Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Parent's Koan

I have a very strong bias against cellphones ~ so very strong. I'm against them on just about every level. And when money is tight, that monthly bill is the clockwork reminder of the corner we've backed ourselves into -- a reminder like I used to give my grandmother who was still "renting" the rotary phone from the Big Bells when we could just buy a push-button phone for her to own.

At one point, I'd found a way to tunnel my way out: With sufficient technical knowledge to get it done, over time I set up an office phone system in the house. Desktop and wireless phones here and there ~ everyone with their own lines and extensions for pennies. There was certainly no escape from internet service at the time, so the phone system's minuscule bandwidth requirements were negligible. Moreover, inside the house ~ and even between houses for anyone who wanted to participate ~ there was no problem calling one another freely and securely.

And really, how clever was it that my handicapped son ~ who's somewhat of a recluse by nature ~ could reach us around the house by dialing an extension? And if anyone was away from the system, well, his call could forward on to their cellphones. I even did the work to write some software so he could send and receive text messages from his tablet or computer, ensuring he'd have every opportunity to communicate with his friends.

At some new clocks started ticking. My own cellphone was dying for months. A replacement wasn't a priority during the pandemic, but there was an inevitable sense that that expense was going to come due. And somehow that triggered a process in my son, who's relentless hint-dropping escalated toward nagging ~ and as we know, we call it "nagging" when we hear the complaints at precisely the wrong time.

We fought ~ and not for the first time. "Why do you even want a cellphone?!? You don't go anywhere. You don't talk to anyone. I've done all of these things to make sure you could communicate with anyone at anytime ~ what more can you possibly need?!? Why do we need another monthly bill for another toy?!?"

The wrong time ~ beside my own dying phone? My daughter is also on my plan, and I had just received notice that she blew through 32GB of the family-shared 30GB data in one month. The teachers were recalled back to school event to teach the remote students, but the bandwidth wasn't ready ~ so she tethered to her phone and got her job done...

But my son? His muscles are progressively weakened and his tablet ~ as aged and slow as it is ~ is getting too heavy for him to handle. The text messaging system I set up? He doesn't use it much, so I don't make uptime a priority ~ but he's afraid he'll miss that one message. And lastly, of course, is that everyone has one but him ~ we must look down on him as a lesser person to reject the request.

The "solution?" There is no solution. I can tell you how it played out, though: I made the call to check new plans and lower my bill ~ four lines with more data for less than three lines and shared data before. I turned off a wireless hotspot I used to use a lot on business that's declined in pandemic. I found myself a ~$100 phone to replace my years-old $600 phone, and -- satisfied -- I duplicated that purchase for my son.

These "practical koans" really don't have solutions. It doesn't matter how strongly I'm against the mobile technology, how it's payed for and how it's used ~ I didn't escape it nor did I move anyone to think like me. I didn't convince my son to stop thinking of "things" as a measure of anything. I didn't convince my daughter to be mindful of her family when exhausting the data. If anything, I've only bought a little time, kicking the can down the road a bit until the next problem arises ~ like the two calls already with the phone company for screwing up the bills.

There were infinitely many choices to handle the situation, but really only one was going to happen ~ and I'll make peace with that.

There is something about the reflective practice though: It was seeing my own biases and anger, and seeing my own failures and regret ~ but also seeing the resourcefulness in one's approach as well as the deeper concerns beneath another's words. There's seeing my own thread in shaping this situation over 20+ years as well as seeing how it will all continue until circumstances change. And there's acceptance ~ finding how I will tell this story that will uncover some meaning or wisdom, and maybe preserve some measure of my own dignity through these "first-world problems."

No need to dwell... warm jasmine tea and the cool breeze rustling through the trees. Soon we'll all be sending photos of the cicadas to everyone we know.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Way of The Way

 I look into the stream and see the people asserting:

This is Success.
That is Failure.
This is the Way.
That is Not.

For them, maybe it's kintsugi. But when they show you what they believe is gold, you fill in the story of the crack around it.

Instead, maybe for us it's wabi-sabi. No gold. No cracks. Between when the cup was formed in the forge and when it will be returned to the earth, a polite nod, a warm smile, and just the taste of the tea.
Trust the ash from the pipe will someday rest in the Golden Buddha's hands.

Friday, April 23, 2021

On Being Heard

Forever, it seems, I've been involved with communications technologies. Over the years, the focus widened to include concerns with privacy, security, and ultimately control over communications channels. Finally (maybe), focus moved to how we know ourselves through communication.

Late last night, I found some joy in getting a "matrix-synapse" server running. What's that? It's an instant messaging service -- IRC on steroids, slightly weaker than Discord or Slack, more focused on the distributed operations (resembling email delivery) and security between the users (end-to-end encrypted messages). In some circles, the most important aspect is that it is "free and open-source software:" talented people contribute their effort to make sure that the software is available freely to everyone.

The rest of the house asleep, I set my reading glasses aside, stretched my fingers and wrists, and sat with a cup of tea. It wasn't long before my thoughts came to join me: "On your network alone, you are running your own self-hosted:

  • blog server,
  • email server,
  • IRC channels for chat (old-school chat rooms),
  • pleroma server (think "federated twitter," "mastodon"),
  • FreePBX (think "office phone system"),
  • Synapse (think discord / slack),

and others. Hell, you even have ham radio transceivers on your desk with digital, voice, and Morse code keys, and antenna wires running out your window. You have every way to communicate -- some of them even bridged -- but who do you even talk to? Who talks to you?"

I have to admit, my thoughts do occasionally raise good questions... After some more thought, I am forced to admit: Most of the time I talk to no one; moreover, most of the time, there is so little "signal" that everything appears as "noise" and the technical mind drifts to find technical ways to suppress it. "If that phone rings at all, it's undoubtedly a scammer." "If that email account receives anything at all, someone scraped or sold the address and now I'm receiving spam." "If a post receives a 'like,' there's something odd about the 'person' (bot?) who took notice; let's write a program to do some analysis..."

Eventually I finished my tea and went to bed.

This morning, my thoughts found me sitting with my coffee, asking me to consider the inverse correlation between an person's "social clout" and numbers of communication paths available to reach that person. Think back to when there were first more than one social media services. Have you ever been the person with an account on each, spending time on each to stay connected with friends, family, business folks, and others, here and there? Wanting to be on one but afraid of losing contact with the others? Have you gone down the technical paths of trying to see all of the activity on one dashboard? Finding the plugins to cross-post all of your activity everywhere?

Or maybe you're one of the people with some popularity or celebrity who everyone is trying to reach? Maybe in your situation you are so in demand that you cut off all social media ties, or delegate "dealing with the public" to others.

Which do you suppose is better: to want to be heard and have no audience, or to want quiet while everyone clamors to hear what you have to say? In your own situation, can you look past your habits and come to know something about yourself?

In my own case, whatever "karma" drives me, I've learned to build communications paths. For me, maybe the value isn't in having my voice heard but in knowing how to build those paths for others.

Then my thoughts asked me what I've learned about prayer...

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Ichi-go, Ichi-e

"[...] But if thou thyself hast a will to listen, let them bind thee in the swift ship hand and foot upright in the step of the mast, and let the ropes be made fast at the ends to the mast itself, that with delight thou mayest listen to the voice of the two Sirens. And if thou shalt implore and bid thy comrades to loose thee, then let them bind thee with yet more bonds."

Circe to Odysseus, from The Odyssey, Book 12 

I recently passed through another gate of purging social media accounts, including some well-aged accounts on Twitter. If I were to ask myself why, the reasons would be twofold. 

  1. The business model of commercial social media is net-detrimental to society's overall well-being.
  2. Once you are see the first point, how do you justify continuing?

I once sat with a zen group.  The people, each there for his or her own reasons, were as ordinary or as broken as those in any other collection. The net dynamic, however, felt far from beneficial -- or at least misaligned with the preached mission. In the end, I didn't stay. 

Then again, I didn't leave either.

So, the social media accounts: Suppose I never asked myself that question, "why?" What then? Are the accounts not still deleted? I assure you they still exist and are as real as the zen group and its members. I can sit on the patio and post the question; and I can ask each of the fire pit, the flowers, the crows and the hawk, and find truth or fault in all of the responses. 

 If you know your mind is visible everywhere, then what is the value in continuing to stare?

Strap yourself to the mast or don't ~ it's up to you ~ but ichi-go, ichi-e either way, with whatever rule you bind yourself or with whatever question you hold.