October 21, 2021

Internet Privacy and Us

I just finished, An Ugly Truth, the story of Facebook's efforts to protect its user's privacy and prevent so-called bad actors from employing the platform to spread misinformation and deceive people. Well-researched and using sources from both inside and outside the company, the narrative paints a disturbing picture of a company that struggled to control the behemoth it created. 

One camp of employees is fully committed to freedom for virtually all expressions of opinions and advertising messages, while the other is concerned about the potential for serious damage to democracy and privacy of personal data.

Watching the company leaders, employees, government officials, and Facebook users attempt to find the proper balance between freedom and protection is like watching a slow-moving disaster movie that affects pretty much the whole world.

Culminating with Russian and other hackers, stolen emails, bogus account ownership, propaganda, lies spreading like wildfire, and an internal system that chose profits over protection, the effect on the 2016 American election is painfully clear.

This post is not about Facebook, though I recommend this book for a deep dive into what can happen when almost 3 billion people are instantly and continually connected. More broadly, I would like to take a look at decisions we all make, almost daily about who can see, sell, and control our personal information. Problems can range from simply irritating like trying to sell us something, to outright dangerous like stealing bits of data that can end up with our credit ruined, even our Social Security number being sold to others. 

Somewhere in the middle is the issue of changing public opinion on issues that dominate the news today: racism, feminism, LGBTQ rights. Facebook, for one, has been a major force in helping to publicize events as diverse as the Women's March on Washington in 2017 or the public demands for more freedom in Egypt  Giving people a way to connect can be a very positive thing.

Unfortunately, given the number of people involved and the lack of concrete guardrails to prevent misuse, propaganda, false or exaggerated "news stories," even outright lies. find their way on these same pages. Apparently, removing them before they do serious damage is not easy and too often not a top priority.

What I'd like to focus on for the rest of our time together, is the issue of our personal online privacy. Facebook is not alone, not by a long shot. Google and Amazon hoover up data at an unbelievable rate.

Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp (the last two owned by Facebook) exist because they can provide extremely detailed profiles of users to advertisers willing to spend billions of dollars in reaching us.

Banks, credit card companies, online merchants, even those sites that sell you funny coffee cups or T-shirts depend on what we freely tell them about ourselves, our buying habits, our demographics, education level, even our marital status or sexual preferences.

I have read enough on this subject to understand that living even part of our lives online means we will share things about ourselves. That is part of the arrangement we agree to: convenience and selection in exchange for something detailed about us. There is really no way to be completely anonymous and use the Internet.

I am not sure enough of us realize how much we are giving away each time we click. Nor, do I believe many of us know there are steps we can take to close the firehose of data if even just a little.

Facebook and Google both offer privacy settings that are at least steps in the right direction. While not easy to find, it is possible to protect parts of yourself online. I strongly urge you to not accept the default choices from mainstream browsers. Take the time to switch off some of the more intrusive settings. Of course, using a browser like DuckDuckgo or even Firefox is more protective of your privacy than Google's Chrome or Microsoft's Bing. 

If you are more serious about building a bit of a wall between you and the data harvesters, a VPN is a good step. These Virtual Private Networks put you in a private network, away from prying eyes.

Foolproof? No. Better than the standard Internet. Yes. With your data encrypted and your IP address hidden, this is about as private as most of us would need to be. In some countries having a VPN is illegal, but not in the U.S. 

A solid Firewall to protect you from many hackers and malware is a must. I have both anti-virus and malware software installed, with automatic updates keeping the latest versions in use. If you use Windows, make sure you install the latest patches and fixes. Attempts to penetrate software happen hundreds of times a day. Out-of-date software can be fatal. Though not as porous as Windows, Apple products are not immune to hacking attacks. The same rule of updates and extra software applies.

Of course, none of these common-sense steps matter if you aren't selective about what you post on social media. Remind yourself that a picture you upload, a comment you make, or a nasty remark you publish will stay somewhere on the Internet forever.  

Sharing your full birthdate, the high school you attended, college attendance dates, or a list of all the places you have lived makes it easier for data thieves. Those personal details can create a direct path to your most personal information.

We can't live in fear, nor can we really be involved in life without the Internet. What we can do is be aware of what is at risk if we are not paying attention.  A long-time Facebook employee is quoted as saying, " [Social media's] effects are not neutral. "

As a character on Hill Street Blues said so many years ago, "Let's be careful out there, people."

A Retirement ReminderMedicare open enrollment is now underway until December 7th. This is your yearly opportunity to change plans for supplemental coverage, Part D, and from or to Medicare Advantage programs versus traditional Medicare.

Go to Medicare.gov for more information.

October 17, 2021

Passionate About The Possibilities and Honest About The Realities

This phrase used to be the one that appeared just under the Satisfying Retirement title until a few years ago. Though I haven't used it for quite a while, Passionate About The Possibilities and Honest About the Realities is a phrase I like. This is the stage of life when we are faced with all sorts of new opportunities, challenges, and adjustments. No matter how well prepared we are, there will be hurdles we must overcome. To be less than honest about that part of the journey isn't helpful. 

If my working life was at all typical, there was little opportunity for introspection. There were few opportunities to assess where I had been or where I was headed. Family time was squeezed into little slots of open schedule between work-related necessities. The pressures of keeping my little enterprise going and growing did not have an on-off switch.
As long-time readers know my business came to a screeching halt in June 2001. Rather than pumping more resources into keeping things afloat, my wife and I decided to retire. I was 52 and she was 47....to call us early retirees would be accurate. To call us nervous, unsure retirees would fit, also.

As we began to get our footing in a world not defined by work, schedules, and regular income, we both began to grasp the amazing opportunities we had been given. Our days were wide open, open to inspiration, and possibilities.

Within the confines of a tight budget during those early years, we learned a few important facts about ourselves: our marriage must be strengthened and remain at the center of our universe, our creativity should be allowed to express itself in ways we had never considered before, and the only limitations on what happened were ones we imposed on ourselves. 

In the intervening years, some of those conclusions about life have shifted, some have been tested and found wanting, some abandoned by the side of the road of life, and others discovered and embraced.

Perhaps the most important discovery was being honest about the realities of our marriage. Since we celebrated our 45th anniversary four months ago, rest assured, we have figured things out.

Not us, but you get the idea
But, I had not understood how much my working schedule and attitude toward what happened at home while I traveled had put things at risk. Being together full time forced us (mainly me) to see beyond the public picture of contentment and domestic bliss.

Our communication was strained. Our expectations of what each of us should be doing, both separately and together, were not realistic. There were miscommunications and conflicts that tended to be swept under the rug. An artificially calm and well-ordered household was what I saw after returning from a business trip. Even so, I would criticize something, usually quite minor, that hadn't been done.

You can imagine the stress and unhappiness this caused, not only to my wife but also to the kids. Unbeknownst to me, both girls would hold their breath when Daddy came home, hoping he would not be in a bad mood.

After retirement, as my personal bubble began to burst and I was not running on all cylinders, it took several years for me to understand, accept, and change my behavior. It took a fresh appreciation of the concept of a team building a marriage together, not just two separate people who agreed to share the same space. An honest look at the realities of a long-term marriage revealed cracks and stress fractures that had to be addressed. 

Over the years I have been pleasantly surprised at the personal growth retirement has allowed me to experience. After the period of euphoria and feeling large weights gone from one's shoulders, there comes a letdown.

In the past, I referred to this as Stage Two of retirement. This is when you have no idea what you are going to do with all your free time. You no longer have much structure in your daily life; one needs to be found to prevent feeling aimless or living without much purpose.

Coming out of that period of questions and searching are discoveries of what really motivates and stimulates me, what risks I am willing to take, and what elements of daily life are really most satisfying.
Getting my ham radio license opened me up to a whole world of experiences, friendships, and a chance to use some of my leadership skills.

Prison ministry yanked me completely out of my comfort zone but proved to be life-changing. Helping others in an environment that had been alien to me opened my eyes to parts of society that I had been sheltered from as a child and young adult.

Going through the training to become a lay minister, charged with counseling others, once again put me in direct contact with the personal problems and dysfunctions of others that had not been part of my world.

Volunteer work with Junior Achievement allowed me to satisfy the teacher hiding inside me. Accepting a position on the board of directors of our library's friends' organization gave me a special thrill. Besides being a lifetime lover of books, this work let me feel directly connected to my grandfather and favorite uncle, both of whom were librarians of some fame and importance. Recently, I rejoined a steering committee for the retiree's arm of the Phoenix area United Way.

As my creative side continued to demand more attention, I found myself learning to paint. The progress has been slow; my standards are high. Importantly, though, sitting in front of a blank canvas fills me with possibilities and a positive sense of anticipation. As long as those feelings exist, I will tolerate an end product that will go no further than the walls in my office.

Importantly, as each of these commitments and hobbies was added to my week, I found I had more energy, not less. I realized that I feel tired and sluggish when I am not doing enough, not when I am trying to fit something else in.

Now, with me blogging again, the same feeling applies. Yes, sometimes it is hard to sit down in front of a blank screen and write 700 words that will express how I feel about something while remaining broad-based enough to allow others to see themselves in the words. Yet, there is a positive feeling after finishing the task and feeling good about what has been written. 

R.J. Walters is a blogger that I read on a regular basis. He has so many different blogs and topics that it is nearly impossible not to find something he has written that grabs me on a regular basis. Don't believe me? Click on his name above and settle in for a few hours of exploration.

A few weeks ago a sentence in one of his writings grabbed me with its simplicity. And, it seems to fit with this post. He said, " the future is moving into the past. I am dreaming away my future with dreams."

That is precisely what I have discovered about this time of life. If I think about doing something for too long, that idea is now part of my past. The magic moment has gone. I am spinning all sorts of wonderful ideas of "what if I did this," or "I would love to try this," even, "it is time to stop doing that." 

Yet, if these thoughts remain nothing more than dreams, unacted upon,  they are missed opportunities that may not come my way again.  Being passionate about the possibilities I have while not blind to the realities is what makes a life worth living (even if  you are feeling a little silly!)

October 13, 2021

When The Grandkids Begin To Chart Their Own Paths

Betty and I are supremely blessed. Our grandchildren live about five minutes away. We share time at church, play games, watch football, and have dinner together most Sundays. Whenever one or more of them appears in a school play or musical performance, usually we can attend.

We have gone to both Disneyland and Disney World together. Several times we have rented a large house to spend Christmas with each other in the snow and cold of Flagstaff. New Year's Eve sleepovers were a common occurrence for a few years. We played chess together, via Marco Polo, for several months of Covid. 

In short, we have a very close and marvelous relationship with the kids. We are their guardians if the need arises. They have benefited from having both sets of grandparents as part of their young lives close by and involved. When our youngest daughter is not out of town on a business trip, she jumps right in; we have a full house!

However, none of these good things can slow the tick of the clock. With our grandson about to turn 15, one granddaughter 13, and the youngest girl 11, we see things begin to change. No, there is no loss of love between us all. We continue to spend Sundays, birthdays, and occasional vacations with each other. 

Quite naturally, though, friendships are starting to take an increasing percentage of their time. At church, the older kids gravitate to a core group of friends, both before and immediately after the service.  A week or two ago, the almost 15-year-old worked up the courage to ask a girl to a homecoming dance. Suddenly, he realizes his gym shorts, sneakers, and too-small T-shirts, his everyday wardrobe, should be upgraded for the dance (and probably beyond).

The just-barely teenaged girl is quickly becoming a young lady. While she is not rushing headlong toward cosmetics, gossip, or becoming part of a clique at school, it is obvious her attentions are less likely to be directed toward Betty or me. Trying different looks and clothes combinations has become common. 

Even the youngest is showing signs of wanting a bit more distance from the Grans. She still sits by me at church but will then move over a seat to be closer to the rest of her family. 

Of course, all of this is perfectly normal; I would be worried if it were any other way. Just like our own daughters, these three individual human beings are beginning to find out how they fit into the world. Their sense of identity is not linked quite so tightly with either parents or grandparents. They are establishing some new boundaries.

I am very confident that because of the way they were raised, the family will remain irreplaceable, regardless of their stage of life. Even so, there is a palpable sadness as this natural maturity begins. It seems like just yesterday, they were giggling bundles of energy and questions, each fighting to be the closest to Gran or Grandad. We spoke, and they instantly stopped whatever they were doing to listen or react. 

We would once worry about taking an extended RV trip. After a month or so, when we returned home, each child would have changed and grown so much! How could we voluntarily miss all that?

Now, in a nod toward an adjustment that all parents and grandparents must make, Betty and I realize that in just a blink of the eye, the length of a vacation we take will not upset the grandkids. They will not worry that we are not instantly available. 

A month-long cruise to New Zealand? A five-week driving trip to Quebec and New England? Our decision of when, or even whether to go, will no longer be based on bothering the kids.  When we return, they will want to see the pictures and hear all about it. Each will be bursting to tell us about what has been happening in their lives since we left.

Each of us will understand the way of the world: children are meant to fly with the wind beneath their own wings. And, in the not too distant future, those wings will carry them out of our immediate orbit and on the journey of living.

It is expected, but it is still sad.