“Old Age Ain’t No Place for Sissies”

This quote, often attributed to the great actress Bette Davis came up in conversation today with a friend I have known for over 50 years. He was going through the litany of miseries he is suffering from cancer and the various treatments for it. The most radical treatment, surgery, will probably end up costing him his bladder in a few months. He’s already lost a kidney.

I have another friend in similar circumstances. Both are undergoing chemotherapy which in itself sounds like no fun at all.

I realize that as we get older we are more likely to encounter serious health issues. In spite of that, I cling to the belief that if I live right, and make good choices, I will live a healthy life to 110 and then pass away peacefully in my sleep.

Ray Kurzweil, the noted inventor and futurist posited in his mid-fifties that if he can live for 20 years, in that time, science and medicine will have advanced far enough to keep him alive and healthy for 20 more years, and so on, and on.

I don’t know how realistic that is. But even if it were, should we continue to take up space and resources for indefinite life spans? Seems pretty selfish. It also would further exacerbate the gulf between the privileged and the underprivileged.

I’m reconsidering my quest to prolong my life indefinitely, and will, instead, try to fully engage with every moment as it comes. What could be better than that?

Alternative Meat

Except for a brief period in my idealistic youth when I became a vegetarian, I’ve enjoyed eating meat. I enjoy the taste, the texture, the smell of meat of all kinds. I’ve eaten game I’ve shot when I used to hunt. Dove, pigeon, quail, deer, rabbit, squirrel.

For most of my existence, I have lived with the knowledge of the problems this practice presents: health, environmental, and moral problems. Most of the time I’ve been able to push these issues into the background so that I could continue to enjoy eating animals without conflict. I think we all live with some level of cognitive dissonance in order to get by in the world because it’s more convenient.

We drive cars that pollute. Even electric cars use power that is still mostly derived from coal and other horrible sources. We kill bugs and plants and animals we consider to be pests. I once read a fable about a monk who tried to live without harming another living thing. He only at fruits, vegetables, and nuts picked from plants and trees. He was careful where he walked so as not to crush bugs. He never bathed so as to avoid killing the mites that lived in his hair. He was devastated to learn that just by breathing his body killed bacteria.

I don’t have an answer or a path to living a more pure life. Do you?

Reviews of Free Zoom Alternatives

Video conferencingBrief Reviews of Free Video Conferencing Platforms

After using a licensed version of Zoom for a month, I began casting about for free alternatives that would satisfy the basic needs of a couple group meetings that we participate in regularly. Don’t get me wrong. I like, Zoom. I just didn’t want to spend the money right now for something I could get by on for free. I’m cheap that way.

Our needs are pretty minimal: Allow for at least 10 participants, have screen sharing and offer meetings lasting up to 2 hours.

I subscribe to several tech-oriented newsletters and so have received links to a bunch of articles that point to Zoom alternatives. But none seem to have all the services I have found, each only pointing to a few. Here’s my offering of listing all the options I have found so far. I’m not trying to review them all as I haven’t had time to thoroughly test each service. And the services keep evolving faster than I can keep track.

I will list my top two free services and then the rest I’ve at least looked at.

Jitsi – So far this is my favorite. It’s dead simple to use from their website, and has apps for mobile devices (iOS, Android). At the time I checked the limit was set to 75 participants if you are using their server. There are no time limits. It touts end to end encryption and screen sharing. For large groups it has the hand raising feature so a moderator can have some control of the conversation. Most interesting of all. it’s an open source project which means anyone can download it and build apps on top of the code or modify the code. You can also run your own Jitsi server if you have the chops and want to go beyond their server limits. There are additional features like recording your calls that make this pretty robust for a free service.

Google Hangouts –  This was the first free video conferencing system I’d tried and, though it seems to be in constant flux, it still holds its own. They’ve opened up the number of participants to only 25 people per call (with the 10 most active participants shown at the bottom of the screen). You can record your calls, but to store the calls in your account you would have to pay a small monthly fee. This post has a feature comparison between Zoom and Hangouts

Google Duo – Duo has a nice interface. However, I couldn’t find a screen sharing feature. Also, you connect with people using their phone number. So, that’s a different approach. There is a limit to 12 people and has end to end encryption.

Skype – Part of the Microsoft family, Skype has been around for quite a long time and it’s pretty robust. From their Fair Use Policy on Group Video: “Group video calls are subject to a fair usage limit of 100 hours per month with no more than 10 hours per day and a limit of 4 hours per individual video call. Once these limits have been reached, the video will switch off and the call will convert to an audio call. If a participant of a group video call is not on a version of Internet Communications Software that supports group video calls, then the call will be an audio call only for that participant. The number of permitted participants on a group video call varies from 3 to a maximum of 50, depending upon device and associated system requirements. You can find more details at www.skype.com/go/gvc.” I didn’t find a screen sharing feature, though, so this makes it not so great for my purposes.

Discord – This service was originally built for gamers to chat,  but is now used by a variety of groups. The video/screen sharing service is limited to 10 people. I have had limited experience with this service, but plan to give it a try just to learn its capabilities. Desktop and App versions. There’s even one for Linux! That’s unusual.

Spike – This is an interesting option that combines email and video conferencing. It’s also free if you are using a generic email account like @gmail.com or @yahoo.com. However, the free version is limited to 10 chat participants. But if you are using a custom domain email like @morsemedia.net then it’s $5.99/mo paid annually, and there are no limits.

Summary

That’s it for now. I’m sure more services will appear as video conferencing will not be going away, even as the pandemic fades. What did I miss? What are your favorites? Let me know in the comments.

Two Poems from Youth

I don’t know what has possessed me to post these poems. I have no way to judge their quality. I had a youthful desire to be a poet and wrote a many of them and shared some in readings, and in now long forgotten anthologies. At some point I packed up that dream and trundled down other paths. I do realize these poems are highly romantic and derivative (Hopkins, Thomas, and others).

Over the years I have written in many modes, fiction, non-fiction, reviews, plays. But there is something has drawn me back to look through some of these early efforts. There is some energy there. Some focus and facility and effort. And I want to find that again. Because I am determined to write more. Some little bit. Every day.

Stern Love

When young in the slow, moist woods,
Creeping oak darkened hills of morning
I paused to wonder – to turn my head;
Thickets caught fire, scorching my cheeks
Strands of barbed wire caught my sleeve
Too weak to quench flames or break steel
I stood

in the white lace of the waterfall.

Shivering now in dusk’s gloom I stirred
To turn homeward
With arm clutching wind
Still feverish with dreams
Bruised and scattered
I returned to the house of your stern love
and was healed.

In such a child time is challenged
In such a world nothing ends
The strange man who now strides earth
Steps only on the red clay of the hills
While a sullen planet smokes
It’s gear teeth glisten venom
The river of my heart undiminished
And as before
My head aflame, bruised and scattered
Shivering in gloom
I turn a familiar corner where
The house of your stern love stands
Open.

circa 1972

Bush

Thre deer quiet in the bush
then crash they bound crash crash
on iron animal legs and crack over rocks
and three deer gone and
nothing more moves in the bush

till the wind eases in and out
and nothing more move in the bush

an insect buzz and flash
then nothing more moves in the bush

and finally the day ends always
always it ends and always begins
ends and when ends it
becomes dark in the bush and night begins
but dark night ends always and it
slowly becomes bright and it
slowly becomes day
and something quick moves in the bush
then nothing more moves in the bush.

1975

Small Adventures in Cryptocurrency and Blockchain

Back in 2014, I began to read about Bitcoin, a new type of currency. I had no idea what it was or how it worked. But I had seen the price rising. At the time 1 Bitcoin was already worth about $566, having started at essentially zero 6 years before.

I decided I wanted to learn more about Bitcoin and the technology behind it. I was afraid I’d already missed the boat, so I only wanted to dabble and not “bet the farm”. I signed up for an account on Coinbase (disclosure: I get a small reward if you sign up using that link), already an established Bitcoin marketplace. I bought 1/5 of a Bitcoin for around $114 as a way to keep the concept in front of me. I didn’t actively trade, just watched as it meandered in value and then, suddenly began to take off. As of today, my investment is worth over $2000.

Bitcoin, cryptocurrency

Unfortunately, as you can tell from that, I am not a crypto millionaire. But I really didn’t set out with that goal. I’m much too cautious for that. Still, I have made more than enough to pay for my new iPhone X. I just need to figure out when to pull the trigger and cash out enough to cover that cost. Should I hold? Should I take some of my gains now? (BTW, whenever I do, I will have to pay taxes on them).

In the meantime, my dabbling has kept me interested in the whole cryptocurrency field and the underlying technology called Blockchain. This included following the incredible story of Silk Road that used Bitcoin to trade in drugs and other nefarious goods and services. What the hell had I invested in?

But Silk Road was brought down and the dark reputation of Bitcoin was slowly rehabilitated. Some business started taking Bitcoin as payment. Cryptocurrency broke into multiple variants, like Ethereum, LiteCoin, and many others. In fact, at one point Coinbase split my Bitcoin holding in two, so suddenly I was the owner of Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash. It’s all still quite muddled, but also exciting to watch.

And the buzz around the possibilities of Blockchain and how it may affect our lives well beyond Cryptocurrency is even more interesting. Some have claimed Blockchain will prove more revolutionary than the advent of the Internet itself. Others are not so enthusiastic.

It’s difficult to separate the hype from reality at this stage. But if you want to get just a basic idea of what a blockchain is without getting a headache, I suggest watching this:

 

Minding Mindfulness

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Humboldt Skeptics for many years (actually we have no cards or even a formal organization). I even attended a national skeptics conference in Las Vegas back in 2013. So, I pride myself in questioning things that smack of “woo”, nonsense, accepted wisdom with no evidence. But years earlier, before I converted, I dabbled in enough spiritual pursuits to earn my bonafides as a hippie-dippie Northern California boomer. Most of my non-Western dabbling was grounded in the body: Yoga, Tai Chi, Aikido. I loved them all, but finally, abandoned them at some point.

 

And now, in spite of my hard-earned skepticism, I’m back at it. But this time, with a decidedly non-physical approach: Sitting. I am giving mindfulness meditation a try, and I am looking for evidence of its efficacy, not necessarily in scientific evidence (there’s not much), but in personal experience. Is meditation changing me for the better? Am I less anxious? Can I concentrate on one thing for longer? Can I notice and separate myself from moments of anger? Am I as Dan Harris says “…less of an asshole?”  These are the kind of changes I would hope to see from regular practice over time. These are some of the promises it holds.

After several months of practice and study, I can say that small changes are beginning to happen. Am I imagining them? Perhaps. Is it a placebo affect? That’s a distinct possibility. However, placebos are used in medicine because they work.

Dueling Skeptics

I’m not really looking for enlightenment. Yet. I’m not following a particular spiritual path. As an atheist that holds no interest. But mind and consciousness are certainly mysteries to be explored, and my own mind is just as good a lab as another. Still, I remain skeptical. I don’t want to delude myself. One of my skeptical heroes, Steven Novella wrote a good blog post about the lack of solid scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation has any special qualities that support some of the outlandish claims made by some proponents:

But I am not convinced by the existing research that there is any other phenomenon at work here, that there is something specific to mindfulness, or that it has benefits beyond other similar behaviors. There may be – perhaps there is something specific about certain mindfulness practices that we can isolate and study. We are simply not there yet.

Further, public hype supporting a billion dollar industry has gone way passed the existing evidence.

On the other hand, one of my other skeptic/atheist heroes, Sam Harris, wrote a whole book about the topic (Waking Up) which convinced me to give it a try. If you’re curious and you’re a skeptic, this might be a place to start. I’m about to read Dan Harris’ new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. That pretty much describes me.

What do you think? Is it all a bunch of new age baloney? Is there something there? Is it just the latest trend that will pass when a new one comes along?

Side Note

When I was living in the Sierras in the early 70s, one of my housemates was entranced reading “Be Here Now”, the new age classic by Baba Ram Das. He was so entranced he didn’t notice that the lighted coal from his cigarette had fallen onto the sofa and was quietly burning a hole into the interior. Only when the entire living area was engulfed in smoke, did he call out in panic for help dragging the thing out on the deck and soaking it with with a hose.