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Saturday, 21 February 2015

Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid - There is No Such Thing as Anonymity

When I started publishing my writing, I took a step away from my personal information to make it more difficult for anyone to physically find me. I've been stalked before, and I knew the dangers. To this day, however, it scares me when I see how frighteningly easy it is to find people who are online - and even those that aren't. In fact, that's part of my job as a producer for The Kovacs Perspective. Sometimes there is a particular guest we want to have on the show, or even just an expert on a particular topic, that doesn't come through our usual route for guests. Then I have to go online and find their contact information. It usually takes me less than five minutes, even if I don't know their name when I start out.

That should scare you. Yes, you. Every one of my readers needs to understand how easy it is to find someone online. I can track down almost anyone, and I do not have access to police searches. Nor do I subscribe to any credit reporting service. I Google it. If a person is online in any fashion, their contact information is usually there for the taking. If someone even mentions their name online, I can find them. It happened today, in fact, when I was looking for a guest for the show.

Admittedly I have very good research skills, but you don't even have to know how to use any of Google's advanced search options. I used them years ago, but now I don't even bother. I don't have to. I don't think there is anyone that I have looked for that I haven't been able to find. Even people who do not have Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Some people just shrug their shoulders at this - either because they don't understand the danger, or because they're already cynical about it. I can only be grateful that my stalker did not have access to the tools back then, that I have access to now. It was more than twenty years ago, and the internet wasn't in everyone's home yet. My parents had it, but I didn't know anyone else that did. I didn't even know how to use it, because I didn't live with them anyone. It certainly wasn't the indispensable tool then that it is now.

Imagine, though, that you've got a neighbour who doesn't like you. Maybe they don't even know your name, because you've never introduced yourself. A quick look online to match your address to a name listed in the White Pages, and suddenly they're harassing you on social media because you waited an hour longer than usual to bring your garbage can inside. Yes, I've had neighbours that were like that. Not that incident specifically, but similar in magnitude. They didn't like how fast I drove up to my house in my own driveway. Confused? Yeah, so was I. They almost killed a couple of friends of mine by messing with the tires on my car, which later caused it to flip over multiple times. It was a very good thing they were wearing their seat belts. They also thought it was a lark to siphon gas from my car, leaving me stranded many miles from a gas station.

Those kinds of people are everywhere in the world. They think you looked at them funny one day, and suddenly they're justified in taking a crazy revenge on you, when what you were really thinking about at the time was that you forgot to buy sugar and you were really ticked at yourself. Now you have a mortal enemy you were completely unaware of making.

The fact that I'm very opinionated about certain things and express those views online, makes me a target as well, but at least I went into that knowingly. Every once in a while I have to take a break from it, because I don't enjoy being called names. However, my beliefs don't just disappear because someone calls me a political psycho or an idiot. It's kind of like what Jon Stewart said about values.

I do not consider my values to be hobbies, and though I might not like how people speak to me, and the disrespect I'm occasionally subjected to, I don't generally take it lying down. When I do take a break it's always with the intent of coming back full-strength again.

I recently did that with Facebook. I was getting some strange characters commenting on some of my threads - people who were not friends of mine, but rather friends of friends. It was getting to me to the point where I stopped being polite and was on the verge of spewing my own vitriol. That's not acceptable behaviour to me, so I walked away, figuratively speaking. This illustrates the complete lack of anonymity perfectly, though. People who don't even know you will spew hatred toward you because they disagree with your views. You can't stop them. You can only resist engaging with them.

There is a lot of hatred in the world, and a lot of anger. When I say I'm a feminist it raises a lot of hackles. All I mean is that I believe men and women are of equal value and deserve equal treatment. It does not mean I think women are superior, or that men are jerks. It does not mean I'm a lesbian, or that I refuse to shave, though I stand up for the rights of those who are gay or don't want to shave. My ball-busting is limited to those who treat me as less worthy than a male, and I don't care whether it's a male or female engaging in that behaviour. Of course, it helps that I've broken a vast majority of the stereotypes myself, and that provides credibility when I speak.

I still keep in mind, however, that I should never assume a determined person won't find me. They will. If they really hate me enough, I can be found and my safety can be threatened. I haven't been threatened thus far, and I intend to keep it that way if possible. That means I try to see more than one side of an issue, and acknowledge that others may have good reason for disagreeing with me. I'm not always successful, certainly, but making an effort helps. I've written articles for feminist publications and actually had people thank me for acknowledging the abuse and rape that occurs against men. I've had friends subjected to both that were were male so I'm well aware it happens, and it's no laughing matter when anyone is hurt that way.

On the flip-side of anonymity, there are also those who perform criminal actions online, and those people can almost always be found as well. Very few people even bother with a proxy server when they commit certain criminal acts. There have been a number of 12-year-old-boy types who have been found that were threatening to rape and kill women. That sort of thing is usually seen in gaming culture. For some reason they think it's okay to issue those threats, and think they're safe from anyone knowing who they are. It's one thing parents need to spend more time actively teaching their kids these days. It wasn't so much of a problem ten years ago when it might have applied to my daughter, because online gaming hadn't hit the levels it has now. I severely restricted her internet time back then, too, to make sure her homework was being done. If it wasn't, she was grounded from her computer for long stretches of time. 'Forever' to a teenager.

There's a good reason children under the age of thirteen aren't supposed to have a Facebook account. It's bloody dangerous. I honestly think it's a terrible idea for them to have an account before they're legal adults. Pedophiles search for victims online, and find them all too easily. Teenagers think they're invincible, which doesn't help, and they also have no knowledge usually about how to protect their personal information online. I'd be monitoring my daughter's account constantly, if she were still a teenager. She didn't have an account until she was an adult, though it had nothing to do with me. She just didn't want one. Even now she limits it to friends she actually knows, rather than just letting anyone friend her, and she's inherited some of my paranoia about personal information thankfully.

Even if it's not a stalker looking for you, there are always those that chase down credit card information, or want to steal identities. The latter is very very easy to do, by the way. I know exactly how to do it, though I have not. If you've ever misplaced your wallet, even if it was returned to you, you really need to monitor all activity under your own name, and you may have to do it for the rest of your life. Keep an eye on your credit, and make sure there are no alternative addresses associated with your name. Do yourself a favour and don't keep your birth certificate or SIN or SSN card in your wallet. Only have it with you when you're going to need it for something specific. If someone manages to make a copy of them, they can use that to get other ID, and the ID will be the real deal, unlike having forged documents. This is especially a problem when you can change your information online through official government websites. Their website security will mean little if someone else has all the right information to get past their security checks.

Here's the bottom line. I'm not some hot blonde that shows her cleavage in every ID photo. I don't do 'duck face'. Ever. I'm not young. I'm not a famous celebrity. I'm not rich. I still take precautions, and so should you. I've chosen to have an online presence in order for my voice to be heard every once in a while, but just because you haven't chosen that doesn't mean you're any less vulnerable than I am. A lot of information will already be available about you online, no matter what you do. Just don't add to it and make it even easier for someone to find you

Monday, 16 February 2015

Stopping the Insidious Craving for Obsessive Love, Stalking and Domestic Violence

The massive popularity of 50 Shades of Grey is more than a little bit alarming. I have nothing against a little role playing, or even BDSM if that's what you're into in the bedroom. Two consenting adults should be allowed to do whatever they want. The problem I have is when it gets romanticized as a way of life. When a man tells a woman, "I will find you," that's the sign of someone who is seriously mentally disturbed. It's not sexy - it's very, very scary.

I come from a place of personal experience here. I've been raped, I've been stalked, and I've been held against my will. It was far from being a turn-on, and there's a good reason for that. It's called self-preservation and survival. When you're in a seriously dangerous situation with someone who is unstable, it's pretty damn stupid to want to jump their bones.

So why do people get off on this kind of thing? Because it's a fantasy. Fantasy is fine, and frankly it's a whole lot of fun. Fantasy with another person can be even more fun and sexy. What it requires, however, is a very deep level of trust. So many people are paying to read 50 Shades, and then they're traipsing off to the theatre to see it. Far too many people are thinking it's just opening up people's minds to BDSM. It's not. BDSM needs to remain in the bedroom. When one person in a relationship is being subjugated constantly and it becomes a way of life, eventually that person is going to want to do something their 'master' doesn't want them to do. When that happens the reaction can be terrifying.

What we need to figure out is why this is still such a prevalent fantasy for women. If you're one of those women, it's extremely important. In fact, it can be life-and-death important. There are women in domestic violence situations who cannot break away because they've been conditioned to believe a man should have control over them. They believe that physical strength in men is to be desired, rather than mental strength. When it comes time to press charges they don't want to, no matter how badly they may have been hurt. Men are constantly forgiven for abuses against the person they're supposed to love and cherish above all others, society passing it off as a private issue.

I'm not one of those people, and I've personally boycotted any celebrities I'm aware of that have engaged in that sort of behaviour (once it's been proven, of course). I'll never pay for a Mel Gibson movie again in my life, or a Mötley Crüe CD or song as long as Tommy Lee is involved with the project. I don't care if they've gone to jail and 'paid' for their crimes. I don't think the criminal justice system takes it seriously enough, and that's especially true of celebrities with lots of money to spend on high-priced lawyers. Real men do not lay hands on women in anger. They have no need to 'prove' their control over another person. Any man who does this is inherently weak, and is looking for ways to compensate.

This is what needs to be stressed to both women and men in order to avoid tragedies in the future, such as domestic violence and murder. The perception that a man is strong because he is physically capable of pushing someone around, and that it makes him sexy when he shows how 'manly' he is, is a very big part of the problem. Truly strong people have no need to do this. If more women understood this, they would be much less impressed by physically violent men. Controlling a woman doesn't make a man strong - having no need to control anyone is the true indicator of strength. That's called self-esteem. It's only the men who feel insecure that attempt to control others, in part because they have no control over themselves or their own lives. The more insecure a person is, the more of a control-freak they usually are.

When you really stop and think about that - I mean sit down and actually concentrate on it - it's not hard to start feeling contempt toward people who behave that way, and it doesn't matter whether it's a man or woman exhibiting the behaviour. When you truly realize that only someone who feels weak will pick on others and bully them, we start to lose respect for them. We can see that they must have serious problems of their own that are triggering the behaviour, and it's less and less likely that we will allow them that control over us. It doesn't apply only to domestic violence, either.

When it comes to role-playing, there's nothing whatsoever wrong with it. As long as there's a clear delineation between reality and fantasy. Some people enjoy subjugation, but when you take a mental trip and imagine your entire life spent in bending to the will of another, how many people truly want that as a part of their lives? What happens when you come home from a job you love, and your partner tells you that you have to quit so you can serve them? What happens when you're not allowed to see friends and family members that you love? What happens when you start having to explain the bruises to other people? Are you going to start lying and covering up? If your response to a query is simply a smirk and a fond memory of the night before, that's fine. If your response is along the lines of fearing what will happen if others find out, maybe you need to do some serious thinking about where you want your relationship to go, or if you want it going anywhere.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Stop Paying for Cable When You Can Get it Free - Legally

The cable broadcasting industry has always been less than stellar when it comes to value for your money, and in their business practices. It always starts out with that infamous introductory package where you can get basic cable for a low monthly rate for the first three months or so, but then the price goes up. Sure, they're usually legally required to list in the fine print what your rates will go up to after that introductory period is over, and they have to tell you how long you need to use their services in order to get that temporary low price, but so much of our society is based on instant gratification and add-ons (otherwise known as up-selling) that it really isn't hard for them to rip people off.

Almost everyone who subscribes to cable or satellite gets hooked into taking so-called specialty channels. Usually the one channel you actually want is grouped with several other channels, so you have to pay for the package rather than a la carte services. Even when they allow you to pay for a single channel's subscription, the group price seems like it would be a much better deal. So, in addition to 'basic cable' which doesn't seem to give anyone any of the channels they like, you go for the enhanced services.

Now, of course, we have high definition TVs, and even Ultra HD and 3D. Let me explain to you how high definition works. It's exactly like the analogy about chains being only as strong as their weakest link. You will most likely never have true HDTV, because there is always a weak link in the signal chain. Somewhere along that chain there is a flaw where in one tiny little place (and often in many places) there is a wire or piece of equipment that is not HD-capable. Maybe it's your neighbourhood wires, and chances are good you're not among the 1% who live in fancy neighbourhoods with the best of everything. Most local cable outfitters do not have the money to replace the old, out-of-date equipment with HD. Small towns, people who live out in the country, poor neighbourhoods in every city, etc. You're also going to have general signal loss, and if you're paying for HD I bet you've noticed that it didn't live up to your expactation. You were probably hoping it would be like watching a movie on Blu-ray. It should be, but it's not.

It's not uncommon for people to be paying up to $200 every month for their cable subscriptions. How much value are you getting for your money, do you think? Are you even aware that there's a better way? Don't forget all those additional fees and service charges they tack onto your bill that make absolutely no sense to you - and there's a good reason they make no sense, since they're total BS. If you watch 10 hours of television every month, you're paying $20 an hour for your entertainment. Granted, most people watch a fair bit more than that. 5 hours per week is almost bare minimum for the average person, so you're paying $10 even at that. I won't bother calculating average number of family members. Most people at this point would say this is a reasonable price to pay for entertainment. Is television as good as a movie? That's a highly subjective thing, so I can't answer that. I just know that I have zero interest in watching TV, but I love movies, so I wouldn't pay that much for TV since it isn't worth it to me.

For those who love television programming, however, they're still getting ripped off in a big way. Many of the shows broadcast on cable networks are available online. If you do not have a computer or internet access, then by all means do what you like regarding TV programming. If you're paying for both cable/satellite TV and internet, however, they're double-dipping into your wallet. A lot of networks stream their shows right on their own websites. Yes, there are commercials, because that's how they pay their actors the big bucks, but it's completely legal and you can watch it whenever you press the play button for the video to stream. All you're doing is cutting out the middle man.

So, what about those who don't like watching TV on their computers? Well, almost every computer now has an HDMI output that goes directly into your TV. Think of your mouse as your remote, and you're all set. HDMI was a huge step forward in connectivity, because the wire acts as 2-way communication between devices, and a lot more than one signal is being sent at a time. All audio and video can be transmitted this way, and your computer will know it's connected to a TV, and your TV will know if a signal is being transmitted. Like the old fax machines that almost no one has a need for these days (yes, there are free fax services available online, too), there is a handshake signal between devices. Kind of a, "Hi! How ya doin'?" in machine-speak. Except now you don't need to hear those annoying squealing sounds as it sends frequencies across the line.

One big benefit to this is that any show you watch online, streaming from the original network, the resolution is usually very good. Like YouTube, there's a lot of stuff shown in 1080p (which is literally 1,080 lines of resolution broadcast all at once - the little 'p' stands for progressive scan, as opposed to a little 'i' which means interlaced, where only half the lines are showing at a time). You're really only limited by your own computer, and the cable that you use. Both are things you have control over, rather than some crappy cable line that might be a thousand miles away. The video is sent as a data packet, rather than a broadcast signal, and so it behaves more like a DVD or something similar.

If you really, really do not like connecting your laptop or PC to your TV, there are other alternatives to standard cable companies. Things like Hulu and Netflix. If you're interested, I would suggest further reading here. Or simply do a Google search for 'cable tv alternatives' and lots of stuff will come up. In my case our major phone company does an internet TV service, in addition to the satellite service they already offer, but it's Bell Canada, and I'll never recommend them to anyone. They're one of the worst price-gouging companies in my country. (They still haven't realized that I can get cell service for about half the price they charge for a landline, and at least one cell provider is unlimited in both Canada and the US for everything including data.)

What it boils down to is this: Are you sick of paying for things you can get for free, or for reasonable amounts like $100 per year? That cable bill adds up, especially when you're paying rental charges on receivers for every room in which you have a TV - and they charge more for the ones that have on-demand capability, like PVR/DVR boxes. When I had cable so I could watch the basketball games, it cost me a fortune - that sports package had an insane price attached to it. Now those games are broadcast online, and I've been watching them that way for years. It's not just NBA games either. They have pretty much everything, including European football. The games are live, and they broadcast the ones that you can't get on cable, too - you know, those ones they black out in your area to encourage people to go to the local games in person.

I don't know about you, but I got really tired of them charging me almost $10 for licensing fees, $20 for equipment rental, $15 for the sports networks and enhanced cable, $5 for each additional channel pack, taxes, distribution, basic cable rates, etc. Never mind the sudden jump in price after the three months were over, or the pre-billing most cable companies do. That's the reason your first bill is so high. They prorate what you've already used that month, and bill in advance for the next month. Not to mention the service fee for 'installing' your cable - ahem - that's calling typing a command into their computers, usually, since it often doesn't require a visit from a technician unless you're technically inept enough that you can't screw a cable line onto the threaded peg of your wall outlet. When you move, of course, you're usually charged a service fee for 'installation' again. They have to shut off service at your old house, and turn it on in the new one. Woopee. I'm sure you can sense my sarcasm.

The fact is, cable and satellite TV are luxuries. They're not necessary for us to survive. However, we live in a consumer society and we can't stand being bored. We will go to any lengths not to have to entertain ourselves, apparently, and that means TV for most people. So, if you're broke, or just interested in keeping the money you've worked so hard for, this is one way of lightening the monthly load on your wallet.

Most people need internet service (in North America at least), for one reason or another. In my case I make part of my livelihood online. Even for those who do not work online, there's the simple fact that it's impossible to even find a job now, if you don't have internet. Most employers want resumes e-mailed, most job-finding can only be done online, and even the government (in Canada anyway) uses the internet as its main source for helping people find work (they have a Job Bank online), as well as for people using government services such as employment insurance (similar to UI in the states). Here we file reports every two weeks, and they encourage you to go online to do it. Even changing the address on your driver's licence, or renewing it, is done online here. Same with our health cards. We can file our taxes online, and Revenue Canada prefers it that way since they're stored more easily as data. Plus you get your refund a lot faster if you file online.

The internet is now an intrinsic part of our lives. TV might have been at one time, but so many of us get our entertainment in different ways these days that it seems pointless to be paying those ridiculous fees. If you're anything like me, and any of what I've said here has sunk in, you're probably pretty annoyed right now about how much money your cable company is getting from you. So, don't just stand there - do something about it once your contract is up, and tell them why you're leaving. Maybe they'll pay attention if enough people get fed up. Probably not, but it's always worth it to be honest.