Etymology Excavation: quarantine

Etymology Excavation: quarantine

Etymology excavation: Quarantine

Quarantine as we know it today comes from the C15th Venetian word ‘quarantena’, and meant ‘forty’. Forty days was the required isolation period for ships before they were allowed to off-load in Venice or ports controlled by Venice during the outbreak of the Black Plague.

Essentially, if no one showed any signs of any infectious diseases after that 40-day period, Venetian officials would give them their certificate and let them disembark. If infection broke out, it would run its course shipboard, and any survivors who made it 40 days from the end of the outbreak with no further signs were then considered clear.

Even today, ships waiting for Customs clearance in a new harbour will fly a solid yellow flag (the ‘Q’ flag), which is basically a self-declaration that they have no infectious diseases aboard and are safe for Customs agents to board and clear. A ‘Yellow Jack’ flag, with alternating black and yellow quarters, means the opposite – the ship has an infection aboard and is under quarantine.

Venice was not the first example of an established quarantine system. There are documented examples of it going back as far as the 7th or 8th centuries in India and the Middle East. A lot of these earlier quarantine systems were fairly ruthless in their application, and more or less consisted of running the sick or those suspected of being sick out of town to live or die well away from other people.

The root of the word ‘quarantena’ goes back even further, to Proto-Indo-European ‘kwetwer’, or ‘four’, with offshoots in languages from French to Gaelic to Persian to Latin.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

It’s not my job to educate you

It’s not my job to educate you

It’s not my job to educate you

…we’ve all seen that somewhere. And no, if you aren’t drawing a teaching salary, it isn’t your ‘job’.

My concern is that people asking for information is coming dangerously close to being seen as ‘entitlement’: as in, if you weren’t you and didn’t have the contextual awareness of a rock you should already know all this. Stop making me explain things you should know to you.

I get it. I’ve lived it all my life. It’s really annoying when people ask you about stuff you know and they don’t just to understand what the hell you’re talking about when that ‘stuff’ is every day for you. On the other hand, if you want people to understand, even if it isn’t your job, I put it to you that throwing a hissy fit about how it isn’t your job to educate people may not be the best possible alternative.

My context is that I come from somewhere no one’s ever heard of and my environment growing up was one that almost no one has. If someone wanders up to me to introduce themselves and asks me that innocent little question about where I’m from, I can either lie or get myself involved in educating them.

Since my school years, I’ve never been comfortable having this discussion. This means that while, no, it may not lose me a job or get me stoned in the street, about every other time I meet someone new I get to choose between lying or enjoying a nice bout of social anxiety and a rash of bad memories. And then, after that, I get to educate them.

This is how it tends to go.

Stranger: “Oh hey, hi, I’m so-and-so, nice to meet you!”

Me: *Oh, Jesus, should’ve ducked behind the buffet* “Hi, nice to meet you so-and so.”

S: “Hey, cute accent! Where are you from?”

Me: *ohshitohshit here we go again* “Oh, thanks! I’m from Gibraltar.”

S: “Gibraltar! That’s in Australia, right?”

Me: *argh* “No, it’s a British territory in the south of Spain. You might have heard of the Strait of Gibraltar, joins the Atlantic and the Mediterranean?”

S: “That’s so cool! Did you grow up there?”

Me: *oh god, now we’re for it* “No, my parents travelled a lot.”

S: “Oh, cool! So I guess you’ve got great  frequent flyer perks?”

Me: *please kill me* “Uh, no, we lived on a boat.”

S: *really gets their extrovert happy on* “A boat?!?!”

…and so on.

There is actually a Facebook group called “Yes, I’m from Gibraltar; no, I can’t be arsed to tell you where it is”, and I didn’t start it, which means that yes, I do absolutely ‘get’ not wanting to have to explain your personal context to other people. So, apparently, does almost everyone else from my country who’s ever left it.

However, if I’m speaking to someone who isn’t well-travelled, which a lot of people aren’t, or aren’t well-educated on non-*wherever* geography, which is most people, I can explain, or I can be an arsehole. The latter certainly comes easier, but is it really fair to blame some random person for not knowing something that’s every day life for me and not to them?

I can certainly walk off when they start asking stupid questions about boats, too, but again, is it really fair to expect that they should know? And if they don’t, which is, again, most people, then I can either explain, and they’ll go away better informed if not any wiser. And then, next time they meet some random weirdo who’s sailed, they’ll know that yes, such people exist, and that conversation will go easier. Not for me, of course, but for the next poor sod who shares any part of my personal context.

Is there a huge difference between someone asking for information and someone asking because they’re trying to get at you?

Yes, of course there is, and those people are at least partly why I hate having these conversations. Being ‘different’ is just tons of fucking fun with a cherry onna top in some situations.

However, I’m a firm supporter of giving people at least a sentence to hang themselves in. I’ll absolutely be an arsehole to someone out looking for a rise. Someone who’s merely trying to ameliorate their ignorance by asking someone else who’s just admitted to being a source of first-hand information, that I’ll hesitate to do unless I’m having a really awesomely foul day.

In other words, my attitude is indeed entirely dependent on you. It’s not my job to educate you, but if I want you better-informed it may be in my best interests, or if not mine, the next poor schmuck’s, to do so.

Travelling without going away

Travelling without going away

Travelling without going away

It’s something that authors tend to be good at, and it can be a blessing in those long meetings or when the bus timetable yet again proves itself to be the only work of true fiction in the universe.

This time I did something I very rarely do, and betook myself to play tourist in my own backyard, using the excellent excuse of family in town.

Vancouver’s Chinatown is something I tend to take for granted, which is a shame because as well as great steamed buns (New Town Bakery is a must-visit), there’s also a lot to see there and some great tea shops. I recommend coming in on Pender Street and taking a few photos with the entry way arch, it looks very impressive.

Although I’d explored the Sun Yat-Sen park before, I’d never caught the garden itself open, so we armed ourselves with tickets and some of the tea on offer, and went to explore the traditional architecture and admire the garden courtyards.

It was raining that day (it does that a lot in February, I find), so unfortunately the central rock garden was closed to careless tourist feet, but the rest of it, from the moon gate to the intricately-paved courtyards, was definitely worth a visit.

Since an episode a couple of years back involving a travelling river otter and the garden’s koi, there aren’t many fish still living in the ponds of the Park and Garden, but the imported boulders and the plants are very much worth looking at, and the ponds themselves are very pretty.

As you can see from this photograph, it’s remarkably hard to tell that about a kilometre behind me is the absolute centre of Vancouver’s Downtown, with all the massive glass monuments to the P-type personality that usually involves. (Hint – disaster projections for Vancouver’s Downtown that involve an earthquake of any great magnitude revolve around 5 foot of broken glass in the streets…)

Vancouver’s Chinatown is the largest in Canada (its only rivals for size in North America are both in the States), and it’s separated from Downtown along the waterfront by Gastown, which used to be a moderately dodgy area and is now pretty much tourist central, including highlights like the steam-powered clock, and a Spaghetti Factory to make our American visitors feel at home.

In other categories of travelling local, we also went up Cypress Mountain for night snow-shoeing plus cheese and chocolate fondue, and were lucky enough to get about four inches of snow. One of the great things about Vancouver is that the coastal mountains offer great snow between about Christmas and Easter most years, but once in town again, we have a lot more reprieve from snow than most of Canada. (Admittedly the downside to that is that when a few flakes do hit town, the entire city comes to a screeching halt…)

All in all, Vancouver’s a fun town to tourist in. Even if you happen to live here.

Privacy online

Privacy online

Privacy online for authors (and ordinary entities)

Online privacy sometimes seems a bit like the Fountain of Youth: everyone wants a piece, and no-one really knows how to get there because it’s at least partly alchemy.

Not so.

We’re coming up on Data Privacy Day, so here are a few really-to-relatively simple things you can do, as an absolutely standard-model human being, optionally one who writes, to improve your online privacy without doing anything drastic, like trying to delete your online footprint. No mermaid tears required.

Disclosure: Who died and elected me privacy god? I work in data privacy and compliance, BUT nothing I say here represents the company I work for.

The concept of TANSTAAFL, first

For them as haven’t read their Heinlein, I’m going to introduce you to a really key concept around ‘free’ services (online or anywhere else).

That concept is TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). Facebook is not free. Facebook is suctioning up your data and selling to anyone who’ll pay. That airport ‘free’ WiFi is not free for broadly similar reasons.

‘Free’ apps that promise to give you marvelous selfie filters and want access to your location, your contacts, and everything else? Nope! They’re not free either. You’re just paying them in data – yours, and if you give them access to that coveted Contacts list, your friends’ data, as well.

Get a VPN

Yes, really. A VPN (virtual private network) basically gives data moving to and from your device Star Trek shields as far as the unauthorised are concerned. It’s the go-to for some additional privacy online.

In slightly more technical terms, it encrypts your data. It slows data transmission down slightly, which is why people with slow Internet to begin with aren’t huge converts to VPN, but it means that no one can see what you’re up to. This is especially worth it in situations like mobile phones and those oh-so-tempting ‘free’ WiFis in cafes and airports. Put a VPN from a reputable provider on your cell phone. Put it on your home computer. Put it on your tablet.

Techradar’s Top 10 VPN services (I personally disagree with the inclusion of NordVPN, which had a breach a few months back, but I guess there’s nothing like publicly-bitten, really paranoid thereafter…)

You don’t have to give up Netflix or Fitbit. Better VPNs work with Netflix, and if you don’t want to shell out but do want Netflix, you can take the dumb-but-practical route and switch the thing off while you binge on The Witcher. Fitbit throws the occasional shit-fit about VPNs, but switching regions is a simple fix that takes all of a few seconds.

Use Multi-factor Authentication

Also known as two-factor authentication, 2FA, MFA…just for the love of all the squishy, squirmy deities, DO NOT use the text message option for 2FA unless there really is nothing else. (Reason: SIM card jacking, among others.)

Basically, humans are fallible. If you can remember a password, someone else can break it. If you happen to be dumb enough to use login: admin, password: admin, you end up shelling out billions in ‘we fucked up’ money. Multi-factor auth means that someone needs your login, your password, AND something else (that’s where that ‘multi’ comes in).

MFA comes in many forms. You can use an app on your phone, like Google Authenticator. You can buy a physical key, like a Yubikey. Your fingerprint can form a part of MFA. It can, gods help us all, be a text message with a code in it.

Because MFA is an extra step in the login process, a lot of people moan about it. Feel free to moan all you want, just use it. Use the method that makes the most sense for you, that takes the least time and effort (for me, that’s my phone and Google Auth. For you, it may be a Yubikey on your keyring. Whatever blows your skirt up).

Get a password manager

You remember how, just up above, I said humans are fallible, and if you can remember it, someone else can break it? Yeah, that. Well, newsflash, that 123qwerty password isn’t secure. Keeping your super-hard-to-remember password on a Post-It under your keyboard isn’t secure. Keeping an Excel sheet on your desktop with your logins and passwords isn’t secure. Setting all your favourite shopping sites to keep you logged in until the world ends, no, is not secure.

But remembering all those symbols and numbers and upper and lower case passwords is hard! Yes, it is. Sometimes adulting sucks. Sometimes, you can find a really easy easy way around the suckage. Password managers are suck-avoidance. A lot also offer a ‘free’ option. (Yes, I do remember what I said about TANSTAAFL.)

PC Mag’s Top 10 Password managers for 2020

A semi-decent variant, like LastPass, will plug into your browser of choice, have an app, let you add logins and passwords, auto-launch sites for you, generate secure passwords, and auto-update your settings when you change a password.

A password manager, effectively, means you need one decent password that you put the brain sweat into remembering, and use MFA with it, and the password manager manages all the rest of them. Awesome, right?

Don’t auto-accept cookies

…most places in the first world, with the exception of the USA, have laws that say you aren’t obliged to. Large companies, for the most part, aren’t big fans of those laws, which is why when you go hunting in ‘select options’ in cookie banners (assuming there even is an option to select or decline), you’ll often have to dig down to find the options, or decline with each third party site individually. (Hint: a lot of those companies will have hidden any options they offer equally thoroughly.)

WTF are cookies anyway? Cookies are tiny files (we’re talking bytes here, not MB), that a site drops on your device. Some of them are harmless, the equivalent of ‘we want to remember you prefer the French-language site so you don’t have to tell us every time’. Some of them sit there and do nasty things like tell every other site you land on where you’ve been, what you did, what you’re interested in buying today (ever wondered how you can look at a new kitchen whisk on Amazon and get hit with adverts for domestic appliances everywhere for the next six months? That ain’t alchemy either).

So now we’ve covered why companies aren’t keen on laws that say they shouldn’t track you and market shit to you without your actual consent…how do you exercise those anti-cookie rights? Well, unfortunately, cookies are such an established part of the internet that in a lot of cases, and especially if you deal with a lot of US sites outside California, the answer is ‘you can’t’. In the EEA, companies are obliged to provide you specific information about what cookies they want to place and get your active, specific, and informed consent to any marketing cookies. A lot of them don’t, either because they’re trying to figure out how, can’t afford a good solution, or just don’t want to and hope they don’t get a DPA land on them before they get set up.

Three simple things you can do that will help:

  1. Use incognito browsing. You’ll encounter a lot of shrieking from sites that can’t identify you on sight, but that can be educational too.
  2. Delete your cookies periodically (say, at least once a week, if you can’t be bothered to do it after each online session. There’s security consciousness and there’s masochism…)
  3. There’s a browser app called Consent-O-Matic developed by a team of privacy researchers in Denmark (after they found out all about the shadier cookie practices out there), where you install it, tell it you want to let people see which pages you spend time on and don’t want to be tracked by online advertisers for the rest of your life, (for example) and when it comes across a cookie tool it can handshake with, it sets those options for you. I recommend it.

That’s all, folks…

So, hopefully I’ve now scared the shit out of you and you’re off to investigate the wonderful options for trying to keep people from peering through your online windows. It’s a brave new world.

The good news is, 107 of the world’s 210(ish) officially recognised countries already have some form of privacy law in place as of 2019, and more are looking into one, so things are improving. We’re just in that lovely Twilight Zone where legislators take a couple of years to consult, draft, and pass laws protecting you, and a good hacker team can get into a system in under 18 minutes (yes, that’s minutes, with an ‘m’.)

In case after reading all that you feel in need a good, solid dose of escapism (here’s the TANSTAAFL in action part) – my sci-fi box set is on Kindle Unlimited, featuring interstellar mercenary cults, pretzel politics, and enough dirty fighting to bring a tear to your eye. Fund a starving author to write more escapism.

What we can learn from myths and legends

What we can learn from myths and legends

Myths and legends

Hercules and the Aegean. Persephone and Hades. Midas. Myths and legends are often seen as cautionary tales, like the precursor to Aesop’s fables, but I put it to you that in many cases, this may simply be bad publicity, or even that they were ideas whose time had not yet come.

Let’s take a serious look at Hercules and the Aegean stable legend, for example. I mean, you have one seriously over-muscled demi-god with an atonement complex, and a lot of mucking out to get done. In ancient Greece, you’d usually have people for that kind of thing, and so employing a demi-god for it was seen rather as bringing in a ringer, especially as he expected to get paid for it. However, in this day and age, the idea of hiring a cleaning service has clearly come – whether by sheer dumb luck or stereotyping, I can hardly move online without falling over someone telling me my house needs cleaning and they’re the girls and boys for the job. Hercules’s idea of domestic labour for the highest bidder is clearly sound: he was simply unfortunate in being born about 3,000 years before online advertising.

Or what about Persephone and Hades? Persephone, daughter of Demeter, wound up married to Hades, lord of the underworld, but Mommy threw a fit, and Persephone ended up spending six months in Hades and six months with her mother (we all know those mothers-in-law…). However, shocking as this concept was at the time, when the female role in society was basically that of a rather underprivileged servant, of which Hades was essentially deprived, in this day and age couples living apart is increasingly common. The involvement of the mother-in-law I can’t speak to, but fairly clearly, another revolutionary idea that was simply several thousand years ahead of its time.

I find myself wondering what we’re looking at today that’s seen as dangerously revolutionary, that will seem like a good idea in another few thousand years. Both genders getting paid the same for doing the same job, maybe. Or maybe looking after the environment (although, thinking about it, if we don’t grow a collective brain about that sooner than several thousand years out, we’re unlikely to be around in several thousand years…)

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