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Privacy is one of my core values. I feel that governments and corporations should have a limited view on my life. That being said, I am a hypocrite. I use Facebook as part of my daily life for communicating with family and friends (like 19 million other Canadians). I’ve recently signed up (again) for Instagram, another Facebook product. I’m constantly conflicted about those services, yet I still use them. I waver constantly on using Facebook/Facebook Messenger/Instagram, and deleting these terrible invasions of privacy altogether.

These services aren’t free, of course. There is a tradeoff that I make everytime I login, post a photo, click on a link, or like a post. I realize that Facebook sells ads based on my location, interest, likes, habits, posts, photos, and anything else they can infer from the data that I provide to them. I provide a lot of data to Facebook, which uses tracking mechanisms to follow me across the internet to watch what we are doing. That data collection is always increasing. If you “interact” with an ad on Facebook, that advertiser can then watch where you go afterward. If you use a Facebook “share” button on another website, or use your Facebook account to comment on a news article or to sign up for a service, Facebook knows. It aggregates that data to learn more about you, and to sell that valuable data to advertisers.

Given the popularity of Facebook, it’s clear that Canadians (and users worldwide) fall into a few different groups: we don’t know, we don’t care, or we’re okay with it. Maybe you’re not okay with it, and are looking for some options to reduce what Facebook knows about you. I’d place myself in that last group, and I’d like to share what I’m doing to change how much Facebook learns about me and my behaviour.

First, delete the Facebook app on your phone. Facebook’s native iOS and Android app is a battery hog, and it drains your limited resources (data, battery, etc). The tracking mechanisms are also most powerful with the native app. That doesn’t mean you can’t use Facebook on your phone. Use the website instead, as it is nearly as full-featured but reduces the intrusion into your privacy.

Secondly, use the Ghostery browser plugin for Chrome, Safari, or Firefox to prevent advertisers and others from tracking you across the web. It is a fee plugin that blocks thousands of social media and advertising trackers, site analytics garbage, and more. It will have the added benefit of speeding up your web browsing too. Best of all, it’s free. If you use iOS, use a Content Blocker to block ads and javascript from tracking you.

Third, if you’re really interested in anonymizing yourself, purchase a yearly subscription to a quality Virtual Private Network. That’s an encrypted connection from your computer (or smart phone) to a server, similar to tunnel underground. Any tracking will be linked back to the VPN server, not your computer. This is particularly valuable when using public wifi, unsecured networks, or when you don’t want others seeing what you’re doing.

I’ve been picking on Facebook here, but they’re not alone. Google has also built their business on selling access to your eyeballs by finding as much as it can about your habits. They’ve been incredibly successful at it by building incredible tools that have changed the internet. Gmail, Search, YouTube, Google+, Maps, and Android all add to the comprehensive picture that they have of you. Avoid staying signed into their services, avoid using Google to sign into other services, start trying other search engines, map services, and mail services to avoid one corporation from building a complete picture of you.

In the end, Facebook and Google control a huge amount of the internet advertising that we see. They do that by collecting data on what we do online, and they have deep influence on what we see online. I find that incredibly concerning, which is why I am trying to limit what these services can learn about my habits.

I may find myself deleting these accounts entirely.

Recommended Podcasts in 2017

I listen to podcasts as I wind down at the end of the day, and I have a wide variety that I enjoy. I like podcasts that have entertaining hosts, good audio quality, and thoughtful subject matter. If you’re looking for some new podcasts to subscribe to, check these out!

  • Someone Knows Something (CBC): Season 2 focused on the disappearance of Sheryl Sheppard in Hamilton, ON in 1998.  Host David Ridgen does a great job of talking to everyone who was linked to Sheryl’s life at the time of her dispearance. This is a great true crime story with lots of avenues to explore.
  • Canadaland: Host Jesse Brown takes an uncensored view of media in Canada, holding everyone from the CBC to the Rebel Media to account. He has unique hosts with varied viewpoints to look at current events and how media reports it.
  • Dads Being Dads: Two real dads, with funny stories about being dads. Coaching soccer, teaching their kids to ride bikes, fighting prescribed gender roles for dads and daughters alike. Start at the beginning to get a perspective of their lives with infants and toddlers.
  • Edmonton Journal’s Press Gallery: A rotating cast of Edmonton Journal columnists and reporters provides insights into the ever-tumultuous roller coaster of Alberta Politics. Short, funny, and always intelligent.
  • Note to Self: How has technology changed our lives? How do we feel about our relationship to technology? Can we change the effect that technology has on our lives? Manoush Zomorodi tackles these complex questions, and more.
  • Pod Save America: Four former aides to President Obama and regular guests talk about politics, the press, and how the Trump administration is changing America.
  • The Rookie Hunter: Two British Columbian men share their experiences in the backcountry, encourage other beginners, and discuss wild food.

Lastly, I’d like to highly recommend Overcast as your new podcast player for iOS. Powerful, yet simply designed, it recently received a great update to make the features easier to find.

Do you have any great podcasts to recommend? Comment below! I’m always looking for new ones to help me drift off to sleep.

Great iOS and Android Apps for Kids under 8

The iOS App Store has everything you could possibly want; the trouble is sifting through to find the gems . As a teacher (4 years with 11-year olds, and 5 years with students with developmental delays), and a parent of two children under 7, I’ve spent a lot of time looking for great apps that will both entertain and educate my children.

Some things that I look for include frequent updates, curricular links, open-ended exploration, and paid apps. Yes, I want to pay for the apps that I use. I would much rather pay for a quality app that is ad-free than subject my kids to popups, banner ads, and pay-to-play features. I also find that apps which require a one-time payment are of higher quality than ad-supported or pay-to-play. They’re also much less annoying.

Here are some of the apps apps that I’ve been using:

  • Epic!: 20 000 books, on your (iOS or Android!) phone or tablet. Best for kids under 12. Well worth the incredible library of fiction, non-fiction, audiobooks, “read-to-me”, and educational videos. Get a free month to try it out, then there is a subscription of $4.99/month
  • Quick Math Jr.: An amazingly well-designed app intended to improve number sense in a wide variety of ways. The fun, short games build skills that are vital to early numeracy awareness. Particularly geared toward children ages 5-7, even the free section is worth using. The rest of the “islands” cost $6.99 each, or $13.99 for all.
  • GoNoodle Kids: A fun way to get kids active when they would rather not. This pairs with the GoNoodle website, which has the same videos, but requires registration. This is free!
  • MyPlayHome: A digital play house, where your kids can live out endless domestic fantasies.   This is open-ended, with hundreds of discoverable features (such as turning off light switches, operating appliance). There are a number of related apps if you like these: School, Stores, Hospital. Costs $3.99.

Finally, I’ve got a trustworthy site to check whether media (movies, games, books) are age-appropriate and suitable for my kids. Take a look at Common Sense Media for tips on positive messages, positive role models, violence, sex, language, etc, so that you can make an informed choice.

Spending a month in Nicaragua

“We’re spending a month in Nicaragua!

The look of uncertainty upon the faces of many of our friends was clear when our travel plans were outlined. Nicaragua? With kids? Isn’t Nicaragua dangerous?
Nicaragua is a country with a long history of brutal dictators, foreign interference, and revolution. There is also a wildly varied landscape, complete with Pacific beaches, volcanoes, massive lakes, and Caribbean jungle. There are three major cities; Managua, Granada, and León. Our flight landed in Managua, and it’s recommended to have preplanned transportation to either Granada or León.
León was our destination of choice and I highly recommend spending time there with a family. There’s a lively central park, a fantastic children’s playground, and it’s safe. Food and accommodations are inexpensive, especially when cooking for yourself. Our accommodation was a homestay in central León, and it was a worthwhile experience. We got to know a Nicaraguan family, and it helped to add a personal story to our stay in Nicaragua.

Things to do in León:

1) Take Spanish lessons
If you’re visiting for a week or more, taking half-day Spanish lessons at Leon Spanish School Nicaragua is a great way to learn about the city, the language, and the history! Excursions to areas around León can be planned through the organization as well. Our children took lessons here as well, and came away with enough Spanish that they could order their own ice cream cones (“helados”)!

2) Visit the Parque Infantil

Let your kids burn off steam at the playground just west of the Parque Central. It’s open after 2:30 from Tuesday-Sunday. Grab an ice cream, and consider leaving a few Cordobas in donation to the park too. The locals are known to travel an hour by bus to get here, as it’s one of the only playgrounds in León.

3) Climb the León Cathedral

The Cathedral borders Parque Central, and is undergoing exterior renovations to the façade after decades of decay. For $3 (free for kids!), you can climb a very narrow staircase to the roof to get a wonderful view of the city, including many surrounding volcanoes. Bring socks because they make you take off your shoes, and the roof can become quite warm.

4) Travel to Las Peñitas beach

Head to the western border of León and catch a local bus from the Sutiava Market to Las Peñitas. The bus is cheap (roughly $0.75USD), and if you have kids, someone will give up their seat for them. It’s usually a packed ride, but worth the experience to see how the locals travel everyday. The bus visits Poneloya beach first, but wait until it turns around and heads south to Las Penitas before getting off. The last bus returns to León at 6:00.

5) Visit the Museum of the Revolution

Get a first-hand account of the 1979 revolution from a war veteran in this one-of-a-kind museum. Our guide spoke very little English, so a good understanding of Spanish is certainly an asset here. Plenty of black & white photos document the revolution in a building that stands as it must have after the revolution.

6) Experience the San Jacinto Mud Pots

This is a geologic phenomenon that occurs due to lava occurring very close to the surface of the earth, connected to the volcano Telica. Follow the trails around the boiling mud pits and enjoy the other-worldly appearance of this unique landscape. Entrance fee is $5 for adults (free for kids!).

7) Climb Cerro Negro

Yes, kids can “volcano board” too! Hire a tour guide to take you to Cerro Negro, a nearby active volcano. The climb took about 90 minutes with our kids (age 5 & 6), but it’s easily done. There are a few great vantage points for group photos, and you can see many other nearby volcanoes. Bring long-sleeves and pants for your kids, as the typical coveralls that adults wear won’t fit. Do the afternoon trip: you’re climbing in the shade most of the time, and you will probably see the sunset as you leave the volcano!

La Isla de Ometepe

La Isla de Ometepe is another great place to visit with kids. The large island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua is formed by two volcanoes, Concepción and Madera. It’s a tourist destination for both foreign travellers, and Nicaraguans. Taking the ferry from San Jorge (near Rivas) is easy, but be prepared for rough water. We stayed in Moyogalpa, the main village on Ometepe. This provided easy access to a nice playground, and two adequately stocked “supermercados” (supermarkets). However, it meant that travel to other places on the island took longer than if we’d stayed elsewhere. I’d recommend staying in Moyogalpa or Altagracia (the second largest village) with kids.

Things to do with kids on La Isla de Ometepe

1) Visit Punta Jesus Maria beach

Take a local bus here if you’re in Moyogalpa. This beach is located near Moyogalpa, and features a long point of volcanic sand that stretches out into the lake. You can see both volcanoes from the tip, providing an interesting viewpoint. The beach has many small huts that you can use freely. There’s not a lot in the way of services here, apart from a small bar, so bring your own lunch and snacks.

2) Hire a driver to take you to see the ancient petroglyphs

La Isla de Ometepe was frequented by Mayans moving north to Mexico more than 1000 years ago. There are many known petroglyphs (carvings in stone) on the island, but they are spread out. Visit the ones at Hotel Finca Porvenir, and you’ll see a calendar carved into stone, among others.

3) Swim in El Ojos del Aguas

A fresh spring, located in the middle of a jungle on a volcanic island? Yes please! This natural spring has been harnessed into a large swimming pool, with a shallow area for kids to enjoy. Swing like Tarzan into the pool, drink from a coconut (with local rum for parents!), and swim in the clear, cool water. Watch for the street dogs, who won’t hesitate to hover closely if you’re eating. We came here after visiting the petroglyphs. The driver for the afternoon cost $40, which was a steal considering that tours were often priced at $80.

4) Sunset at the pier

The sunset at the pier in Moyogalpa is magnificent, as it would be anywhere on the western side of the island. This is also the time of the last ferry, so watching them load it to the brim is also worth watching.

5) Playground in Moyogalpa

If you’re travelling with kids, you know that they can only go so long without some independent play. This playground is at the end of the main street, near the church. There is an ice cream shop nearby as well.

6) Explore Charco Verde

The Charco Verde Nature Reserve is a great afternoon to spend hiking around a lagoon on the island. Visit the Butterfly Conservatory, and hike about 3 km around the lagoon. You’ll spot many geckos, birds, and maybe even howler monkeys! The local bus stops here, but it can be quite a wait (up to an hour!) to catch a return bus.

Nicaragua isn’t a typical family tourist destination, but that’s even more of a reason to visit it. We loved the friendly people, experienced diverse family adventure opportunities, gained functional Spanish language skills, and spent time in Central America on a budget.

Changing Focus

I’ve had a “photoblog” on-and-off (mostly off) for about 11 years. I’ve not posted here for nearly 4 years, and I’d love to start up again. I still love my photography, but I’m also interested in writing a bit more too. My family is presently travelling through Central and South America for 7 months, and there’s lots to comment on. You’ll also find some commentary about technology, and politics too.

Thanks for reading!