Trent Hazard Writes

@TrentHazard

Writer. Futurist. Analyst. Developer of intelligence systems and processes. Lives at the intersection of technology, security, and very bad intentions.

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Zazen is Good for Nothing

Clowns and Criminals

I was sipping coffee at my computer and thinking about the leadership and ethical crisis which seems to have gripped virtually the entire globe (This is, sadly, something that I do regularly) when this tweet came into view:

This view from Australia, where prime minister Scott Morrison has managed to fail, offend, and then exploit a nation suffering an immense crisis, is but the latest in a growing list of examples. He has taken a political softball (let's face it - politicians love an opportunity like this) and aggressively chosen the worst course of action at every turn. The word criminal comes to mind. He hasn't just failed. He has aggressively failed. He has set a new bar for failure. At this point he could drop kick a bushfire evacuee's baby on live television and you would just have to shrug it off as his style.

And this seems to be happening everywhere you look. It's clowns and criminals in every direction - as far as the eye can see. Not of the usual sort, the kind that humanity will never escape, either. We're seeing brazen criminality, authoritarianism, and stupidity play out across the west.

Sadly, I don't think this collective failure is coincidental or a phase that we'll pass through with relief if one or two elections goes well. The clowns and criminals are symptoms of a much deeper rot. We can replace a tooth, or slap veneer on it, but the entire jaw is infected.     

Back to Linux with the System76 Thelio

Linux served as my primary desktop for nearly a decade. I used it when using it was, quite frankly, painful. However, I stuck with it through it's evolution into a very usable and quite elegant OS and was happy to do so. I enjoyed the experience and learned a lot from it. I would have stayed with it but I eventually migrated to do some audio production work. At the time MacOS and some specific MacOS apps were the best tool for the job and that migration made my life much easier.

I don't regret that decision at all. MacOS got out of my way and let me get my work done. That's what tools are supposed to do. However, Apple has made the Mini increasingly less flexible and upgradable while also pushing prices through the roof. Their other hardware doesn't really appeal either.

Locked down, and relatively short-lived, hardware would be forgivable if it was truly a bare bones machine offered at a much lower price but that's not really how most people use a Mini these days. Dropping over two grand for hardware that isn't impressive to begin with and that has a relatively short lifespan isn't very appealing. It gets even less appealing when you start to feel like the company that you're dealing with is aggressively rigging the exchange in their favor. This business model has been amazing for Apple's bottom line but as a customer it leaves feeling like I'm getting played - hard. I've loaded up and configured a new Mini several times over the past few months but just couldn't bring myself to press the buy button. Bummer.

I thought about Windows, for maybe two minutes, but security and privacy concerns sort of make that a non-starter for me. It has improved in many ways (and gotten worse in others) but I'm just not interested in going there. I have a cheap Windows laptop that I used for a project and, aside from all of the objective reasons that push me away, I just don't like using Windows. I never have. So that's out too.

This all leads us to a company that I've had my eye on for quite some time - System76:

System76 is a cool company. They're small. They're transparent. They're innovative. And they're advancing a business model driven by core values that ultimately benefit their customers. That could change but I've watched them evolve over the past several years and they only seem to be getting better.

I can spec out a beautifully built and very powerfully equipped Thelio for exactly the same price that Apple wanted for their Mini. Not only will it serve my needs for a very long time but I'll also have the ability to upgrade it as needed. Yes, I could go the cheaper route and build out my own system but price is only one factor here. The bottom line is that I like the premium product and experience that System76 is offering. They align with my values, my needs, and my desires. This is what the Apple experience could and should be. This is what unlocks the checkbook. I'm still parting with a lot of money but it feels like an honest exchange. It is an honest exchange.

Honest hardware is one factor but the control, privacy, and flexibility offered by Linux, and System76's in house Ubuntu-based distribution Pop!_OS, is the most important factor in this decision. Absolute control of my data (and where it goes) is essential. MacOS still edges out Windows on privacy and security issues but Linux puts much more control in the hands of the user. And control is always better than trust when security is at stake. Plus, I just enjoy using Linux (98% of the time).  

Apple isn't getting completely kicked to the curb. I'll keep my perfectly usable, if somewhat sluggish, Mini as a backup. This isn't a messy breakup. We're parting as friends. Who knows? Perhaps someday we'll reunite.

Travel Documents & Standard Notes

The end-to-end encryption offered by Standard Notes opens up use cases that couldn't be served by other similar applications without exposing yourself to significant risk. One of those is using it to store details (account numbers, expiration dates, etc) and photos of very sensitive documents. Of course, you can do that with just any app - but you shouldn't.

Password managers have evolved to serve some of these needs but I really like being able to move that kind of information into my notes library where I can consolidate and organize everything in one place.

That one place is, of course, Standard Notes. I travel quite a bit and security is always a concern. I take quite a few precautions. Still, disaster or negligence can strike at any time and the last thing I want is to be stranded in some corner of the world without this information. Life will still be a mess if my documents are lost or stolen but being able to produce all of the details and photos of the originals can only be helpful. I also have to arrange travel on short notice so having my passport, Global Entry account, and other information at my fingertips saves a lot of time and hassle.

As always, consider the worst case scenario and plan for it.

A First Class Seat on a Runaway Train

The Next Web takes a look at why authoritarianism is winning and is, frankly, likely to keep winning - at least until the price of removing it (in bodies and lives ruined) is astronomically high:

The upper and middle classes in Germany during the 1920s-1940s were almost twice as likely to join the Nazi party than those with lower social status. So it may be that those who have the most to lose and/or are keen to climb the social ladder are particularly likely to conform. And, of course, if other members of your social circle are conforming, you may think it’s the “appropriate” thing to do.
Few will fight Gilead after carefully weighing up the consequences – after all, the most likely outcome is failure and obliteration. What drives forward fights against an oppressive society is a rival vision – a vision of equality, liberty and justice, and a sense that these should be defended, whatever the consequences.

Apologies to the three or four of you who have might have found the holiday optimism of this new blog encouraging. I'll try to keep that going through 2020 but dealing with dark side of the world is what actually pays my now very organized bills.

In 2015 I spent quite a bit of time quietly working on this issue with government officials and a few others. We looked at how the trend toward authoritarianism was likely to evolve over the next 15 years or so. At the time the our findings looked grim. Very grim. In fact, they were so uniform and so grim that we were seriously concerned that our forecasts were flawed. They were not - at least not in the way that we thought they were. 

With a little history under our belts we now know that those forecasts were too optimistic. Social and political shifts we had set to occur at 2025 or later have already occurred. We are on a runaway train. A handful of people are tugging at the broken brakes but nobody knows how to fix them.

We have trends, science, and history to guide us but the future is ultimately unpredictable. The current crop of leaders with authoritarian tendencies, at least some of them, might be defeated before they cement control. We might buy ourselves a little time. However, now is the time to think about what you stand for. Would you rise up when needed? Would you put yourself at risk? How, exactly how, would you fight back? This is not a call to arms but a call to reflection. Don't lie to yourself either. As the article states, and as history shows, most people will put their heads down and choose self-preservation. If we can engage with these issues consciously, instead of reflexively, we stand a much greater chance of making the right decisions.

Starting 2020 Right

As I mentioned in an earlier post I've been doing a very deep dive on where my money is going. Thankfully, I don't have to do this because money is tight. It isn't. However, I would like to hold on to more of it.

I've had a nagging feeling that I was a bit oversubscribed to digital services and boy was I right. I dug through my Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other places where second level subscriptions can pile up. I logged every recurring cost that I could find in a Standard Notes secure spreadsheet. Everything was revealed. It wasn't pretty. I decided to get aggressive.

12 accounts, good for a savings of about $1000 in 2020, are now gone. There weren't any difficult cuts here. I didn't scale back anything that was in use. These were mostly services or apps that I'd just stopped using and forgot about. What can I say? It was a busy year.  

I don't want this to get away from me so I have my financial spreadsheet pinned. All I have to do now is remain relatively diligent and add new accounts when I subscribe to something. Of course, it's wise to periodically rethink services you use as well. Are they really needed? Are they worth the cost? Are there better/cheaper alternatives? You get the idea.  

I was somewhat more proactive on another front - my car. My SUV's warranty just expired and that always ratchets up the baseline anxiety a little. I haven't had any problems with it but we all know car problems are inevitable. Why wait until I'm stranded somewhere to do some research? So I dug through reviews of towing services and independent mechanics in my area (where a problem is most likely to occur) and stored the addresses, phone numbers, and business hours of the best candidates in Standard Notes. It's a little thing that could make a stressful situation a little less terrible.   

When it comes to organization it's all about tackling the things that cause you stress first. Once that's done start thinking hard about the kinds of scenarios that could create problems for you and how you could prevent or minimize the anxiety. A little bit of thought and action can go a very long way. 

I did have some productive fun in the middle of all of this. I managed to build out a pretty comprehensive outline for a short story. I should be able to turn my full attention to it later this morning. Finishing it on the first day of the new year would certainly start things off on an optimistic note.

In Defense of Cyberpunk (1993)

Here's a brutal thrashing of Billy Idol's largely forgotten concept album.

But, spoiler alert, the reviewer saves his admiration for the closing minute of the video. This album was decades ahead of it's time and he rightfully acknowledges that. And the world has definitely caught up to the ideas presented here. These concepts are incredibly relevant. So yeah, it can induce a few cringes but snide hipsterism is easy and pushing the artistic and intellectual envelope is hard. Some credit is due.

In 1993 very few people understood the impact of technology and where the world was heading.

Twenty-something year old hacker me actually bought this CD when it was released. I remember how amazing and unlikely it was to find any aspect of this subculture and it's ethos finding representation in popular culture. I didn't love all of it but I was happy that it existed. That's pretty much how I feel now. Respect.

You can listen to the full album here.

Opportunity? Perhaps

I've been hard at work during the holiday downtime. Comfortably hard at work I should say. Lots of hours and effort but at my pace and on my projects. It's the best.

My life was already pretty well organized but moving that system to Standard Notes during this period has brought me great joy. I'm not exaggerating. Everything works and feels better when accumulating loose ends are wrapped up. It's a lubricant that frees up the mind for more creative pursuits.

My creative goal for 2020 is to launch a collection of short stories that I have been incubating for some time. I'm not going to say much about how I plan to do this or how the project will unfold until it is nearly complete. I don't want to fall into the trap of talking rather than doing. I have some key milestones that I have to meet to make this viable and interesting. Anything else is delusional, diversionary noise.

Thankfully, real work is happening. 30 story ideas have been documented. Some outlines are quite far along. A website has been designed and awaits content. Early discussions with writer, editors, and publishers I know have been encouraging. Nearly every detail needed to support the project has been nailed down. Just the writing remains.

Just the writing. Ha!

Of course, the possibility of failure looms large. I'm fine with that. I have defined success simply as accomplishing the task. Anything else is gravy. External acceptance and everything that could come with that would be outstanding but I have a deep appreciation for the unlikeliness of it all. I can only do the work. I can't align the stars.

One encouraging development is the relative lack of similar content that I have been able to find in my research. Some of the best creative work arises because people can't find what they want. They must create it themselves or it simply won't exist. An opportunity? Perhaps. The lack of content might reflect a lack of demand. Like I said, failure looms large. You simply won't know until you try.

Small Action > Great Anxiety

There are many reasons, legitimate reasons, to be worried about the state of the world. Five minutes on Twitter will fill you with dread. Just remember that taking even the most insignificant action (participation in anxiety reinforcing social media doesn't count as action) to counter the things you fear beats all the worry in the world. Show up to vote, make a donation, volunteer, help a neighbor, write an op-ed, contact your representative - just do something. Living in a constant state of anxiety isn't engagement. It isn't action. It isn't productive. 

After Questions Practice

I spent the morning reconnecting with a Zen Master friend. We reflected on our relationship and the evolution of my practice and relationship with Zen. I'll leave the rest private but here are two passages from Zen Master Dōgen:

Realization

“Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no
longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”

Actualization

When the True Law is not totally attained, both physically and mentally, there is a tendency to think that we posses the complete Law and our work is finished. If the Dharma is completely present, there is a realization of one's insufficiencies.

For example, if you take a boat to the middle of the ocean, beyond the sight of any mountains, and look in all four directions, the ocean appear round. However, the ocean is not round, and its virtue is limitless. It is like a palace and an adornment of precious jewels. But to us, the ocean seems to be one large circle of water.

So we see this can be said of all things. Depending on the viewpoint we see things in different ways. Correct perception depends upon the amount of one's study and practice. In order to understand various types of viewpoints we must study the numerous aspects and virtues of mountains and oceans, rather than just circles. We should know that it is not only so all around us but also within us—even in a single drop of water.

Fish in the ocean find the water endless and birds think the sky is without limits. However, neither fish nor birds have been separated from their element. When their need is great, their utilization is great, when their need is small, the utilization is small. They fully utilize every aspect to its utmost—freely, limitlessly. However, we should know that if birds are separated from their own element they will die. We should know that water is life for fish and the sky is life for birds. In the sky, birds are life; and in the water, fish are life. Many more conclusions can be drawn like this. There is practice and enlightenment (like the above relationships of sky and birds, fish and water).

However, after the clarification of water and sky, we can see that if there are birds or fish that try to enter the sky or water, they cannot find either a way or a place. If we understand this point, there is actualization of enlightenment in our daily life. If we attain this Way, all our actions are the actualization of enlightenment. This Way, this place, is not great or small, self or others, neither past or present—it exists just as it is.

There's plenty of wisdom here for anyone looking to move skillfully through a complicated world. I'm going to resist the temptation to say more. I don't want to muddy Dōgen's teaching.

China's DCEP and Privacy

Blockchain and cryptocurrency systems can be configured to maximize anonymity or to serve as highly effective surveillance systems. Activists seek the former while governments are quickly realizing the potential for control that centralized and managed systems could offer. China, not surprisingly, isn't going to pass up this opportunity to surveil even more of it's citizens financial transaction. They appear to be close to launching their digital currency electronic payment (DCEP) system:

"Goodbye, cash ...The report also reiterates that the PBOC means for DCEP to be a direct replacement for physical cash.

In fact, Chinese banknotes and coins are already quickly being replaced by mobile payments, particularly via Alipay and WeChat Pay, the QR-code-based apps that have become ubiquitous in the span of just a few years. It’s been estimated that mobile payments made up more than 80% of all payments in China in 2018, up from less than 20% in 2013.

...goodbye, privacy? Mu Changchun, the head of the PBOC’s digital currency research institute, has said the DCEP will be compatible with Alipay and WeChat Pay. He also said it can be used without an internet connection. Some of the biggest questions pertain to privacy and anonymity, and how much access the government will have to transaction information. The new report from Caijing repeats something Mu has also said before: that the DCEP will offer users at least some degree of “anonymity.” It does not, however, explain how that might work."

Some degree of "anonymity" might mean that Chinese citizens will be able shield transactions from their neighbors but it will never, absolutely never, free them from complete government surveillance of each and every transaction. China isn't surging into this space to advance libertarian ideals, bank the un-banked, smash monopolistic control of financial channels, and maximize efficiency. Cash, not crypto, will be the ultimate refuge for privacy advocates - at least as long as it is allowed to exist.

For what it's worth, I am deeply familiar with the models in this space that seek to shield users from surveillance but I think they're either doomed to outright failure or limited (and quite risky) adoption. 

Living in Fear

MIT Technology Review has an interesting piece on a professor who asked his students to give up their cell phones for 9 days and then document their experiences. This bit stood out:

"What’s revealing is that this student and others perceived the world to be a very dangerous place. Cell phones were seen as necessary to combat that danger. The city in which these students lived has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and almost no violent crime of any kind, yet they experienced a pervasive, undefined fear."

Just how pervasive is this undercurrent of fear? How is it impacting our social fabric? Our politics? I'd love to see more work in this area that is focused on the underlying dynamic instead of being disjointed and primarily issue driven - a catalog of American fears. One thing is certain; Russian intelligence currently understands this better than Americans do themselves

Primitive Skills

Set aside 20 minutes and watch this incredibly skilled craftsman do his thing. Trust me. You'll be glad that you:

There is something deeply satisfying about these restoration videos that been increasing in popularity lately. I think it's tied to a growing desire for something "real" and somewhat primitive in an increasingly virtual/digital world. You can see it in the wilderness survival or primitive construction genres too like this beautifully shot hour long (and wordless) look at building a Viking house:

The videos rack up millions upon millions of views. That's also millions of man-hours that could have been spent in the woods or working with tools. Of course, it isn't that easy. We're busy and there are barriers for some. I don't think we're all going to ditch tech and become expert bushmen or even that we should. However, I'd like to think that these are evidence of a growing realization that there is real value in a simpler, more direct, approach to life even if most of us don't quite know how to achieve it. Just knowing that it exists, and valuing it, is an excellent place to start.

Staying on Top of Things with Secure Spreadsheets

Despite being a bit of a minimalist and not being all that indulgent I have tons of reoccurring subscriptions and app fees. We all do. I can keep a pretty decent handle on what's happening financially with services like Mint and I can track most of my memberships and subscriptions through my password manager but that's not quite enough. I have always found that listing reoccurring payments out in a spreadsheet is super helpful. It allows me to quickly scan the entire set, see the full financial impact, and keep track of important details like how each service is paid for. If you've never tried this it could have a massive impact on your financial awareness. Here's what I track:

  • Account name
  • Cost
  • Billing Rate (Monthly/Annually/Etc)
  • Method of Payment (Name of account or credit card)
  • Status (Open/Closed)

You could track other details but I find that this is enough. It can take a bit of work if it's your first go at this. You might have to dig into statements from multiple banks and credit cards to get a full picture (and to identify those services you're still paying for but have forgotten) but it's worth it. You'll likely end up saving some money in the process. And once you've done the full it's a simple matter to add new subscriptions to your spreadsheet as they're acquired.

Standard Notes and Writing

Life hasn't left much time for personal projects and writing. Most of us are in that same, very large, boat. I'm not giving up on some of my more ambitious ideas so incubating them well enough to ensure long-term survival is key. That means setting aside rare downtime to organize my thoughts around these projects, recording them, and taking small steps forward where and when I can. Standard Notes is perfect for this. 

As a futurist and analyst I frequently write about the topics that interest me. However, I don't get to write about those topics in a way that interests me. I write for executives. My job is to deliver bad news (and only bad news) about terribly confusing problems in the clearest, most easily understood, manner possible. It's often quite boring but it's also a very solid living.

Some of the social, political, and security problems I research are also quite disturbing. There are days I just want to quietly walk out the door and into the sea. It's not the kind of environment that ideally positions one's mind for additional creative labor at the end of the day. Drinking and lazy escapism are significantly more attractive alternatives until you realize what dangerous traps they can be. 

So, I choose to attempt productivity. Failure is the likely outcome but there is some nobility in trying - or so I tell myself. Anyway, noble work is never wasted. We just have to be comfortable with a payoff that may be delayed and extremely unpredictable. 

Which brings me back to Standard Notes and my project. I want to transform my insights and analysis into short stories - very short stories. This is a model that I could never sell to my employer but the format is incredibly effective at unlocking the reader's imagination and allowing them to fully grasp the problem that I am trying to illustrate. Standard Notes is helping me break the idea generation, research, and creative steps into highly granular yet organized pieces. This means that I can grab my phone to capture random ideas. Over time that note can become a place to store related research and my evolving thoughts. Eventually, that note becomes a story outline and, with luck, the story itself. 

I have about 30 of these stories incubating right now. Each in a different stage of development. Of course, the process isn't unique to Standard Notes but Standard Notes makes the process efficient. Capturing small disconnected efforts and maximizing their impact will eventually result in something far more substantial. Eventually.    

24 Hours with Standard Notes

It's that time of year when many of us reflect on what we've been doing and how we've been doing it. That exercise resulted in a quick search for encrypted notes apps on my end. Trello has been my productivity app of choice but the security model meant that sensitive notes had to be stashed away in a password manager or ProtonMail or Keybase. That's not a great workflow. Luckily, I found Standard Notes quite quickly and it immediately stood out. You could say it was love at first sight. I bought a 5 year plan just a few minutes in.

24 hours later I have 80 notes sharing over 20 tags. Trello boards and email drafts have been migrated and deleted (I have a novel outline in Trello that might stay there a while). Secure notes in my password manager have been copied over. Everything has been consolidated and organized. It's perfect

It gets better though. In my fixation on the security and productivity features I failed to notice the blogging capabilities. I literally had no idea that those features existed as I rushed to set things up and migrate my existing content. It wasn't until that process was complete that I started thinking about what a great platform Standard Notes would make for selectively sharing content. I was shocked to find a fully baked solution already in place. This Standard Notes/Listed model is something that I have wanted for a very long time. I still have active Ghost, Wordpress, and Twitter accounts that I don't see going away but the relative anonymity and control here is liberating.

Imagine how much better off the world would be if the early internet had evolved with a strong focus on the principles that guide this platform instead of the rapid descent into neurotic hyper-sharing and hyper-connectedness on manipulative platforms that overtook everything shortly after the rise of the blogosphere.  

  

Another Test

Yes, another test. One can't rush these sorts of things.

Hello World

This is a test