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Free VPN that seems to work (so far)


When I first started shopping for VPN services some years ago, there was a sleaziness involved. VPN providers seemed to be located in countries that we don’t trust, the kind of countries that Internet scammers work out of. The targeted customers for VPN service seemed to be criminal types with a great deal to hide, as opposed to law-abiding but security-conscious computer users like me. Two or three years ago, I signed up with a U.S.-based VPN provider. But about eight months ago, after I started using HughesNet’s satellite service as my Internet provider, I had to stop using VPN. For some reason, satellite latency makes VPN protocols so slow that they become unusable.

Recently I discovered a new VPN provider, WindScribe. It’s a Canadian company. If we can’t trust Canadians, then whom can we trust?

WindScribe offers two types of VPN. One is a VPN tunnel that encrypts all traffic through your computer. Unfortunately, that’s as slow and useless as any other VPN service on a satellite connection like mine. But WindScribe also has browser plug-ins for Chrome, FireFox, and Opera. I’m using the FireFox plug-in, and it is acceptably fast. The browser plug-ins encrypt and anonymize only the traffic through your web browser, which is enough for me.

You can get either type of VPN service free from WindScribe if you don’t use much data. If you give them an email address, then you get 10 GB free per month. If you don’t give them an email address, then you get only 2 GB per month. The paid service, which is unlimited data billed annually, is reasonably priced. I may upgrade to that after I’ve tried out the free service a bit longer.

Everyone should use a VPN service! Here’s a recent article on why.

Two portraits, 35 years apart



Click for high resolution version

I went on a road trip to Asheville earlier this week, and while I was there I shot portraits of my oldest friend, whom I have known for almost 50 years. I shot the earlier portrait, below, around 1984. It was shot with a Yashica camera, medium format. The new portrait was shot with my Mamiya RB67 film camera.

Nature is not fair when she gives out good looks. Some people have all the luck. But if you take care of yourself and live an artist’s life, it’s remarkable how nature’s gifts will stay with you.


Oh no. More low-end grocery stores.


I went into a Lidl store for the first time yesterday. I had no idea what it is, any more than I knew what an Aldi store is the first (and last) time I went into one. I was shocked that this is the way the grocery business is going — extremely wide aisles, not much choice, and sorry looking stuff.

However, I was not too proud to help myself to the 49-cent avocados, which surely were a loss leader. As I waited at the checkout, I noticed a big sign that says, “Carefully curated for you.” That, of course, means that they don’t have everything. It means that they have only what they can sell for cheap.

Thanks, but I don’t want my groceries “curated” for cheapness. Granted, a Lidl store might be a good thing for people who increasingly buy their groceries at stores like Dollar General, which have no fresh food. Lidl does seem to have fast-moving produce, even if it’s not the best quality.

Now I’m even more concerned about the future of Whole Foods. And I wish I liked gardening a whole lot more than I actually do. Especially during the summer, when the sun is hot and the weeds are vigorous, I’m a kitchen creature, not a garden creature.

Even crummy tips aren’t safe from Republican taking


We recently learned that Trump’s labor department wants to change the rules so that restaurant tips would belong to restaurant owners rather than servers. Here’s a link to a story in the Guardian, “Restaurants have no right to take employees’ tips.”

The cruelty of this is just business as usual for the Republican Party. And for some reason, working people who vote for Republicans still don’t get it.

Who in the world would be willing to put up with what waiters and waitresses put up with for the pathetic federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour? If this Republican rule goes into effect, waiters and waitresses will leave their jobs in droves. Maybe the bigger, more profitable restaurant chains would be able to buy robots to do the job.

We should simply stop tipping if this happens. That’s more or less the way it works in France. American restaurants would have to rethink their prices and wages. In France, you can still leave a tip if you want to. But my understanding of the proposed Republican regulation is that it would be seen as stealing if a waiter or waitress received a tip but didn’t turn it over to management.

Robots and inequality



Amazon’s new automated store in Seattle. Source: Wikipedia


Trump voters and consumers of Fox News are having the time of their lives these days, glorying in how their big man is sticking it to liberals, immigrants, and brown-skinned people. They actually feel safer, now that a con man is in the White House who feeds them what they want to hear.

Meanwhile, their world is about to go even deeper down the rat hole. The right-wing media will see to it that they won’t know what hit them.

For decades now, the 1 percent have been raking in most of the gains, while working people’s share of wealth and income shrink. Working people really don’t understand just how rich the global rich really are. Still, inequality has reached politically dangerous levels. The rich know that the political danger is rising, but so far the rich have been successful at using their media and their political control to misdirect the growing economic discontent. The rich would much rather have fascism in America than European-style democratic socialism. The Trump era, with its demonization of government, its propagandization of the population, and its packaging of the rich people’s agenda as heartland populism, reveals to us how the rich intend to keep their gains and keep on bamboozling the losers.

Meanwhile, the liberal media are trying to warn us that a new wave of economic upward redistribution is about to hit working people: robots. In the New Yorker, we have “Amazon’s New Supermarket Could Be Grim News for Human Workers.” The Guardian writes: “Robots will take our jobs. We’d better plan now, before it’s too late.” Even a business-oriented industry publication writes: “From robots to smart mirrors, the world of retail will look like a very different place in 2030.”

While robots take jobs from humans at an accelerating pace, the intent of the Republican Party is to go right on cutting the safety net for working people, while cutting taxes on the rich and shifting taxes to lower-income people.

Republicans can’t say they weren’t warned. Policy think tanks such as the Brookings Institution have published report after report about where inequality is leading and how inequality endangers democracy. But Republicans don’t care about policy (or democracy) anymore. The Republican project is simply to enact the rich people agenda.

With the right kind of enlightened public policy, this country might be able to survive the coming wave of jobs lost to robots. But I have no hope of that ever happening unless justice catches up with Donald Trump and a whole lot of Republicans go to prison for their crimes. We’re still seeing only the shark’s fin above the surface of the water, but leak by leak it’s becoming pretty clear who those criminals are. The guilty are using increasingly dangerous and desperate tactics to evade justice. What blows my mind is that about 35 percent of the American population — economic losers, almost all of them — feel safer than ever during one of the most dangerous times in American history.

Britannia season 1


I am five episodes into Britannia season 1. This was a must-watch for me, since I am particularly interested in the history of the Romans’ clash with the Celtic world.

As for the history, the writers of Britannia seem to have stuck to the basic outline of what Roman history recorded. Everything else is imagined. The year is 43 A.D., 17 years before Queen Boudica’s uprising against the Roman occupation in 60 A.D.

The series has not been getting very good reviews. One reviewer said that it is “crazy as a box of frogs.” There is much to be said for that. My own view is that the Celts and druids were not nearly as wild and barbaric as they are depicted here. Celtic art, for example, and Celtic technology including ships, wagons, and chariots, were plenty sophisticated. Many of the druids spoke Greek. When the Gaulish druid Divitiacus went to Rome and spoke to the Senate around 60 B.C., by no means did he make a fool of himself. Cicero was impressed by Divitiacus’ knowledge of astronomy and natural philosophy. But in Britannia, the druids are half-mad, drugged-out bone-rattlers. They are sinister and ugly, as opposed to the kind of elite caste who left us the Brehon laws. And nothing has been said so far about Celtic music. How could they leave that out?

In many ways, this series defames the Celts and druids. Whether it lionizes Rome remains to be seen.

Still, the series is very pretty to watch, with great locations (though many locations, filmed in the Czech Republic, don’t look much like southern England). The scripts and dialogue are smart. The situations are unpredictable. Except for the Kerra character, all the Celts have bad hair, which I suspect is a trend started by the Vikings series.

I’m not exactly recommending this series, but if you have Amazon Prime, it’s worth streaming an episode or two and checking it out.

Flu shots?



Wikipedia

Each winter, the media bombard us with articles telling us to get a flu shot. Here’s a typical headline: “The flu vaccine is only about 30% effective but you should get it anyway.”

No thanks. I’ll do my own calculus on whether to get a flu shot.

Those of us who avoid vaccinations are regularly told that we’re being anti-science. “Anti-vaxxers” are often mentioned as the left-wing equivalent of right-wing climate-change deniers. But I would argue that there is room for rational individual calculus about whether to get flu vaccines. The calculus is not the same for everyone, though. The adult calculus is different than the calculus for children. And the calculus is different for, say, smallpox (mortality rate 30 percent) than influenza (less than 1 percent to around 2 percent, keeping in mind that mortality from the H5N1 bird flu is much higher but is not known to be transmitted from human to human).

From the public health perspective, the calculus supports “herd immunity.” The idea is that even a vaccine that is only 30 percent effective will reduce the overall number of flu cases and hospitalizations. Assuming the vaccines themselves are safe (which I don’t necessarily assume), then that public-health calculus makes sense.

However, from an individual perspective, the calculus may look different.

For those who work in hospitals, or at grocery store checkouts, or on airplanes, or who have children in school — people who are constantly and unavoidably exposed to other people and their germs — the individual calculus almost surely would support getting a flu shot.

But I mostly stay home during flu season. When I do go out, I try to avoid rush times, to minimize the number of people I encounter. I keep my distance from people, especially if someone is coughing or sneezing. I watch what I touch. I wash my hands. I keep little towels in my pockets and in the car.

I do acknowledge that we as individuals have an ethical responsibility — even to others — to keep ourselves healthy. If we have something that’s contagious, we have an ethical responsibility not to spread it. Those of us who refuse the flu vaccine are told that we’re making ourselves more dangerous to ourselves and others, that avoiding vaccinations is antisocial and antagonistic toward public health. That is no doubt true with diseases that are highly contagious and when vaccines are available that are known to be safe and effective. (We are told that the mercury preservative in some vaccines is safe. Do I have to believe that?)

But if I avoid getting the flu, and if I therefore don’t help the flu spread by giving the flu to someone else, then my argument would be that I have met my ethical responsibility to others and that I am not harming pubic health. I also would argue that my no-vaccine, minimal-contact method of avoiding the flu is more than 30 percent effective, is rational, and is aware of the science.

It has been 25 years since I’ve had the flu. So far so good.

Railway project #1



Click here for high-resolution version


Here’s my down payment on the railway project that I described in the previous post. I used Google Earth to find the spot where the railway line crosses the Dan River north of Walnut Cove, North Carolina. That spot is about 12 miles from the abbey. I was delighted to see from the Google Earth satellite image that the bridge is a truss bridge, with short trestles on the approaches. Truss bridges were very common from the late 19th Century up until the 1930s or so. I suspect this bridge dates from the 1930s.

The photo above is a digital photo taken with my Nikon camera. I had the film camera with me, but getting to the bridge required parking the Jeep and hiking more than two miles in and out. I don’t have a backpack for the film camera yet, so it was too awkward and heavy to carry. I plan to go back and shoot this spot later with the film camera.

Below is the Google Earth satellite image of the bridge.

What can we learn from railway maps?



A coal train near Cotton Hill, West Virginia. Source: Jason Bostic, Flickr


As I mentioned recently, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to go on more hiking and picture-taking expeditions. When I made the resolution, I was vaguely aware that I wanted to focus on the Appalachian highlands. But I also wanted to get a bit more order and purpose into it — that is, to make a project out of it.

I think my plan is to follow the coal.

About 15 miles away, at Belews Creek, North Carolina, is the Belews Creek Steam Station, a coal-fired generating plant operated by Duke Energy. The plant burns massive amounts of coal and produces massive amounts of coal ash. The environmental consequences of this are a whole different story. But that whole different story also figures into my political and environmental activities in these parts. But back to the coal.

The coal that feeds the Belews Creek Steam Station comes from (where else?) West Virginia. The coal gets here from West Virginia on very long and very heavy coal trains. The route the coal trains follow is not hard to figure out using Google Earth and other online sources. The train line’s path from the steam station to West Virginia runs like this: Belews Creek (North Carolina), Madison, Stoneville, Martinsville (Virginia), Ferrum, Rocky Mount, Roanoke, Christiansburg, Ripplemead, Narrows, Princeton (West Virginia), and thence into a complex network of rail lines that bring coal out of the West Virginia mountains.

Railways (and trains) are remarkably photogenic. Most railway lines were built many decades ago. They tend to follow rivers, traveling through wild places to link old industrial cities. Their routes show us where industry was concentrated back in the days when the U.S. had industry.

So the photographic project I’m proposing for myself is to follow the coal train from Belews Creek (North Carolina) to Kopperston (West Virginia) or thereabouts. Such a project would take time — a couple of years, probably — with each segment requiring a separate road trip.

We’ll see!

If you’re interested in looking at railway lines in Google Earth (railway lines in the U.S., anyway) then with this link, you can find .kmz files for Google Earth. When loaded into Google Earth, the files draw the routes of the railways in Google Earth for most American railway lines. If you click on a railway, you can see who owns it, plus a bit of the railway’s history.

The Google Earth screen shot below shows the Belews Creek Steam Station (circled in red); the little town of Walnut Cove (circled in green); and the route the coal train follows toward Roanoke, Virginia (the red arrow). This train line dates back to 1889 and now belongs to Norfolk Southern Railway.

I plan to start shooting at Walnut Cove and the Belews Creek Steam Station and then, over time, work my way toward the coal mines of West Virginia. Following the train lines with Google Earth should help me zoom in on the most photogenic areas.

Ursula Le Guin


After the death of Ursula K. Le Guin this week, it was heartwarming to see so many beautiful eulogies and obituaries. Rarely is a fantasy and science fiction writer accorded so much respect in the mainstream. I can add very little, except to say that in addition to her fiction, she was a fine essayist and advocate for the science fiction and fantasy genres. It’s out of print now (and expensive), but I highly recommend her 1982 book The Language Of The Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction.

On a more personal note, Amazon sales of my novels spiked yesterday and today. I had a busy day, and I didn’t have time until this evening to try to figure out what might have caused the spike in sales. Then I figured it out. I owe it to Ursula Le Guin. I run ads for my books on Amazon. The ads are displayed when someone searches for certain terms. For each of my books, I have 100 to 200 search terms. For as long as I’ve been running Amazon ads (going on two years), by far the search term that sells the most books for me is “Ursula Le Guin.” People who read Le Guin seem to like my books. Obviously many people have been buying Le Guin’s books this week. In searching for her books, they came across mine. I don’t claim to be in Le Guin’s league, but I do think we are kindred spirits — heretics, take us or leave us.

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin, not only for your books, but for having helped my sales. I’m not sure how to return the favor, but I think the least I can do is to write your publisher begging them to reprint The Language of the Night.

If you haven’t read Le Guin, I’d recommend starting with The Left Hand of Darkness. It was outrageously head of its time, first published in 1969.