never mention any of those annoying facts (which they once proudly touted as hallmarks of their candidate’s “smart” foreign policy), while repeatedly running red-faced pictures of the opponent accompanied by half-baked conjecture on how he might send the world straight to nuclear armageddon with his “overheated rhetoric”… about, uh, Mexicans, or fat beauty queens, or the Russians which… uh… he’s apparently too friendly with.

I mean, crazy friendly. You know, like “start-a-war” friendly.

<Shudder!>

But seriously, folks, this stuff is nuts. And I can’t believe that not only are many otherwise perfectly sensible people playing along with it, but that they also bought it every four years going back to at least Reagan, if not earlier.

Look, anyone who knows me well knows that I regard this election as absolute horror show. There is literally nobody in the race who even remotely represents my point of view*. That said, at the end of the day, most of us are going to hold our noses and vote for the person we consider the least-bad of the bunch. But that doesn’t mean we have to simultaneously parrot the media’s insane talking points about how weally, weally scawwy the other guy is.

As it turns out, no matter who wins, the shocking truth is that:

  • No one’s illegal immigrant gardener is going to be put in a cattle car and sent to the gas chambers. Even if they did overwater the roses.
  • The president stands no risk at all of accidentally punching the “nuclear button” because they forgot to say “half-caf” when ordering that double-espresso.
  • And no, women are not going to be “put in binders” or forced to use coat hangers for anything other than hanging clothes; and blacks are not going to be all “put back in chains” or hunted to extinction by legions of racist cops.

This is all, as they say, nonsense on stilts. But I can’t believe how many times I’ve heard the same conversations repeated earnestly at bars, in checkout lines, or on Facebook.

C’mon folks. Let’s change things up this (miserable) election and at least not embarrass ourselves by pretending the world works like any of that. Frankly, the folks in the press pushing these fairy stories are treating us with absolute contempt. Wouldn’t it be nice if for once we returned the favor instead of credulously playing along.

Hey, I can dream, right?


*I’m basically a John F. Kennedy Democrat–whose pro-business policies of lower taxes, free markets, and consistent support of human rights and freedom around the world, enabled by a muscular but restrained military– would mark both of us as troglodyte, fascist, Nazi mouth-breathers in today’s crazy political landscape.