Friday, July 20, 2018

Digital Privacy: Do we really need to care?

In this post, I'll be going over a topic which has already been receiving lots of media attention lately: Digital Privacy.

At this point, dear reader, there's a high likelihood that you will have heard almost all of the arguments. However, some of you won't have, and others still may not fully grasp their significance. So I'd like to take this opportunity to go over these arguments one last time, to spread some more clarity if I can.

Why the "Nothing to hide" argument doesn't hold water

Let's start with this, a quote that I'm sure many of you will have heard at one point or another:

Edward Snowden in 2013.
"Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say."

This quote is often used as a bit of an intellectual gimme in an argument. Thrown out into the chaos, out of context, in an attempt to end the conversation right there, without really expanding on it. But this quote deserves more than that, and if you examine it for just a moment then you start to understand what Snowden is really saying.

It's all too easy to say, "Irrelevant! Just because I care about the right to free speech doesn't mean I care if people see what I do online." While to some this may sound like a fair argument, it, too, doesn't hold water.

The quote from Snowden isn't trying to point out that you care about this or that. It's discussing our rights. Universal human rights, defined by the UN.

Let's just look at the first part of the quote for a second here. Let's say you have something you want to say, and a friend who has nothing they particularly want to say. Your friend says that they have nothing they want to say, so they don't care about the right to free speech. Their apathy regarding the right to free speech, and the apathy of others, then eventually leads into you not being allowed to speak out. It doesn't matter that you have a right to free speech - you now aren't allowed to say it.

Would you really hold no ill will towards your friend for not caring about an erosion of everyone's right to free speech in your country, just because they didn't have anything they felt they wanted to say at that point in time?

It's at this point, Snowden's quote should become a little clearer. It doesn't matter if you don't have anything you want to hide. You have a basic right to privacy. If this right is being eroded in front of your very eyes, you should be feeling as angry as if the attack were on any of your other basic rights.

Whether you think of it in such terms or not, there are things you hold private to you

The issue goes further than this, of course. Regardless of what people may say, everyone tends to have some things they'd like to hide. They're just not thought about when discussions of digital privacy come up. Indeed, they're unconsciously assumed to be private, and left at that.

Let's take some extreme examples, for the purposes of illustration.

If you have nothing to hide, then I suppose you have no problem with giving anyone who asks for it your phone, unlocked, to read aloud to everyone (significant other, ex-boyfriend/-girlfriend, psychotic coworkers you gossip about, etc.) about everything they find on there? Or, wait, is there anything on your phone (anything at all) that you want to not be easily accessible to anyone else?

A place I'd like to think of as private.
If you have nothing to hide, it would of course be just fine for cameras to be installed in your shower/toilet/bathroom, streaming footage to the world. You have nothing to hide, right? So you obviously don't care about this. Or, wait, do you maybe feel like there are some parts of the house where, even if you have nothing to hide, you'd still prefer to remain private?

If you have nothing to hide, then you've obviously never told anyone anything in confidence, with the implicit understanding that the two (or more) of you will keep this information just between you. Indeed, there's nothing "wrong" with these secrets, so it would be just fine if everyone knew everything you were thinking, right?

Secrets such as: How even if you enjoy your best friend's company, there are things they do which you absolutely can't stand. How you're very attracted to a co-worker, even if you'd do nothing to act on it due to already having a significant other. How you're considering divorce with your spouse, though you'd prefer to see if you can work it all out first. There's nothing inherently "wrong" with any of these thoughts, so surely it's fine for everyone (spouse, coworkers, family, friends, and all) to know about them, right? Or, wait, are there thoughts you have which make you think, "hmm, best to keep that to myself/just between me and my friend"?

Extreme though these examples may seem, I'm hoping they open your eyes to a simple idea: Even if you don't normally think of them in this way, there are always certain places, certain thoughts, certain things, which most people take for granted as private.

Note, particularly, how people will react if you try to look over their shoulder to read their messages aloud. Chances are high that there's nothing "wrong", and particularly nothing unlawful, in what they're discussing with other people. And yet, most people still have an immediate reaction to block your view, or otherwise move so that you can't see. Why? Because it doesn't matter that what's on the phone is "just digital".

Our phones, our lives in the cloud - most people still naturally gravitate to the idea that, unless we're posting to a public forum, then what we do "out there" should be private between ourselves and other people we're specifically talking to.

A note about metadata

Some companies or agencies try to get out of their collection of people's data by saying they're "only" collecting metadata. To understand why this argument doesn't fly either, let's quickly cover what metadata is, and why getting access to your metadata without your consent is still bad.

First, for those who aren't aware, metadata is "data about data". For example, if you had a call with a friend, then the data/content would be the call itself - i.e, what you and your friend said to each other. The metadata, then, is data such as: how long the call lasted, who you called, your location when you made the call, etc. Basically, everything except the content itself. So, if it doesn't include the content, then why worry?

Well, consider the following examples, from an excellent 2013 Gizmodo article on Why the Metadata the NSA Has on You Matters:
  • They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don't know what you talked about.
  • They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
  • They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don't know what was discussed.
  • They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
  • They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood's number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.

Truthfully, with enough of it, metadata is as powerful as the contents that go with it. If this isn't enough to convince you that "just metadata" is fine, then consider this: If there's no real value to be gained from it, then why do some agencies or companies insist so strongly on at least getting a hold of your metadata in the first place?

Why is this such a tricky topic?

I'm personally glad that there's so much discussion recently around online privacy, even if it's unfortunate that most of the recent discussions have been started due to massive breaches. Why am I glad? Because it's an incredibly tricky problem to fix, and discussing it so people gain an understanding of what is happening is the first step towards a good, long-term solution.

The most combative argument against keeping our privacy online is often one of national security. I.e, intelligence agencies need access to our every move, message, thought, to help them catch terrorists. Unfortunately, while many people accept this as a necessary evil, there's actually very little evidence that mass-surveillance efforts do much at all to help in anti-terrorism measures (see "Further Links" at the end of this post for more good articles on this topic specifically).

Note that we're not talking about an investigation into a crime or terrorist act, where I do believe that those in charge should be able to use everything in their power to perform a targeted search for the criminal or terrorists who committed the act. No, we're talking about using mass surveillance to try and guess what will happen before it happens - which, as per recent research (discussed further in the aforementioned articles) is largely ineffective, especially when compared to more conventional methods of investigation which do catch many terrorists before the act, in spite of (not because of) mass-surveillance.

Then there's the issue of the Privacy Paradox. Simply put, this is the paradox where, despite many people caring about the issue of online privacy, most people act online as if they don't care. For example, people who say they care about privacy still go ahead and post publicly about things which (in retrospect) they wish that certain people (exes, prospective employers, etc.) couldn't have access to, and a lot of the time don't even bother doing something as simple as checking the privacy settings on their social media accounts.

How do we resolve this paradox? I have no idea. Even attempts to put privacy controls front and centre for users to check over are normally scrolled or clicked past as quickly by users who say they care about their privacy as those who say they don't.

What does this all lead to?

I don't think we're going to get an easy answer to all this any time soon. But as mentioned, I'm still glad we're having this conversation at all. We need to figure out what we as a society will allow, and what we won't.

The decisions we make - both the ones made purposefully, and the ones we let others make for us due to our own apathy - will pave the way for our collective future. Let's try to make those decisions good ones.

Further Links

Sunday, November 6, 2016

DIY Small Raised Fairy Garden Bed

Fairy garden/forest, a year and a half later (see update at bottom of post)
We’ve built several large raised garden beds at our current house (and a guide on how to build one of these will be put up at some point in the future), mostly for our own fruit and vegetable crops. What we haven’t done, however, is create our own fairy garden… until recently.

This is a quick, simple, and generalised step-by-step guide with photos on how to create your own fairy garden amongst a proper (if a little small) raised garden bed containing a few useful plants. The intention is that this can be followed step-by-step as-is, or be used as a “jumping off point” for creating a raised fairy garden bed using (possibly vastly) different materials.

Choosing a Spot

Our chosen spot for the fairy garden.
We recently got a family of ducks and ducklings (this may seem unrelated, but bear with me, it had an impact on where we decided to put this new garden bed). While they’re still getting used to us, learning to trust us, they’re confined to their cage at night, and an outside fenced enclosure measuring about 10 sq. metres with a pond throughout the day. In future though, we’d like to let them be free-ranging on our property during the day.

A few of the items we put (and will be putting in future) in the fairy garden are fragile, and if the ducks wandered through this garden bed on their search for tasty snails and insects, they may accidentally break some of the items.

Of course, they may decide the vegetables in our vegie gardens are too good to pass up, too. As such, we already have plans to fence off the area around the vegie garden before letting the ducks roam free. Due to this, we decided to put the new garden bed in the area which will eventually become fenced-off, and hence become safe from webbed feet.

After this decision, we still had to decide where to place the new garden bed in the area which would become fenced off. We ended up deciding that the garden bed can sit against an old wattle tree to act as its fourth wall, and for added ambiance.

To generalise, choosing a spot should be a matter of finding somewhere not too far from the house (so you can enjoy it easily), and if applicable, somewhere pets are unlikely to find themselves amongst the garden bed if there are fragile items being used for decoration.

What You'll Need

As mentioned at the beginning of this guide, this is intended to be a general guide, including a broad method for how we created our particular garden bed. So I won’t be giving exact numbers and measurements, just the materials you’ll need in general, and the materials we used as a guide.
  • Walls. We used old wooden planks from around the property. You can do the same, or find something else to use. Logs, bricks, or even buy some simple untreated planks from your local hardware store if there’s nothing you can use for free.
  • Something to hold the walls up. If you’re using thicker materials such as logs or bricks which hold themselves up when under pressure, this may not be necessary. However as we used planks, we used “star-steels” (a.k.a. “star-steel pickets”) to hold the walls up, both for their structural stability, and re-usability over a long time period. You could just as easily use simple wooden stakes, rocks, or anything else to hold the walls up, as long as it’s stable and safe once it’s all put together.
  • Soil. As this is going to be a home for living plants (not just the fairy garden decorations), there needs to be something for the plants to live in. You can usually use soil from elsewhere in the garden, but since we live in an area of very poor soil, we had to buy bags of soil from a local Bunnings.
  • Plants. We used Lawn Chamomile (a medicinal ground cover no taller than 10cm's, which smells faintly of apple), Wooly Thyme (a ground cover and culinary herb, which is also anti-microbial, and useful as a highly-effective gargle), and Yarrow (a wound-healing herb, which also attracts bees). They are all medicinal in their own ways, and all edible.
  • Fairy-themed decorations. Doors, stepping stones, mushrooms/toadstools, whatever you want as decorations. Have fun with this dot point in particular – after all, isn't that the point?
In terms of the plants chosen, you could pick plants which would just look good amongst fairy-themed decorations, plants which are purely functional, or possibly plants you haven’t had room to plant elsewhere. The only advice I might give is to make sure the plants you choose aren’t poisonous, as fairy gardens are a natural place for inquisitive little toddlers to gravitate towards. So safe (perhaps even edible and tasty) plants are a good place to start.

Having a general design in mind before you go out to find your materials may be wise, but that’s not to say that you can’t “wing” the design as you go. If you end up with a rather eclectic design due to no prior planning, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that as long as it all holds together in the end.

Putting it all together

You’ve chosen your spot, you’ve got your materials, and you have some semblance of an idea of how you’d like it all to look at the end. Now comes the fun part: the assembly.

Wherever your chosen location is, the first step is to put up the walls. How the walls go together depends largely on the materials you’ve chosen your walls to be made out of.

Since we used old slats and star-steels, we placed the slats on top of each other and used the star-steels to keep them upright. Note that the star-steels only need to be placed on the outside of the walls – this is because the walls will be held up from the inside by the soil, once it’s been added.

If there are any large holes in the wall, they will need blocking. Small holes aren’t often an issue as once the soil has settled it won’t escape very easily, but large holes have the potential to disrupt the soil and let it escape, especially after a heavy rain.

Whether or not you’ll have big holes in your wall depends largely on the location and materials used for the walls. We chose to place the raised garden against the old wattle because it can act as a fourth wall, and adds an ambiance to the garden bed which would be hard to replicate without it. But its twisted shape at ground level did mean we had to fill in a couple of big holes before continuing to the next step.

Once the walls are up, the next step is simple: Fill the bed with soil.
Whatever greenery you’ve chosen, now’s the time to plant them. While doing so, keep your design in mind so that you’re not displacing where the various fairy decorations were planned to end up.
Place your various fairy decorations in their intended locations.

If you don’t have all the decorations you’d ultimately like, don’t fret, neither do we. We’re planning lots more decorations to go in, and you too can add more decorations to your heart’s content in future. For now however, just place what you have.
You have now completed your own small raised fairy garden bed. Congratulations!

Design changes, and personal touches

This is a very simple design which lends itself nicely to alterations. I’ve aimed this design and these instructions at demonstrating how simple it can be, but fairy gardens are (and in my opinion, should be) highly personal, and/or collaborative with anyone else you’re creating it with. So if you’d prefer to use different materials for the structure, plant different greenery, change the locations or type of decorations, or even just decide to create a much bigger and grander fairy garden bed, go for it!

As for us, in future we’re planning on adding more decorations including (but not limited to) long benches for the table. From there, we’ll add more stepping stones leading to a fairy ring of mushrooms to help complete the current design. Possibly we’ll add stone creatures, possibly we may add other plants in the ground surrounding the bed, who knows?

I’ll try to add another photo at the end of this article, once the coming winter has passed and spring has arrived, to show any progress the plants in the fairy garden have made (not to mention display any additional decorations).

However you go about creating your own raised fairy garden bed, I wish you luck, and I hope you have fun creating it.

(Originally published, by me, on - 04/04/2015)

Update - 6th November, 2016

Well, it's been about a year and a half, and boy there's been some changes!

Unfortunately, we lost the Wooly Thyme when we were trusting a friend to water our garden for us in summer last year (mentioned in more detail in my Yule over Christmas post), but the Yarrow and Lawn Chamomile managed to survive, and have completely taken off since then.

See the following pictures (and captions) for yourself. We're actually now planning to have the fairy garden path go straight into the yarrow and chamomile, similar to a hidden path off into the forest.

Imagine searching through those plants and finding a hidden fairy path, complete with hidden fairy decorations. I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty appealing to me.

Fairy Forest - front view
Fairy Forest - top view
Lawn Chamomile up close
Yarrow up close
Fairy Forest

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why we chose Yule over Christmas

Our family has made a tough decision: in the future, we want to be as self-sufficient as we can. Completely, if possible.

This wasn't just a tough decision due to the responsibility that comes with managing a property with enough food and resources to feed, clothe, and house a family. But, due to us living in the southern hemisphere, there was an unexpected decision which needed serious consideration:
  1. Continue with seeing family and celebrating Christmas in Summer, or
  2. Move our celebrations to Yule. Which, in the southern hemisphere, is (of course) in Winter.

Why not just continue celebrating Christmas?

Our plans for self-sufficiency include keeping our own crops, livestock, even horses eventually. In summer, all of these will require multiple-times-daily attention.
Our three geese, when they were young.

If we're away, and our irrigation systems fail, there go our crops. If we get someone to water them, and they forget, there go our crops (which over the past four trips where we currently are, we've had happen twice).

As for the animals, same deal. We don't really trust any automated system to keep our animals alive for longer than a couple days, so we rely on friends to help out, and we pay them if we can't otherwise repay the favour. But what if that person then has a pressing engagement which means they can no longer look after the animals anymore, leaving us to scramble to find someone else, or cut our trip short and come home ourselves (which over the past four trips, we've had happen three times)?
Our geese a month later.
Just a few of our animals needing
our attention.

Maybe we've just had a string of bad luck. Hey, given how often something's gone wrong just for us stepping outside our door for longer than a couple days, it's highly likely. But short of hiring a professional, we've basically stopped trusting people to help out. Because while it's been relatively easy to deal with any of these issues while we're not relying on our harvests, the story would be very different in the future, when we are.

So then, can we really risk it? The idea of being away for a couple of weeks to visit family during Christmas, the same weeks that anyone we get or pay to look after the property will also be distracted by their own festivities?

But what else can you do?

To be honest, at first, there doesn't seem like much of a choice. It's Christmas, there's no option but to go, right?

Hauling a Yule Log (source: Wikipedia)
Yule, the pagan celebration on which Christmas is originally based on, occurs on December 21/22, depending on the year... in the northern hemisphere. For us in the southern hemisphere, however, it occurs in June. All the problems with leaving home during Summer I discussed above are practically non-existent at that time of year.

Trees and crops are either sleeping or not planted yet, with watering sorted in the form of Winter rains. Animals also aren't at any risk of overheating. Long trips away still require organising for someone to check on the animals, but it could be every second day, just to make sure they haven't tipped over their water containers and such.

And when Christmas rolls around, the time of year in the southern hemisphere where crops and animals really need the most attention, we'll actually be around to give that attention to them, personally.

How it's going to work for us

Here's the plan.

In the two to four weeks around Yule (depending on each year), we'll still need someone we trust in the community to look after our property, coming around a few times a week to refill food and water containers, and generally check that everything's okay. If possible, it can be a quid-pro-quo situation, where if they do it for us, we'll do it for them for Christmas. Otherwise, we'll have to pay someone, but as it doesn't require visiting multiple times each day, it won't be anywhere near as expensive.

During these weeks, we visit each of our family's. If possible, we organise a get-together at someone's house and hang out for a week or more together. If not, we spend at least a few days at each family member's house to see them personally.

If they still have work, we still visit, accept that they'll be away during the day (maybe go see a local site or two), and help out each night so that we can enjoy the company of each other. Snuggle in against the cold weather with hot drinks and good cheer.

On the night of Yule itself, whoever we're with can take part in some traditional Yule celebrations with us, if they feel like it.

Basically, we see everyone in our family, personally, over an extended time. And, when Summer rolls around, we're home to look after our land and animals. Exactly as it should be during the hottest time of the year.

The downsides of this tact

If there are indeed any readers out there in the southern hemisphere who have been plagued with this issue before, and are wondering if this idea will work for you, be warned: there are many downsides to this idea.

All of them, at least, are purely social.

1) Expect family members to be extremely confused.

We sent out a mass-email to family members on both sides once we were fully committed to this idea. We explained everything in careful detail, noting the why's and how's, including the fact that we would see everyone each year still, but around the middle of the year for our Yule instead.

It was almost a week before we got our first reply. After that, the replies slowly rolled in from each person, varying wildly from (paraphrased) "Cool idea", to "Oh, well, at least it's okay if we still get to see you all once a year". So, about as good as we could hope for, but it was obvious that, even without asking us further questions, there was a lot of "I still don't understand why they can't just keep doing Christmas" going around.

2) Expect family members to be pretty darn annoyed.

Christmas is, after all, a time for family to get together. So in the family member's eyes, it doesn't matter if you want to spend over a week with them every year to celebrate Yule if it's at the wrong time of year. Well, as far as they're concerned.

Until it becomes a regular occurrence (most likely after many, many years of doing this), expect this to continue. For some family members, possibly indefinitely. Spend as much time with your family over your holiday Yule period as possible, but otherwise, there's really not much to be done about this if you're truly committed to the idea.

It's also good to note that not everyone will be like this, of course. There can be just as many family members who, while they may not still fully grasp or agree with the concepts of why, will at least understand that it's not a decision you made lightly, and will support you.

3) Gift giving becomes a little trickier.
Hand-knitted socks, by my wife, for me, for Yule.

We now give our presents at Yule. We're celebrating at Yule, so it makes sense to give any presents to our family members around Yule as well. This does lend itself to a little confusion, though...

At least in this first year, where I don't know if any of our family members took our decision seriously, everyone was pleasantly surprised with, and very thankful for, our gifts. But as most of our family seems to be forgetting about our Yule idea, will they be expecting more gifts at Christmas time? Not wanting to give gifts because they're not going to get any at Christmas? Simply still giving gifts at Christmas, but with the potential to be a little disappointed because they're not getting one back (forgetting they already got a gift six months earlier)?

This con of the idea is tricky, with just as many chances of hurt feelings as the first two cons. It isn't at all insurmountable, though, it's just another point to keep in mind. If there are years where, due to hard feelings or simply confusion, you don’t get a gift back, don’t sweat it, and keep giving your Yule gifts each year. After all, the gift for you should be in the giving, not the receiving, right?

Other unexpected benefits

There are, at least, a few other unexpected benefits of this idea.

1) Travel during your holiday period is a lot cheaper.

If you can just drive over to see your family, this point may not apply. But if you have to book accommodation, flights, or anything else really, then it definitely does.

School holidays are usually anywhere between mid-June to late-July, depending on the state you live in. So if you plan your trips around Yule in mid-to-late June, the first half of your trip will be in the off-season for holidays. Depending on your state, the second half may be, too. A lot of money can be saved because of this.

2) Getting time off work may be easier.

Over Christmas, everyone wants time off work. Over Yule, not so much. As such, at worst, it will be just as hard to get time off. But at best, almost no one else is asking for time off, so it won't be difficult to get your Yule time off approved.

3) No more having to share a single day.

Whichever house we're at, we'll have our Yule traditions on the night of Yule (obviously). Other than that, though, we're not placing any particular importance on any single day or night. Rather, we're concentrating on getting to see everyone for a minimum of at least a few days (preferably around a week or more) for some good holiday cheer.

Compare and contrast with Christmas in its current form. If both sides of your family live close, many people spend Christmas traveling between family members, never spending the supposedly special day with any particular person for more than a few hours. Others, especially those where their respective family members live far apart, have to sort out a schedule along the lines of "We'll spend Christmas with you, but New Years with them, and then swap year after year". Both of these options have the potential to create hurt feelings, unfortunate ideas of "Why can't you stay longer with us though", or "Why can't you keep spending Christmas with us and just be with them for New Years each year?"

Granted, we're potentially creating even more hurt feelings with our way of doing things. But at least we're skipping all of this.


Mudgee, our sheep, when she was just a
few days old.
Yet another animal who'll appreciate us being
home for summer.
We're trying to do what's best, what makes the most sense from a self-sufficient and ecologically-sound point of view. If we want to live self-sufficiently, that just won't be possible if we decide to leave our animals and crops for a fortnight or longer during the hottest part of the year. It just doesn't make sense.

The fact that we're not having Christmas anymore is mostly just an unintended casualty of the idea. It's not that we don't want to see our family anymore, but moreso that we'd prefer to see them when it actually makes sense: in the colder time of the year, when the land needs very little attendance.

If we're lucky, our family and friends may still not agree, but will at least understand in time. If not, we'll still sleep soundly knowing that we're sticking with our principles, and doing what we believe is right. In the end, that's a very comforting thing to hold onto.