The Value of Education – Defending my Bachelor’s Degree

Back in 2012 I graduated college with a Bachelor of Science degree – a process that took a total of 6 years and $26k in student loan debt. I double majored in psychology and sociology with a minor in philosophy and I can honestly say getting that piece of paper was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Occasionally I wonder if I should have obtained a more technical degree given my enthusiasm for technology, but ultimately I would not change a thing. At the time I chose psychology as my major because I am genuinely interested in human behavior and I wanted to get into social work (something decided not to do after graduation).

Nowadays, there seems to be a popular rhetoric I hear or read about online: college is a waste of time and most degrees are worthless. Although I think there are too many students going to college despite not knowing what the really want to do (does anyone really?) and that there are a lot of degree fields that lack a direct career path, I nonetheless think a post-secondary education is extremely valuable for both personal development and in terms of economic value.

The claim that college graduates are flipping burgers is ridiculous. There are certainly people I’ve met in college that really had no ambition and were simply there because 1) that’s what they were told to do or 2) they were collecting financial aid money. You can find this type of person that has no drive, motivation, or ambition to do much in any social group. Also, some people just have bad luck. I am skeptical there are many college graduates working fast food and those that are, I highly doubt it’s long term.

I know people that have a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science that make well over $100k a year. On the other hand, I went to college with a guy who graduated the same time I did. 6 months after graduation I started a low level job selling smartphones for Sprint. Around the same time, this guy was on the front page of the local paper setting fire to his degree as an act of protest stating how fucked up the system is and that he can’t get a job because he was lied to. The sad reality is that getting a degree does not guarantee you a good job – especially right out of college.

Many young people suffer from the economic burden of paying off loans. Also, life at a university does not necessarily encourage good money habits. After graduation, I see all too often (myself included) people making only the minimum payments toward their student loans and hope that some politician with big promises will wipe out their student debt. The sad reality is the government will not come in and save the day and this hope only prolongs the pain of student debt further.

That’s enough of potential negatives of a degree, let’s change gears to the benefits. A college degree does not simply show you’re knowledgeable in a specific area of study. The college environment fosters the obtainment of other skills, knowledge, and experience including critical thinking, information analysis, presentation skills, reading comprehension, public speaking confidence, increased vocabulary, working in groups, leadership, and networking just to name a few. There are a lot of real world skills one can pick up by the time they complete their degree program.

Networking has been an important component to my college education. Not just simply learning how to network, but the connections I made in college have proved to be valuable. I’ve utilized the connections I made during college to land positions at reputable companies – so the saying goes it’s not what you know but who you know.

Maybe there needs to be a shift in focus while attending college – perhaps less emphasis on subject and more emphasis on the skills and experiences necessary for the 21st century. Our world is undergoing significant change and that rate of change is not slowing down. What was once considered a good education 50 years ago is no longer enough for success in college, career, and citizenship in the 21st century. There is a movement in the education community that suggests that the future of education needs to emphasize the four C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. This philosophy on education is targeted for K-12 students, however in my experience these skills are more or less obtained in college but could be more formalized.

I believe that education is valuable in itself, but if we must attribute economic value to it, then I believe yes, it is (for the most part) economically valuable as well. I think anyone that’s gone through the process and obtained a degree should be proud and recognize that what they accomplished is beneficial to their growth as a person – both personally and professionally. Do you need a degree to succeed professionally in life? Absolutely not – there are other paths like learning a trade or joining military that can be of significant value as well, but a college degree is a viable and worthwile path.

Donating to Security and Privacy Advocating Organizations & Projects Pt. 2

Recently the developer behind an alternative YouTube front-end that I regularly use to avoid actually using YouTube announced that he’s calling it quits. Although his blog post that clarified his intentions of shutting down said he’s not quitting because of costs, he did break down all the costs associated with the project and approximately what he pulled in monthly from donation (which was equal to roughly $5 per month). This developer was eating a ton of cost to keep the website going. Granted if I were in his shoes, I would place the call-to-action to donate in a more obvious position instead the bottom of the page, but nonetheless it reminded me that if we have an extra few dollars each month we should use them to support open source projects.

I know I’m in a privileged position to be working when so many people have gone unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I feel that donating to free and open source projects is important now more than ever. For example. the TOR Project recently laid off a third of their team and just today Mozilla had to let go of 250 employees working on Firefox.

Below are some projects I’ve made some donations to. With the exception of andOTP, all donations were done via Bitcoin. I personally don’t make that much money, but I’m trying to get into a pattern of behavior of donating small portions of my monthly income to FOSS and non-project projects I use regularly or generally support.

GrapheneOS – is an Android-based, security-hardened, privacy focused, free and open-source, mobile operating system I’ve been using on my Pixel 2 XL for the last several months. And the lead developer behind the project Daniel McCay is renown in the privacy and security community.

PrivacyToolsIO – This website has been a valuable resource for me as I transitioned from using Google and other privacy invasive services to more secure and privacy-centric tools. The team behind PrivacyTools thoroughly vets and provides recommendations for digital tools and services so long as they’re FOSS and have a solid reputation among other things.

Free Software Foundation – This non-profit organization was founded by Richard Stallman in the 1980’s to support the free software movement and promote the freedom to study, distribute, create, and modify computer software. The FSF is also the organization behind the GNU General Public License and continues to advocate the use of free and open source software.

NewPipe – is an alternative YouTube front-end for Android that is essentially a replacement for the YouTube android application but without the advertisements and tracking.

andOTP – this is a two-factor authentication application that’s free and open source. The app is maintained by a small team, but the current main developer is active.

It’s been a long time since I’ve donated to a non-technical cause. I think I’ll change that next month.

Dog Mountain, WA – 2020

Rather than traveling to far distant places on the opposite side of the planet, due to the current global situation we’re forced to find places to visit close to home in order to satiate the desire for adventure. Dog Mountain trail is roughly a 6 mile hike round trip, but with a somewhat torturous elevation gain of about 2,800 ft. It’s located in Washington along the Columbia River Gorge and only about an hour from home.

#DeleteFacebook

There was once upon a time (basically most of my 20’s) where I would share just about anything and everything to Facebook. I’m not sure I would define myself as someone that “over shares”, but I was certainly a highly active user of the platform, sharing every ridiculous photo and every stupid thought. As time went on, I not only adopted Facebook’s other services like Facebook Messenger and Instagram, but also other platforms like Snapchat, LinkedIn, Foursquare, etc and began actively sharing there as well. Over the last couple of years or so, my use gradually declined, primarily during and after leaving a digital marketing agency that I worked for which specialized in social media marketing.

My Experience in the Digital Marketing Industry

I just want to provide a little bit of context of my personal experiences being on the other side of the screen. While working at this digital agency I began understanding exactly how this platform works what sort of personal data they collect. I even sat in on a couple meetings with Facebook employees who shared in detail about how their advertising platform works, how to narrow our target demographics, best practices for content, and which elements were needed in our content to drive engagement. I helped design Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram ads (of course we wouldn’t call them “ads”) in which the clients would dump tens of thousands of dollars into promoting on the platform.

I would create detailed reports from the data generated from these posts to see which content received the most reach, impressions, and total engagements (engagement rate). I’m oversimplifying here as to not get too technical, but my goal here was to determine which creative elements performed the best (ie what type of content people are likely to click on). Simply put, I spent 4 years of my life trying to figure out how to get people to click things on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (as well as a few other niche platforms). Anyways, anyone who has used Facebook’s Ad Manager knows just how narrow you can define your target demographic – this isn’t news or some conspiracy. Suffice to say, I became jaded in this environment but I wanted to share this to demonstrate the depth of my experience.

Why Facebook Needs to Collect as Much Data as it Can About You

Facebook is incentivized to collect every piece of information it can about you so that it can sell that information to advertisers – this is ultimately the vast majority of where Facebook’s revenue comes from. A lot of this information Facebook doesn’t even have to ask. We share this information with them by happily providing our full name, age, gender, location, political stance, and religious views. On top of that, we share our music tastes, our favorite movies, our favorite actors. We even share status updates of our thoughts – all of this data to be used to compile any even more detail advertising profile about you. This collection of personal data is how it makes it’s money – meaning that Facebook is not the product, you (the user) are the product that they sell to companies – a cliche statement, but nonetheless accurate.

We know how Facebook makes it’s money. This motivates the company to get you addicted to spending as much time as possible on their platform so that they can serve you more ads and more clicks. The reasoning is that you are more likely to click on an ad when it’s more relevant to you and thus the need collect as much personal information about you as possible. Human attention is a scarce commodity which is why this business model is effective. What’s the harm in that? Facebook’s algorithms, it’s massive amount of data on you, as well as the advertisements themselves are designed to pull at the strings of your psyche (often at an unconscious level), to manipulate you and drive you to perform an specific action be it a click or purchasing a product or service.

Yes this is marketing 101, but marketing to this extent has never been possible until the advent of Facebook (and social media in general).

Facebook Watches You Even When You’re Not Using Their Services

Another important fact that most people seem to be unaware of is that Facebook not only tracks everything you’re doing when you use their platforms, but they track you even when you’re not using their services. Say you’re using Facebook on your laptop, you close the tab, and then you decide to cruise the web, reading some news, watching videos, what have you. You’re still be tracked! The embedded Facebook “Like” button you see on most websites are indeed a Facebook tracker that reports back to Facebook that you visited that page. Not only is this level of tracking occurring on their platform, but it occurs even when you’re not using their service.

Furthermore, the most popular smartphone applications also contain embedded Facebook trackers (as well as other ad trackers). The Facebook application themselves track you even when you’re not even using the apps.

Cesspool of Misinformation & Filter Bubble

The fact that Facebook is a cesspool of misinformation might be the point everyone agrees with, but to be fair Facebook isn’t entirely to blame here. As pretentious as this sounds, a lot of people lack the critical thinking to distinguish between a news article and an article that’s blatantly fake information. I am guilty of falling for misinformation as I’m certain you are – whether you’re aware of it or not. These types of misleading articles get repeatedly shared and oftentimes people will formulate their views not on the actual article. People will form an opinion about something just by reading a headline! Granted, I’ll go out on a limb here and call almost anyone out on reading just a headline and then forming an opinion. We are sliding into a post-truth era.

Furthermore, Facebook’s algorithm is designed to keep us in a filter bubble. Anyone familiar with the algorithm will know you will only see content Facebook believes you’re likely to engage with. This keeps us engaging with people that oftentimes share our opinion which further exacerbates confirmation bias.

Distraction

The average person spends 144 minutes a day on Facebook. Imagine how you could put that time to more productive and meaningful use. On top of that, the notification sound which precedes a pleasant spike in dopamine leaves us in a constant state of distraction. I immediately think of Cal Newport’s books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism – two books I highly recommend.

I’m not claiming to be a productivity guru immediately after deleting my account, but I can confidently say that rather than scrolling mindlessly I’ve consciously made the decision to read more books, start writing again (which resulted in this website), and meditating almost daily. I’ve also picked up old hobbies like tinkering with Linux.

Conclusion

Facebook’s product is not the platform – WE are the product and our DATA and ATTENTION are being sold to advertisers. It is important to ask yourself when using any free online service “how is this organization making money?”. If it’s not obvious, oftentimes you’re the product. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Companies like DuckDuckGo or Protnmail can monetize their service while also respecting their users.

If it’s not obvious at this point, my opinion is that Facebook is garbage and it’s the equivalent of giving your brain junk food. I’m not telling everyone to go out and delete their Facebook accounts… actually maybe I am, but I know most likely won’t. Additionally, I know that some people have their business heavily tied into Facebook and it’s simply not viable. I went back and forth with deactivating my account, unfollowed basically everyone, and then said fuck-it and ripped off the band-aid. Psychologically, I was worried and was experiencing fear of missing out, but after I deleted it, I felt so much better. To those wary of doing so, I’ll tell you the water is just fine. As I said, I’m not sure anyone reading this will immediately go out and delete their account, but I think it’s important for everyone to understand exactly what Facebook is and how they make their money.

Ultimately, deleting Facebook is the best thing I’ve done for my productivity, my privacy, and my mental health.

Getting Linux to Remember a Bluetooth Mouse After Reboot

I’ve had this issue that has plagued me for the past couple of years that I never truly spent more than an hour trying to solve. When using a bluetooth mouse on distros like Manjaro, LMDE, and Linux Mint, I’ve ran into this problem where whenever I reboot my machine, I would have to repair my bluetooth mouse every single time. The only time I didn’t have this issue with running Debian 10 and Windows.

I recently stumbled across a post in r/ArchLinux where someone was complaining of the exact same problem. I tried one of the recommended solutions and it surprisingly fixed my problem.

Open a terminal and launch bluetoothctl, run the commands agent on and default-agent before trust <MAC>, pair <MAC>, and connect <MAC>. The MAC address can be found by opening up your bluetooth manager and searching for the device in question. Note that I had to unpair my device from my bluetooth manager and repair it with bluetoothctl. It took a couple attempts, but was eventually successful.

After completing those steps, open up /etc/bluetooth/input.conf and add the line #UserspaceHID=true. Reboot your machine.

Violà! After rebooting my machine, my mouse automatically connects every time. I also discovered a handy new tool I can use in the terminal!

You Are Not Your Thoughts – Experiences With Meditation

If meditation and the study of free will has taught me anything, it’s that I am not my thoughts. Spending any amount of time on this, you’ll discover that consciousness precedes thoughts.

I’ve been meditating on and off semi-frequently for the last year and a half. I’ve always been curious about the nature of my own mind – the very reason why I got my Bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. Meditation was something I had been somewhat interested in trying throughout my twenties but I never dedicated any time to doing so. Also, being the skeptic and atheist I am, there is a TON of new age woo woo nonsense surrounding the practice (and the term “spiritualism” in general) which was an initial turnoff.

I started meditating seriously when Sam Harris released his book “Waking Up: Spirituality Without Religion” and ultimately his guided meditation app “The Waking Up Course”. Currently, I’m halfway through the book, but I subscribed to the course for a year and completed all fifty of the 10 minute introductory sessions. I also participated in the daily meditation where I tried 20 minute guided meditations. Finally, I decided to give guided meditations a break and explore twenty minute silent, self-guided meditation on my own.

Throughout the end of May and the entire month of June I silently meditated 30 to 40 minutes every day for a collective total of 24 hours and 5 minutes. Throughout the last month I discovered several new insights about my own mind.

The mind is a very busy and noisy place. The most random thoughts come to the surface of consciousness, seemingly to emerge out of nowhere. Our consciousness becomes aware of what seems to be a never ending stream of thoughts – going from one thought to the next ad infinitum until we sleep (though one could also argue that it may not necessarily stop at sleep).

It’s while meditating where I realized that I (we) have no control of our thoughts – we have absolutely no control of thought appears next or what stupid song gets stuck in our head. I was originally exposed to this idea from another one of Sam Harris’ books called Free Will which I’ve written briefly about before.

One of the goals of meditation is to clear your mind of thoughts if just for a moment and really experience the moment. Anyone who has ever tried meditation knows that this is easier said than done, but focusing on the ins and outs of the breath helps. However, when I realize that I’m lost in my own thoughts, I’ll take a step back and look at the thought. These thoughts tend to have a common theme: planning for the future, reviewing the past, or social situations and relationships.

Ultimately, we’re in a state of constantly needing and wanting things. When we obtain that thing that we need or want, that feeling of achievement is short lived and we then move on to the next need or want – an endless cycle that leaves us in a perpetual state of feeling unsatisfied (or “suffering”, but I feel this word is a bit excessive for most needs and wants).

Another realization I’ve made is that we are not our thoughts and do not necessarily need to identify with them. Our thoughts simply appear in consciousness, yet we often identify ourselves as the thinker of our thoughts despite the fact we are simply the observers. I think dissociating myself with these thoughts that come packaged with endless wants and needs is an understanding that I’ve needed.

I think that I have much more to explore. I’ve yet to meditate for more than an hour other than a half a dozen sensory deprivation float sessions. I’ve also been considering a silent meditation retreat once this global pandemic cools down.