As the Wind Blows


“The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
โ€” John 3:8, from the American Standard Version of the Bible.

The wind blows pollen from male trees in towns and cities across the country, and because there are far fewer female trees planted due to the perceived messiness of their fruits and seeds, much of the pollen lands instead in the breathing passages of people and animals, provoking allergic reactions. For trees, it’s an isolating and nearly sterile environment. Rain washes the pollen away from the streets and the houses and the cars eventually, but the people and animals have already inhaled more than some can tolerate.

A person can stand alone a very long time and be at peace, not feeling lonely, and until the wind whispers in their ear about the possibility of someone’s loving companionship they might stay alone, happily, for many years more. The wind has blown good news in that case, but it may as well have stayed calm and quiet. It is impossible to ignore the wind’s news, however, and in altered circumstances the person now realizes, oddly, how lonely life can be.

Boreas, a 1903 painting by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Love scene from Vertigo, a 1958 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Kim Novak and James Stewart. Bernard Herrmann wrote the haunting score.

Would it have been better not to listen? Better to shut the windows against the noise, the pollution, the pollen, and everything else carried by the wind? Everyone has to make up their own mind about it, and things change and therefore minds change as well. Even a person who rarely feels lonely can suddenly understand what it means when experiencing the loss of a loved one, or when falling in love with someone whose absences leave a void filled only with reveries of times spent together and dreams of future unions.

Dutch harpist Lavinia Meijer performs “Metamorphosis Two”, by American composer Philip Glass. Mr. Glass wrote the piece in 1988 and recorded it in 1989, and in 2002 he incorporated it into his score for the film The Hours.

Patience with those gaps means as much as patience with one another in the times spent together. Being patient demonstrates trust in the other person and acknowledges vulnerability to them. There’s no use in rushing; haste will only create a shaky foundation. You don’t know where love came from, and much as you would like an end to anxiety by knowing where it is going, you can’t. A person might say, imploringly, to the wind if not to one’s beloved, “I didn’t know I was lonely until I met you, and now that I have fallen in love and experienced loneliness when we are apart, I wish an end to loneliness. Please comfort me by returning my love!” But all you can wisely do is listen, and open yourself up, and give generously without demanding a return. “Love is a thing full of anxious fears.” โ€” Ovid
โ€” Ed.

Linda Ronstadt sings lead, with harmonies by Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, for their rendition of “Feels Like Home”, written by Randy Newman.


The Conspiracy Line


By the 1960s, of the hundreds of streetcar lines that had once been a primary mode of transportation in cities and suburbs across the United States in the first half of the 20th century, only a small fraction still operated, and usually only in city centers. Competition from automobiles and buses was one cause for declining ridership of streetcars, and supposedly the costs of installing and maintaining lines was higher than costs associated with infrastructure for cars and buses. The history of what happened in the major mid-century makeover of American urban mass transit is muddled, and one explanation for it that keeps popping up has to do with the machinations of the automobile manufacturers, chiefly General Motors (GM).


The idea springs from how GM bought out streetcar lines around the country, and then dismantled the lines, junked the streetcars, and signed city governments to contracts for purchase and ongoing use of the buses GM manufactured. GM also sold cars to urban and suburban commuters who found themselves with fewer alternatives than they had before the 1920s, when the streetcar lines were still thriving. That’s a neat story, and it certainly fits in with the behavior we have come to expect of large corporations and the executives who run them, but in this case it turns out to be a little too neat and only partially true.

Purchase Street, New Bedford, Mass (68412)
A postcard circa 1930-1945 depicts Purchase Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Photo from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection.

Market forces generated by consumer preferences played the greatest part in the decline of ridership on streetcar lines starting in the 1920s and accelerating through the next quarter century. The streetcar lines were privately owned and the companies bore the costs of maintaining the tracks they operated on and other infrastructure costs, even though they used the same publicly maintained roads as buses and cars. The streetcar lines were more and more at a competitive disadvantage as public money benefited those other modes of transportation and as consumers came to prefer the relative freedom of driving their own cars or taking buses that weren’t restricted to tracks.

Comforting as it might be to blame the automobile and gasoline industries for ripping up streetcar tracks around the nation, depriving commuters of a useful commuting option, the truth in this case is that the public shoulders the greater responsibility. Individual consumers operating in their own self-interest took advantage of cheap gasoline and publicly financed road building, such as the interstate highway system started in the 1950s, to buy at least one car for every household. In most cities, taxpayers balked at public ownership of the streetcar lines, a move which would have saved many of the lines from the corporate scavenging that ultimately killed them off. In other words, GM and other auto and gas corporate interests didn’t precipitate the demise of the streetcar lines, but neither did they mourn their loss, and ultimately, of course, GM and the others profited greatly from the makeover of the American transportation system.

By the time of the 1959 release of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the streets of Manhattan were dominated by vehicular traffic, and mass transit options for New Yorkers were limited to subways and buses. Bernard Herrmann composed the music for the film, and Saul Bass designed the titles. The director makes his cameo appearance at the end of the title sequence.

More than a half century after streetcars were all but wiped off the map in America, they are coming back in spots like Brooklyn, driven by the desire of some people to get around town without the hassles of car ownership, the pollution of cars and buses, the blight of enormous parking lots, and the swallowing up of green spaces for more roads to alleviate the congestion on existing roads, only to have the new roads fill up as well. Streetcars powered by electricity generate pollution at a remove, to be sure, but as more power plants use renewable energy sources, that problem should lessen. Meanwhile, building out more mass transit infrastructure should take off the road some of the oversized vehicles too many Americans appear to love, and which the automobile makers and the fossil fuel industry love turning out for them since they are highly profitable. It has taken a century for Americans to learn anew the value of mass transit options like streetcars, and perhaps soon, before we reach the end of the line, gridlock on the roads will clear, and so will the air everywhere.
โ€” Vita


Watch the Birdie


Most of the publicity regarding cameras hidden in the rooms of paying guests has centered on Airbnb, but conventional hotels have also engaged in spying, as in a recent scandal in South Korea where some hotel staff peddled captured video footage of guests online as pornography. With cameras getting smaller while retaining good lens quality, and storage capacity on digital solid state chips growing larger, for ordinary people the temptation to spy has never been greater. No longer does someone need thousands of dollars and considerable technical knowledge to set up and conceal a surveillance camera or two or three.


Airbnb claims it does not allow cameras, hidden or otherwise, in bathrooms and bedrooms, and that it requires hosts to disclose to guests the locations of any cameras in the more public spaces of rental properties. They allow cameras in spaces such as living rooms and kitchens in the interest of monitoring and protecting the hosts’ property. Airbnb says it’s all there in the rental agreement a guest signs. Hotels have always operated without surveillance cameras officially and knowingly installed in guest rooms. Following the reasoning from Airbnb, their situation is different because the rentals are in privately owned dwellings, where damage and abuse caused by guests can more seriously impact business for each host, who can’t spread out losses over the income from a hundred room hotel.

Eye-Fi Wifi Card
16 GB (GigaBytes) of data storage and wi-fi capability, packed onto a card the size of a person’s thumbnail. There are now cards with 512 GB capacity, which can store several day’s worth of high definition video. Photo by Hegro Berlin.

That’s a good economic point, but not a good moral one. No spying on people in a domestic situation is acceptable. When people are out in actual public spaces, as opposed to the relatively public spaces of a domestic living room, kitchen, or hotel room, they should nonetheless be entitled to complete privacy. Having guests waive their right to privacy by signing off on yet another head spinning legal disclosure, like the multitude of such documents they encounter now, is not acceptable. The choice then becomes either accept spying or do not rent rooms from Airbnb. That could be acceptable as long as Airbnb hosts explicitly and clearly disclose the locations of every camera and show to the guest what the camera is seeing in real time. After the guest’s stay concludes and the host has had the opportunity to assess the property for damages, arrangements can be made between the guest, the host, and Airbnb to destroy the video footage to the satisfaction of all.

Airbnb has undertaken a new business model filling a niche and has apparently been successful with it, but if it cannot ensure guest privacy while also preserving the integrity of host property, the company will see a loss of public trust, and with it a loss of revenue. The latest news stories about spying hosts can’t be good for business. Left unattended, the problem for Airbnb will only get worse.

In the 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, owner of the Bates Motel, spies the old-fashioned, low tech way on guest Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh. If by peeping at his guest, Marion, with the same supposed motivation as some Airbnb hosts, Norman was trying to catch her stealing, he was far too late for that. It did not end well for Marion Crane, Norman Bates, or the Bates Motel.

Technological improvements will continue to make cameras smaller and more capable of capturing high quality images in low light; digital storage capacity will continue to increase and be put on ever smaller devices, along with the increasing capacity of wi-fi networks to handle the flow of information; batteries will get smaller and more powerful, allowing tiny cameras to operate without wires, which will make them even easier to hide. All these technological improvements, as always, are amoral in themselves. The question becomes, for people who desire extra income by renting out rooms in their homes, as for all of us, does what technology makes possible mean that we have to use it, even if the technology trespasses on moral boundaries? Just because you can do something, does that mean you should do it?
โ€” Techly


Open Sesame


The latest crisis in computer security comes from news of the Meltdown and Spectre Central Processing Unit (CPU) exploits. Nearly all desktop and laptop computers are affected, and most tablets, smartphones, and other small devices are also affected.* The difference is on account of the types of CPUs used for the various computers and devices. Since home users usually access password protected accounts like email and online banking from smaller devices as well as larger computers, they could see their privacy and online security compromised across platforms. In other words, hackers can exploit a hardware flaw in the CPUs of home computers, and then hackers could use that vulnerability to access private email and banking passwords in software that crosses platforms.


ืขืœื™ ื‘ืื‘ื ืžืชื—ื‘ื ืขืœ ื”ืขืฅ
In the story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, Ali Baba overhears one of the thieves say “Open Sesame” to open the entrance of the cave where they store their loot. Illustration by Rena Xiaxiu.

CPU makers like Intelโ€  are racing to fix the problem, which was first discovered by Google security researchers last June, and internet browser makers, where many users store passwords, are hurrying to tighten security on their end. In the meantime, people need to be vigilant about email and banking security themselves, starting with changing their passwords if they suspect unusual activity in their accounts and running a full suite of anti-virus, anti-spyware, and anti-malware programs on their computers. Those are routine security measures that people ought to be taking already, but unfortunately some folks don’t even do that much. When their computers are compromised by hackers, those home users are often as not completely unaware they are being used as part of a rogue network, called a botnet, to spread spam and other nasties throughout the internet. When everything is linked as with the internet, the weakest links are the easiest targets of hackers.

Even after tightening up individual computer security by using strong passwords and storing them securely, by not clicking on links in untrusted emails, by surfing the web safely using the anti-phishing feature built into most browsers, by regularly updating a security suite and running scans with it, even after all that a careful home user can still have difficulties, whether it’s because of something completely out of their control in the so-called cloud, such as when credit reporting agencies got hacked, or simply because their Internet Service Provider (ISP) momentarily gives them the Internet Protocol (IP) address of a blacklisted spammer, causing their email provider to block their account.

Since the majority of IP addresses are dynamic rather than static, meaning that each time a computer user connects to the internet the device that user is on, or possibly a larger network it is part of, is assigned a different IP address rather than keeping the same IP address from session to session. Because dynamic IP addresses are recycled, it’s a wonder that the unfortunate coincidence of being assigned a blacklisted address does not happen more often than it does. It’s impractical to remove a bad address from the rotation entirely because spammers can jump from address to address so quickly that soon all of them would be blacklisted, or the addresses would have to be prohibitively long.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film The Wrong Man explores the nightmare of mistaken identity.

The other way to get blacklisted as a spammer is to get hacked as described earlier, either through negligence or bad luck, and end up an unknowing part of a botnet distributing spam to friends and strangers alike. The use of biometrics like fingerprint and iris scans are no better a solution to account security than passwords since hackers have been at work on spoofing mechanisms for biometrics. Police can also compel people to grant access to their computers and other devices when they are locked by biometric measures, whereas they cannot compel people to divulge their passwords. There is no single, simple solution to keeping private data entirely secure on any computer or device as long as it is connected to the internet. It’s like the locks on doors and windows, which ultimately will keep out only honest people. Dishonest people will find a way in if they are determined enough, but it’s better for everyone else if it’s not too easy for them, and if they get caught sooner rather than later.
โ€• Techly

*Post updated to enlarge number of devices affected.

โ€ In November, long after he had learned of the vulnerability in his company’s products, but of course before the flaw had become general knowledge last week, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich sold almost all of his stock in the company for $39 million.


Sink or Swim


“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
โ€• Will Rogers*(1879-1935)


Last Saturday, April 22, was the 48th celebration of Earth Day, and the first March for Science in Washington, D.C., and in hundreds of other cities around the world. Just when we might have congratulated ourselves that reason and scientific inquiry had pushed aside superstition and muddled thinking, the medieval mind rises again and reasserts itself, now with a in-over-his-head champion in the Oval Office who is quite pleased to indulge the self-interest of his oligarchic cohorts in the fossil fuel industry. The lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder grunt their approval of his policies because those obnoxious policies appear to rile up the fancy pants pointy-headed folks, and that’s always a nice, satisfying feeling. The folks higher up on the ladder are only too happy to let those lower down bear their weight, and the reasons they bear that weight are not important to the higher ups, only that they continue to hold up the whole enterprise without asking troubling questions. It’s worked well for Wayne Tracker, aka Rex Tillerson.

It’s not the fault of these hard-working men and their unfortunate mules they’ve been told to “keep digging”.

The amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere is higher now than it has been in human history, based on what we know from ice cores. Sea levels are high and getting higher as the climate warms, and are already affecting coastal communities. It has been at least thousands of years, possibly millions, since Earth last encountered conditions like those we are entering into now. There is no basis for comparison for humans in the present age, now known as the Anthropocene on account of the profound effect people have had on the Earth, because in the interregnum we have settled the coastlines so densely that in geologic time it would appear as no more than the blink of an eye. Around the world now there hundreds of millions of people living within 100 miles of the sea, and accompanying all that settlement there has been an enormous investment in infrastructure such as housing, office buildings, and roads, along with the economic fortunes and personal hopes of all those people. And all of those people will feel – are feeling – the impact of a warming climate sooner than other groups living in other situations farther inland. Around the world, most of those people living along coastlines are poor. Ironically, in the United States, the richest country in the world and one where having a beachfront property is often a status symbol for the wealthy, the effects of sea level rise will possibly be more severe than average.

A portion of a BBC Newsnight interview with Noam Chomsky from June 8, 2012. The situation he bemoans has not improved in the nearly five years since the interview.

Whether a person believes climate warming is caused by humans or not is, at this point, almost immaterial. It is happening; it’s here. If scientific evidence is not persuasive to some folks, then common sense should tip the scales for them. Sticking their heads out of air conditioning into the natural environment for more than a few minutes at a stretch ought to help. Too many people unfortunately are willing to ride along with Wayne Tracker, despite their common sense and their personal experience. If the Earth is a lifeboat in the cosmos (and what have we found so far to tell us otherwise?), then we are all in this together, and at this point arguing about how we got here serves little purpose. Certainly there are some people in the lifeboat who seem to feel it’s perfectly fine to flourish their revolvers and shoot holes in the boat, which of course makes things worse. What to do about them? If we can find the political will among our fellow survivors, we take away their revolvers, for they are imperiling everyone’s chances, and their ideology be damned. They should know better than to pound in the stakes of “Global Warming is a Hoax” yard signs in insufferable heat, throwing themselves into a tizzy, giving themselves a paroxysm of the vapors. They are dangerous nitwits.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 masterpiece Lifeboat holds our attention despite the limited setting because of the universal behaviors we can all recognize.

What would you do if you were on a lifeboat at sea and one or more of your fellow survivors exhibited behavior that was detrimental to your own survival, as common sense dictated it? If your children were with you on the lifeboat, and therefore your progeny were endangered as well? It’s hot, and your patience is growing short. What’s particularly annoying is that you notice some of the unhelpful survivors appear to be cynically manipulating the others, the true believers, for their own gain. Besides the danger, this behavior turns your stomach. If there were another lifeboat nearby, you’d dive off this one and take your chances with the sharks until you reached the other boat. But there isn’t another lifeboat as far as the eye can see. You’re stuck with these people. Nevertheless, with water everywhere, it’s good to know how to swim.
โ€• Vita