Saturday, December 28, 2013

Linux Rant IV

These posts are starting to need better names. Maybe something like:

Linux Rant IV - Revenge of Gnome-Shell

So that went well. Not.

Debian 7.3.0 installed cleanly and booted. It looked great. But when I logged into Gnome, it was just as slow as anything Ubuntu did. Crawling. Awful. Unusable.

Diligent digging - aka, bringing up the system monitor and looking at what processes were eating CPU time - showed the culprit is named gnome-shell.

Some googling leads me to wonder if I didn't trip over a known problem in Gnome. Perhaps something in this thread about an llvmpipe being a problem is related. I have no clue.

In any case, Debian 7.3.0 running Gnome is just as useless on my laptop as Ubuntu running Gnome. And that makes me worry about (eventually) installing anything running Gnome on my desktop machine.

I am starting to wonder if I will ever get something to run on these laptops without significant pain. And it turns out that my wife's laptop has an ATI graphics chip in it, not an nvidia, so all this work on my laptop might not lead to a solution for hers.

I am just thrilled with all of this. Thrilled I say.

Going to have to discuss options with the wife. It may be time to throw in the towel and get new laptops.  These were purchased in Feb of 2004. Yes, really. They are almost 10 years old. We could probably spend $400 each and get something much faster. Ben was telling me to do this the other day, and while I hate to admit it, he might have a point. Gotta think it through.

Such fun. Hopefully this is the last Linux Rant for a while. At least until George Lucas and/or Disney get their grubby hands on the rights to them. The sequels will probably be really painful.

Linux Rant III

The story so far:

Desperate to find a linux distribution that runs well on ancient Pentium M chips, our hero has done some awful things with Ubuntu, installing 10.04, then upgrading to 12.04, but at that point the display driver stopped working, and he got sick of it. We pick up with the action there...

With the help of my friend Ben, I was lead to the magic of Ctrl-Alt-F2, which brings up a text login screen (aka a tty) so I could login to the running Ubuntu system, even as the GUI was running and completely unusable.

Some poking around - again aided by Ben - revealed that the laptop has an nvidia graphics chip, and that it was running an open source driver. That driver - I know from past experience - is bad news and doesn't support at least some older nvidia chips, including mine. So I googled around and figured out how to install the proprietary driver from nvidia, which does know how to work with my machine. Installed it. Rebooted.

Change 1: now the system comes up with a little tiny graphics window as it boots, instead of using the full screen. Odd, but I don't care because... I can login and the graphics work again. Well, sort of...

As with the boot side of things, I wound up operating in a little, tiny screen - 1024x768 out of a much larger monitor capable of supporting much higher resolutions. Odd, but at least I can login and work within Linux now without going over to a tty.

Dig into system settings and found the proprietary driver tool, in which I learn that the nvidia driver, while apparently installed, hasn't been activated yet. OK. Activate it. And wait while it downloads and installs the driver again. Huh? But never mind that because once it completes it tells me that the driver is now activated. All I have to do is reboot, which I do, and...

Success. Amazing. The login screen is still really tiny for unknown reasons, but after logging in I get a full sized, max resolution screen. Ubuntu 12.04 is actually running on my laptop.

But that isn't all I wanted to do, sadly. I want to get rid of Unity, a user interface that I continue to dislike. Back to Google and there are some simple steps I find to install Gnome. It will be a choice at login time, apparently, which UI runs. So off to the software center to get and install Gnome. Done. Reboot.
Aside: has anyone else noted that I am rebooting an awful lot? It's like working on bloody Windows. But I digress...
The system comes back up and I select Gnome. Actually, Gnome 3, I think, as it isn't obvious. The choices are "Gnome", "Gnome Classic", and "Gnome Classic (no effects)". You tell me.

And the screen clears... and there is a looooong pause. Minutes. Then a menu bar appears at the top of the screen. Is it done loading? I don't know. I have never used Gnome 3, and don't know how it is used. Move the mouse to one of the icons in the upper right and click. Nothing happens. Try right click. Nothing happens. Hmmm. Odd. Maybe this menu looking thing on the left? Again, nothing. Maybe it's stuck?

Force a reboot.

Login again, but this time to "Gnome Classic". And wait a loooooong time again. When it finally appears at least it looks something like the UI that Ubuntu was using before Unity. Good. But it's also unresponsive.

Force a reboot. Try "Gnome Classic" again. This time be more patient. Mouse to menu, click, and wait. Oh... look! Eventually the menu appears. Well... that indicates there is a real performance problem. Start the system monitor and wait for it to come up.
Aside: yes, I am an idiot. Should have done ctrl-alt-F2 again and used top. Instead I waited forever for the system monitor to come up.
In the end I learned the CUP was 100% busy, and eventually learned that something called compiz was the culprit.

Over to the other computer. Google something like "compiz using too much cpu". Lots of complaints, various proposed solutions. Try a couple of them, including installing magic software to muck with compiz internals and speed it up. (From the tty, of course, where things run reasonably quickly.)

Reboot, again. Login to Unity this time. The usual UI, quick and fine. OK. Logout, login to one of the Gnome choices. Still slow. Worse than molasses in January. Not good.

Give up. This sucks. Apparently Ubuntu has decided that my hardware isn't worth supporting, that Gnome is an afterthought on 12.04, that Unity rules all, and that anyone who feels differently deserves nothing.

Back to the other computer, back to Download the network installer CD ISO image for 7.3.0. Burn it to a CD.

Take the rest of the night off. This has been crazy, and I am far better off doing something fun than making my forehead bleed - more! - on this project.

Saturday morning. Try again. Insert Debian CD into laptop and boot. Select graphical install. Answer the questions. All but one is simple. (I have no clue what answer to give it for my domain name, so I left it blank. Life goes on.)

As I type this the system has already repartitioned and reformatted the disk, and has just finished downloading over 1300 package files to install them.

What happens next? I have no clue, but I do know that Debian booted on my ancient system just fine, so that seems good. Once the install finishes I will poke around and see where things are at. While that goes on, I think I will go have some lunch.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Linux Rant II

As per a comment I left in G+ to my previous post, I started the ugly update process to try and get my laptop running something usable.

First, I installed Ubuntu 10.04. It seemed to work. Rebooted fine, and let me log in. All seemed good.

Then I brought up the update tool and it told me there was a new LTS release - 12.04 - available to upgrade to. Perfect. So I told it to do that. And I waited.

An hour or two later I found it waiting for input to go ahead and replace certain libraries (I think) that it needed to do before it could actually process the update. Fine. I allowed that.

Came back a couple of hours after that to find 2 dialog boxes on the screen. The one in the back was fine, and just told me that the machine needed to be rebooted, which I expected would be the case. The one in front, though, was completely illegible. There were things that were obviously supposed to be characters in it, but they were rectangular boxes instead. A row of them that was obviously supposed to be some sort of status or error message, but it was completely unreadable. There was, however, an obvious button with just 2 such boxes in it, which probably meant "OK", so I clicked on that and the dialog disappeared. Odd, but whatever.

Then I clicked on the reboot dialog. And it rebooted. Success, right?

Well, no. Not quite. First it tried to shut down and hung during the process. Fine. Power off, then power back up.

It booted, and got me to the login screen. That's good. Entered my password and...

Gibberish. A screen full of junk that look mostly like random memory instead of whatever it is supposed to display. No ability to read anything, execute any commands, nothing.

Power off, power on. Try again. Same result.

Theory: Ubuntu has switched to some half baked open source driver for the graphics chip maker in my laptop, and that driver doesn't know how to fully support the ancient chip in my ancient machine. If I want to make this work I may have to figure out how to install the proper proprietary driver on the silly thing, but that may well require getting it to bloody work in the first place. Maybe I can boot into some safe mode and poke around. I don't even remember which graphics card is used in that laptop. Gah!

But it was late, so I gave up and went to bed. I may fiddle with this again this afternoon. It'll be about as much fun as getting a root canal, I'm sure, but I'll see what I can do.

Such fun. I might even post a video of my Ubuntu boot experience, but that would mean figuring out YouTube, and that would probably be just as fraught with errors and issues.

Ben says I should check out Debian. Maybe I will do that. And maybe Arch. All I want is something that bloody works.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Linux Rant

So... I am suffering some Linux frustrations. Yeah... I know... what about Linux isn't frustrating, right?

But I am going to get this off my chest. If you don't care, the internet is full of alternatives. Go find one now. If you're a geek and think you can help, read on.

1) Ubuntu's Unity UI sucks.  No, really. It stinks.

I use Ubuntu 12.04 LTS because I want a Long Term Support version. I don't want to upgrade my OS twice a year... I do not need that level of sys-admin pain. And I know Ubuntu 12.04 is over 18 months old, so maybe there are improvements to the Unity UI that I haven't seen. But, frankly, what I have now sucks.

I run a dual headed system with monitors of different sizes. You have no idea how often things get wonky when I simply move a window from one monitor to the other. Sometimes it disappears off to some other workspace and I have to go hunting for it. Sometimes the mouse winds up many inches from the window I am moving, making additional manipulation and positioning "interesting. And sometimes the window winds up with the title bar and menus completely invisible. None of these things are crippling, but they are all irritating. Very irritating.

And then there's Dash, a mystery thing that pops up whenever I accidentally hit the "Windows" key to let me search (I guess) for things on my system. It's not exactly intuitive, and - apparently - in later versions of Unity it winds up sending ostensibly private search terms to places like Yay! (That was sarcasm... in case it wasn't obvious. I do not want my desktop search terms sent to Amazon, and I have no clue why anyone at Canonical thinks that is a good idea.) I have yet to figure out why Dash is a good thing. So far it's just an irritant.

Another problem with Unity is the loss of focus-follows-mouse and the corresponding ability to leave a window that has the focus in the background. I love focus-follows-mouse. Just move the mouse over a different window and it gets whatever you type. Easy. And that window doesn't have to come to the front and obscure everything else. Nice and simple. But Unity doesn't give me that, so it sucks. By definition.

I guess Ubuntu wanted to create Unity so they could unify the world: desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones could all run the same user interface. Screw that! I don't want my smartphone to have the same UI as my desktop computer. Know why? Because I don't do the same things on those devices. Any idiot can see that is the case. Sure, sometimes I do similar things, but I don't make phone calls on my desktop (I don't even Skype) and I don't watch YouTube on my phone. (Who wants to pay for the bandwidth for that? Are they nuts, or just happy to shovel buckets of money to a smarmy telco?) To me, the idea of a unified, cross device UI was dead before it was ever implemented.

I limp along with Unity because, frankly, I am afraid to change it. I have seen some things about how I could get Gnome to run instead, and maybe I will try it, but only when I have a backup system running that I can use in case my main system dies in the process. I have an ancient laptop that I should be able to live - or test - on, but therein lies another story...

2) Ubuntu is phasing out support for older CPUs.  I cannot install Ubuntu 12.04 on my Dell Inspiron 8600. It's got a Pentium M chip in it that lacks something called the "PAE flag", and later Ubuntu distributions have stopped booting on those older chips.

Let's stop and ponder that for a moment: the OS that claims to run well on older hardware (as compared with Windows) is going away from supporting, um, older hardware. No, honestly. Wait... what?

This laptop is perfectly good for 99.99% of what I need to do on a computer, but Ubuntu's last 3 or 4 releases won't install on it.  Oddly, I think you can upgrade an older version of Ubuntu to a newer one and it will still boot, but you cannot get their base distribution to install from scratch. I am not making this up.

What sort of idiot at Canonical makes these decisions? Honestly? How do you get an OS to take off and get people to use it if they cannot try it on an older machine first?

3) As an alternative I am looking at Linux Mint. In fact, I have version 13 of Mint installed on that laptop, and it boots, despite being Ubuntu based. But it's not that simple. (It's never that simple.) What UI should I chose with Linux Mint? I installed one running something called "xfce", but I could also have chosen "Cinnamon" or "Mate". None of those is Gnome. None is KDE either. And all their user experiences are a bit different. Gah! Xfce is OK, I guess, but I liked Gnome and it isn't Gnome. Maybe I should have tried Mate, but at the time I was poking at this there wasn't good information about what Mate was, nor why I would want it. The same is true of Cinnamon now. Why on earth would I want that? No clue.

I just need something that works. How hard can it be?

Well, as if to answer that question, today I pulled out the laptop and updated Mint. I am trying to figure out what to install on my wife's similarly ancient laptop, and we know it cannot be Ubuntu 12.04, so I figured I would update Mint and refresh my memory about it. And it does (happily) turn out that Mint 13 is an LTS version, supported for another 2 or 3 years, which is good. But when I ran the update tool I got errors about it being unable to resolve certain domain names... domains that it needs to get certain package lists. Huh?

OK, maybe, some machine is down. And maybe no one has fixed it because it is the day after Christmas. And maybe I can try again in a day or two and it will work. Maybe. But I don't know. Lots of stuff did update, but not everything, and I don't have a clue how badly off things are. If there is a problem with Mint 13 that is more than a sick server, though, I certainly don't want to install it on my wife's laptop.

And don't get me started on printing and scanning. My wife tried to print to our color laser printer the other day and it came out monochrome. I had to get a copy of the file from her and print it from my machine to get it to print in color. Her laptop thinks our Xerox color laser printer isn't color.

I suppose we could buy new laptop computers and install a more recent version of Linux on them, but which one? And do I really want to do that if I then have to upgrade the OS when it goes out of support in less than a year? Or should I install Ubuntu 12.04 and risk getting Gnome to work on it? And just how good will that experience be? I was hoping to test that on my ancient laptop, but I cannot get there easily.

Maybe if I install Ubuntu 10.x which will run on the laptop, then upgrade to Ubuntu 12.04, and then install the Gnome system... simple! (Sarcasm again. But maybe my only real choice.)

I hear some of you... Why not just go with Windows? Or a Mac?

Suffice it to say I have my reasons.

I wouldn't trust a Windows machine with anything where security matters, and I gave Steve Jobs money a few times and he only let me down. Windows machines are great if you want to suffer with virus attacks every 15 seconds. And Macs are fine if you're doing exactly what the geeks at Apple thought you would be doing, but if you ever try to do anything else, you're screwed. (And yes, I have examples. You don't want to know.)

So for the moment I guess it's Linux. Unless I want to install Plan 9... now there's an idea!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Trying to deal with Twitter... differently...

So... some time back in this very blog I indicated that I didn't get twitter, and that I didn't use it.  That changed as I found myself trying to update people in my neighborhood about local fire related items and events. I found a place for twitter.

I used it purely to send data out about fires and the like. Email isn't always a good vehicle for real time information distribution. It can suffer delays, and people don't always get email quickly. But twitter lets people get things via their phone, and (with luck, anyway) the number of delayed transmissions for the SMS messages twitter sends out will be lower than the email delays I've seen.

So, fine. I started using twitter for that.

Then it turns out I have some friends that use twitter. Of course. So - much like Facebook - if you want to see what is going on, you need to follow them on their platform of choice. Fine. And of course they follow some interesting people, and there are a bunch of emergency information sources on twitter as well, so I wound up following about 40 people.

Next I discovered that my web host makes use of twitter too, and they respond to questions there. Interesting. But if I send questions to them using my existing twitter account, those tweets will show up in the feeds of people following me for emergency information, which is not something I wanted to do.

And someone I wanted to contact in real life doesn't give out an email address, but she's on twitter. Not a huge deal, but again I don't want to cause cruft to show up in the twitter streams of those who follow me for emergency purposes only. Gah.

So guess what... the one who said he doesn't tweet now has two twitter accounts, and is struggling to find a good Linux client that supports that situation. So far, I have tried three:

  • Gwibber is OK, at best, but it doesn't make use of the colors you assign to each account. That means arriving tweets are intermixed and you need to know which ones come from where if you care. Also, when I send a tweet, I can find no way to choose which account the new tweet will come from. That's bad. But so far it's the best I've found.
  • Birdie claims to support multiple accounts, but I couldn't figure out how to make it actually do that. One account was OK, but if I tried to add another one it seemed to just add the first one a second time. Odd and pointless.
  • Hotot wouldn't work at all. I could not get it to let me login. No clue why.

I may look into Poly, but it's in pre-alpha status still, and I don't know how stable it is. But it may be better than Gwibber, so I will ponder.

This is craziness, I know. But here I am, trying to be part of the modern age. Again.

If you're silly enough to want to follow me on twitter, I am:

  • @jrpstonecarver - my emergency info account, mostly for Santa Cruz Mountain residents who want to know about fires and other events in our area
  • @jeffpstonecarver - my new account, for everything else

If I was following you before, I still am, but possibly on the new account if you're not one of those I track for emergency information.

What on earth am I doing?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Facebook is not a good, directed, communications mechanism

Time for another rant. Sorry. Sort of.

I have several friends who seem to live on Facebook. The fact that they do so doesn't bother me. That's fine. Go ahead and post your musings, your pictures of food, your status updates, etc. Whatever you like by way of generalities and banalities is just fine on FB. I really don't mind.

But please do NOT assume that whatever you post to FB gets to everyone who knows or cares. It doesn't work that way. Really.

First off, there are people like me that don't use FB. The Zuckerberg clan long ago lost my respect for how they handle personal information, set defaults for new features, and the way they run the site. (Hint: breaking things is bad, not creative or useful.) As a result, I don't use my FB account anymore. I still have one - for now - but I never go read my wall (or feed, or stream, or whatever FB is calling it these days). If you want to reach people like me, you'll have to pick another communications medium: email, voice, text, whatever. But please do not assume that just writing a status update on FB constitutes an effective way of telling me something specific. I won't get it. And while I know FB has something like 1.5 billion users, it doesn't have everyone signed up yet.

But let's assume I was still using FB. Would it work for directed communication with me? Actually, no. There are at least three reasons that FB's design makes it a poor choice for communicating directed information, even between actual users of the site itself.
  1. Importance ordering of your wall. By default, FB has (or had, last time I was there) algorithms that automatically tried to sort the most important items from your stream and put them at the top. Things it deems less important are farther down, making them easy to miss. Yes, you can change the sort to time order, rather than based on their arbitrary (and usually incorrect, in my experience) importance order, but that change isn't sticky, so you have to do it every time you visit the site. It is, therefore, easy to forget to switch it back on each viewing, and when you see something you've read before, you might conclude - incorrectly - that you're caught up, and thus miss something that one of your FB friends expects you to see.

  2. You're probably unable to keep up with your stream. If you have friends that use FB a lot, you get a lot of things on your wall. And if you're not vigilant about turning off posts from games and the like, you're flooded with various other posts as well, things that don't convey particularly useful information. Add a few other people who post a lot - particularly humor and pictures - and it becomes impossible to keep up with the stream. When that happens you will miss posts from people, and if someone is trying to tell you something specific, you'll be out of luck.

  3. Finally, FB doesn't send your posts to every friend's wall. There was a big flap about this a while ago, and it may not apply to people with low numbers of friends, but they announced that not every status update gets to all of your friends and followers. In fact, if you want to get more eyeballs on something, they have a mechanism through which you can pay money to give your post a wider distribution. Unless they have changed (or broken) things, that continues to this day, so announcing an event on FB may or may not get to everyone you're expecting to attend.
Effectively, FB is an unreliable communications tool. It is designed that way, and it works as designed.

So, please, if you want to communicate specifically with a group of people, pick some other communications mechanism to make it happen. There are many choices these days - email, phone, and text at least - and anything that works is better than one that doesn't.

In part this is a "get off my lawn" rant, I know, but that isn't all of it. If you're really trying to communicate specific data to specific people, FB is not the right tool for the job. And as I say, I really don't mind anyone using it... just not for that particular purpose.

Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

New Sculpture

I'm supposed to post this in my sculpture blog, but I'd rather post it here.

Finally finished a piece in pumice that has been waiting forever.

Tentatively title: Garden 2.
Dimensions: 37" tall x 22" wide x 14" deep.

There is a chance this will be available via a gallery in Los Altos. If you are interested, please let me know and I will put you in touch. No, I have no clue what the price is yet. Sorry. Still not even sure that the gallery will be interested in an outdoor work like this.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Something Controversial

If you're going to get offended and yell at me, stop reading now. Really.

No, really. Just find another corner of the net and ignore me if you're easily offended, because I am about to write something that will definitely offend a large chunk of the population of the US. At least.

Our alarm clock goes off every morning and gives us the latest news from our local NPR station. And every morning I regret the fact that it isn't tuned to an all polka station, or, in fact, anything but news.

There is something awful about waking up to the latest shooting. Every morning. If it isn't here in the US - which it usually is - then it's overseas.

And yes, I know that as a whole the planet is getting less violent and people are living longer, but that doesn't address the issue as I see it, so I am just going to come right out and say it:

Guns should not be a part of any civilized society.

It's really that simple. You want to hunt? Fine. Do it with a bow and arrow.

No one should have to own a gun. No one.

I am sick of hearing and reading about shootings: today's is in the Washington Navy Shipyard, a day or two ago it was police shooting someone who was probably asking for help after wrecking his car, drive bys, collateral damage, feuds between former friends or lovers, total strangers shot by bored kids for no reason. And the list goes on. It's practically endless. I'm not going to give you links because I don't even want to see the stories. You can find them yourself, far too easily.

It's pathetic. Guns are not the answer. Guns are never the answer.

To be honest, I have no idea how to get rid of the damn things. They are a huge business, and a slew of testosterone crazed males seem to depend on them for their personal sense of identity, or something. And as a country we idolize the stupid things, practically worshipping them as gods.

We are sick with them.

But guns do not make you a man. And as far as I can tell, in most cases they do not make you safer. Of course, we have congress and the NRA carefully working to prevent research into actual gun safety, so no one can be certain of anything. Because guns are so great and all that we have to protect ourselves from actual data about them.

No. They are not great. Anything whose sole purpose is to kill another person is not great, and never will be.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Of Yahoo, And Opportunities Bungled

This is an odd post for me, in a way.  You may find it boring, and if so you may simply skip it, I won't mind.  But this has been bugging me for a while now, so...

I am a member of a bunch of Yahoo groups.  Years ago, I think, yahoo bought some small company that made the original groups product.  Or perhaps I am wrong and they created it themselves.  Groups is an interesting beast. It has a web based UI but mostly works via email.  You send a message to a particular email address and it is forwarded out (as email) to the group members.  It's a handy way of organizing people and distributing information.

There are competitors, of course, most notably Google's very similar functionality.  And you can use any number of bulletin board systems from various sources, which you can host such things on your own server or find services to host them for you.

But a number of the groups I am a member of have a significant proportion of members who still aren't all that computer savvy.  Trying to get them to go to a website every day (or multiple times a day) is tough.  You're competing for limited time and interest, and it's a losing battle.  But most of these folks already use email, so if you can get them signed up as a member of a group, they're in, without changing their daily routine.  In ten years or so that worry won't be a problem.  Most people will be much more computer friendly, and getting something setup to move the information around will be easier, so there will be fewer hurdles in any case.

But back to groups... when I started using them, Yahoo had a clear UI advantage over Google's implementation.  There were still places it sucked, but Google's UI was pretty much impenetrable, so Yahoo won the day, particularly for those lists that contain a larger percentage of people who are less comfortable with computers and the Internet.

But Google has continued to work on their product.  They have improved it over time, and it may be to the point where it is usable by laypeople now.  I'm not sure of that because I haven't tried to create a new Google group in some time, but I have used Google's groups a bit since they use them to provide some kinds of support and discussions about their products.

Yahoo, on the other hand, let its groups product stagnate.  Nothing changed or was improved for years.  It's been the same UI and feature set since I first started using it, and problems have crept in.  Sometimes messages are delayed for unknown reasons between Yahoo's servers, images as part of email messages aren't always handled well, and so on.  But overall it worked, and Yahoo milked it by spending as little as possible on it to keep it running.

Then, just a few days ago, something changed.  The first indication of a problem was a huge batch of email delays that no one could explain.  They got so bad that people in my most active group complained bitterly.  And then, for some of us, the word "neo" entered our consciousness.

"Neo" means a new UI for Yahoo groups, and some reorganization of the features.  But it also means a lot more, including, but probably not limited to:

  • Bugs.  And features that don't work or don't work reliably.  It's not clear if some of these issues are based on the browser, the OS, or just buggy code, but there are a number of serious problems.
  • Features that have gone missing.  Things you used to be able to find in the UI are now gone.
  • Incredibly bad UI design.  Want to search the contents of the messages in a particular group?  Don't click on the obvious "search" icon and enter your text because that only lets you search for message numbers, which no one will ever know or use.  Instead enter your text in the search box at the top of the page and press the button that says "Search Groups", clearly indicating that your search will span all of your groups, or - more likely - all of Yahoo Groups, which is clearly not what you want if you're searching for a message in one particular group.  Who designed that and how did they get the job?
  • Unhappy customers.  Tens of thousands of requests to abandon the neo update and go back to the way things were.  Really.
  • A complete lack of QA effort.  Neo is clearly not ready for prime time.  It's alpha quality software, or early beta at best.

So the nightmare that is "neo" is now a part of my life.  Users are switched, not whole groups, so some of the people in my groups are using the new UI with me, while others see no changes yet.  But they will.  Yahoo claims there is no going back.

Meanwhile Marissa Meyer seems to think the most important thing she can be involved in is the redesign of the Yahoo logo.  Something that no one cares about - but her, apparently - and that definitely deserves a lot less attention than the neo debacle in Yahoo Groups.

What can I do about all of this?  Looking at it reasonably, very little.  Moving from Yahoo Groups to some other platform might result in a newer and better feature set, with more ability to control and archive the contents, better search features, and so on.  But moving entails change, and that is always risky.  There would, no doubt, be a large loss of participation in all of the groups I am involved with if they were to move to some - any - new system.  So, unless neo proves unbearable and the bugs really don't get fixed, we're probably stuck with it.  And I'd bet those working at Yahoo know it.  They're probably counting on it.

The funniest thing about this is that I am ranting about it in a post on Blogger... a Google product.  Want to know how relevant Yahoo is these days?  Look no further than that.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I think comments have disappeared from here

It looks like all comments on my posts here from the past month or two are gone.

Odd.  I certainly didn't delete them.

I wonder what has happened?

If you know you left a comment on a recent post, please let me know.  I may have to report the issue to Google.  Thanks!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Revisiting Alien In A Different Way

I don't want to over-share, but I have a better appreciation for what happened to Executive Officer Kane - played by John Hurt - in Alien, just before the beastie popped out of his chest in that iconic scene.

I spent Sunday (starting at 4:45am) wondering if the same thing was going to happen to me.  By bedtime, whatever it was had passed, with nothing more than occasional - if semi-painful - discomfort.

I wish I knew what it was.  Maybe it was mild food poisoning, maybe it was a mild food intolerance, maybe it was an alien foetus, incubating within me, but that died for some reason before piercing my chest.  If that latter is what was going on, then I hope the old phrase "this too shall pass" is true.

I suppose said alien infant could still be in there, lulling me into a false sense of security before killing me in a spectacular fashion, but I doubt it.

Whatever, I am glad it's over now.  It was an awful day spent doing absolutely nothing.  I felt like a slug.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Very Long Night

Last night we went to bed just before 11:30pm. Everyone had settled down - both of us and all three dogs - when that changed. Skookie and Cruzer - our two younger dogs - started barking in the general direction of the street. Odd, but maybe a deer walking around.

Then I noted the flashlights - obviously flashlight beams not car headlights - down on the road. And deer don't carry flashlights, so I got up and looked out the door. I saw two guys (this is from 200+ feet away, in the dark, heavily covered with redwood trees, so no real details were visible) walking the road, like they were looking for something. I watched for a couple of minutes and they seemed to be stuck in front of our house. Clearly on the road, but not walking in either direction along the road. So I let out the dogs. Much barking ensued, but the interlopers did not move on.

I put on a bathrobe, grabbed a flashlight, and stepped out onto my deck. I shined the light down at them and called out, asking if they were "OK down there".

They responded that they were fine, and something along the lines of "don't worry, we're locals".

Really? Somehow that did not engender calm on my side of things. Strangers on the street at 11:30pm, in the woods? Not a normal thing in my 20+ years of living here.

So I called the dogs and went back inside to ponder my options, and watched for several more minutes. The guys eventually started down the hillside on the opposite side of the street, towards a couple of old cabins down there. (I know the property owner... they don't live there, visitors aren't common, and certainly not at that time of night.) They walked down the hill and wandered around the cabins for several minutes. Did I mention it was 11:30pm on a Wednesday night, in the woods, and they clearly weren't the owners of the property, who would have called out to me right away on learning I was awake?

What should I do?

Call the sheriff? Well, yes, but...

  • The response time to my area is forever, probably more than an hour. Even if I called right away these guys would be long gone before the sheriff arrived.  If the sheriff arrived at all.
  • Last time I called about something vaguely like this - someone shooting repeatedly on the same property - I was asked if I "heard screaming or saw blood". I answered "no" but that I could still hear shots being fired, lots of them. And I was unsurprised when the sheriff's office dispatched exactly no one to the scene. Ever. (In the end I think it was someone target shooting, in the woods, in what amounts to a residential neighborhood. Yes, we have big lots up here - you cannot see most of the nearby houses - but still, a very dumb thing to do.)

So what did I do? I got dressed, grabbed my flashlight and cell phone, leashed up the dogs, and went for a walk.

I got to the place where the guys went down the hill and shined my flashlight down at them and waited, up on the road where my wife could hear whatever transpired. I could clearly see their lights down there, moving around the woods.

In a few minutes the guys realized they were being watched and started climbing up the hill towards me. There were actually four of them I then learned, as they spread out a bit on the path. My threat-o-meter went up another notch. just how stupid am I to be down here?

They get to the road and a rather tense conversation ensues. I ask who they are and what they are doing. They tell me they "shot a deer" earlier, are tracking it, and the "last blood" is down the hill.

Well now, isn't that interesting? Suddenly I have a whole new set of worries. Shot? With what? When? In this neighborhood? Are any of you carrying a gun now? Should I be running for my life? Should I just call 911 standing right here? What the *&^% do you think you're doing? But I remained calm - at least on the outside - and said none of that. And I was glad to have two largish dogs on leash with me, one of whom was picking up on how tense the conversation was and growled, as if to make a point.

Instead of panicking, I ask if they own the property - knowing they don't, but wanting to drive the point home. One responds, saying they don't, but that he grew up on a neighboring lot.

I say something like, "Look, it's 11:30 on a weeknight and you guys wandering around here is keeping my dogs - and me - awake." They apologize and say they were just trying to find the deer. Apparently they didn't think about the neighbors. Some agreement is come to - silently... I'm fuzzy on the conversation at this point - and they start walking up the street. I wait until they get out of the way and then go the other way, towards my driveway, with the dogs.

Nothing else exciting happens. I get home just fine, get the dogs off leash, and tell my wife what transpired. The guys have clearly left... the flashlights are gone and you definitely need them down there to avoid tripping and hurting yourself.

It's about 12:45pm. Now we can all get some sleep, right? Alas no.

I get back in bed, but am now too wired and hot to sleep. Not going to happen. So I get out my kindle and start reading.  Anne conks out (good!) and the dogs settle, sort of.

Sometime later - not sure how long... I thought it was about 1am, but I'd clearly been reading for more than 15 minutes - Cruzer throws up. I leapt up in an attempt to get him outside before disaster struck, but was too late. I sent him out anyway and got started cleaning the mess up. That woke Anne up, sadly.

Cruzer actually tried to avoid a problem and managed to throw up in the sliding door track, missing the carpet entirely. Fantastic. But it takes several minutes to clean it out of there, and find more out on the deck and get that cleaned up too. Whee.

Get back in bed, really awake again. Read some more. Cruzer doesn't want to settle, and comes over to my side of the bed, begging for attention, or something. Odd behavior for him, but if he isn't feeling well, it might be explicable. (And remember, I'm not exactly at my best at this point either.)

While reading - first session and second - we have low, loud overflights by (I think) two helicopters and at least one large jet. And when I say low I mean low. Disturbingly so, for the Santa Cruz Mountains in the middle of the night. And rare for our part of the world.

Finally I turn off the kindle and try to get some sleep. It's maybe 2 or 2:30... I'm honestly not sure. And I did sleep, a little, in fits, but not much.

The alarm is going to go off at 7am, so I am not going to get anything like a full night's sleep. Even worse, though, is the canine alarm, which went off at 5:45am. (I think. Can you say "groggy"?)

Both Skookie and Cruzer wanted out. That is very unusual. True, Skookie will always change sides of a door, but she waits until the alarm goes off before making her desires known. And Cruzer is an idiot and sleeps until thrown out or walked, so to have him squeaking at the door is odd. I got up and let them out. No barking. Fine. I went back to bed, waiting for Cruzer to start squeaking that he wanted back in.

But he didn't do that, and I actually dozed a bit more, only getting back up at 6:15am to figure out what had happened to him, since this is definitely not normal behavior. I look out the door and there he is, eating weeds in the dog run. OK... his stomach was bugging him a few hours before, so maybe that's what he needs. But he doesn't ask to come back in. Fine. Leave them out there and go back to bed, hoping for another 45 minutes of slumber.

Ten minutes later Skookie barks at something - probably a deer, but who knows - and I have to get back up and bring them both in before they wake Anne up (again). I managed to accomplish that, and got back in bed, yet again. This night is starting to feel like an exercise program. I wish I was making this up.

The alarm goes off at 7am, as usual. I listen to the news for a while, and then get up to feed dogs and make coffee. On the way to get the dog food I discover that Cruzer has thrown up again sometime in the night, this time down in the laundry room. And his behavior shows me that he is worried about being punished for it, which is something we would never do, but maybe his previous owners did. No way to know. I clean it up. No harm done, but I am keeping an even closer eye on him now.

The dogs follow me upstairs as usual and all go to their food bowls, so I think everything is fine, but as I get started making coffee, Cruzer turns up in the kitchen, long before he usually does. Odd.

I go look at his bowl. It is essentially untouched. He's not eating. This - combined with the other odd behavior and midnight vomiting - has me concerned.

I finish making coffee and get my morning banana. This is something Cruzer lives for: his morning bit of banana. (Honestly.) And he looks at me in something like the usual, expectant way, so I pull a bit off and toss it to him, just as I always do. And it bounces off the top of his head and lands on the floor. He doesn't even turn towards it... just looks at me. This is very wrong.

OK... now what? Anne finishes up her morning stuff, and we start the usual dog walk ritual. This is required every morning. It's not far - Leah, the 14 year old, isn't going far - but it's something, and we have to do it, regardless of anything else going on. It's important. And it's still just as important this morning too, so we head out to the garage to leash up.

And in the process I register just the tiniest little hiccup in Cruzer's stride as he goes down a stair. A back foot is held up just a bit longer than usual. But I am sleepy and unsure and out of it. We walk.

As we start down the driveway I wonder: we're getting some patching done on our driveway, and there is some fresh asphalt down there. Is it possible Cruzer got some of that on his feet last night when we walked down to confront the guys, then licked it off his feet and made himself sick that way? Seems possible. So we decide to change course and not walk on anything with new asphalt on it. Easy to do, and we encounter lots of new smells.

We get down towards the road and there are two guys walking on it. At 8am. Last night's meeting was in the dark, by flashlight, and way too late, but maybe these are two of the guys that were there. So I ask.

Yes, it's them. And they really are sorry about waking us up.

A brief conversation follows - with my wife there - and we learn that they'd shot the deer with an arrow - not a gun, good! - and were still trying to find it. And as much as I hate to say it, they look like hipsters. One has a big, full beard, and at least one had big, thick, dark, plastic rimmed glasses. Hipster hunters, I think. Really. Or so it appeared. (Google it. Turns out to be a real thing.) We said goodbye and kept walking the dogs back towards the house while they kept trying to figure out where their deer had gone.

As we get towards the house I realize that Cruzer is actually limping. Barely, but his right, back leg is definitely not right. We stop, I take Leah's leash from Anne, while she looks at Cruzer's foot. And between two of his pads she found an entire, small, pine cone. Buried so deeply he couldn't get it out himself. That had to hurt.  He probably picked it up in the middle of the night, walking along the road.

And he probably spent all night in pain, possibly trying to dig that thing out from time to time, and the worry (he worries a lot, believe me) made him sick. That's at least as likely as the asphalt theory. And he ate his breakfast when reminded it was there by me drizzling a bit of oil over it to make it more attractive.  Bah.  Poor dog.

As expected, the hipster hunters have wandered off again. I have no idea where their deer went, and apparently they don't either. I hope it isn't suffering.

There ends the story so far. Cruzer and I are getting by on very little sleep. (I, thankfully, have coffee.)

But it is going to be a very long day.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

I still don't get twitter...

I know I said I wouldn't use it.  I tried. But in the end I am using twitter - in a very specific way.

A few people follow my twitter account for announcements about local fire events.  The sort of thing you might decide to leave work for, if - for example - you were told there was big fire near your home.

I've sent just a few tweets so far, and won't send tweets about anything not related to the topic I have promised.

I started doing this because there are obvious cases where email gets delayed, and in the case of a fire or other major event that could be a problem.  In theory tweets get out quickly, and can get to people who aren't in front of a real computer.

So far so good.

And since I have the twitter account and there might be other sources of data out there, I went looking.  A couple of people suggested sources I should follow there too, and in some cases I have done so.

And I hate it.

One or two twitter users I follow have a specific topic in mind - like my own use pattern - and those are fine.  I can see what they have to say quickly, and evaluate them for interest easily.

Most people, though, don't do that.  Their twitter feeds are a mess of stuff, mostly uninteresting, with only a tiny bit tossed in at random that might be useful to me as I try to track any major events going on in my area.  Sorting the wheat from the chaff is very difficult, and drives me nuts.

Adding injury to insult is the twitter website itself.  First, I am now getting promoted tweets at or near the top of the stream, which are totally uninteresting to me.  Junk that just makes the site less useful.

Beyond that, though, is the odd fact that the stream is not ordered in time.  It can jump around - at random - for no reason I can determine.  Why they do that I have no idea.  But it means that any time I look at the stream I have to try to figure out if what I am reading is in order or not, since that could affect whether or not any given tweet is still relevant to me.

What nitwit decided that was a good idea?

I've used my RSS reader to tap into some of those I follow.  What is displayed in there is (so far, anyway) in time order, and no promoted tweets appear, but now I have to check the RSS reader site and hope it has pulled the feeds recently enough to give me an up to date picture of what any given person I follow is tweeting.  And, of course, the RSS reader doesn't help at all of the source is tweeting junk interspersed with useful data.

I understand why twitter is a good thing at some level, but I do not yet grok the usage model that lets it be a primary news source for anyone.  In fact, for the most part, I don't think I care about more than a percent or two of what gets into my very tiny stream.

I must be missing something, but I have yet to figure it out.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

And I Respond to Senator Feinstein's Response... Not That She Cares In The Least

Back on July 4th, I posted the contents of the letters I sent to some of my elected representatives, discussing the NSA spying situation and various related things.

Then, on July 11th, I shared the response I received from Senator Feinstein's office.  Sadly, thanks to limited formatting options in Blogger, I had to post her response on my personal website to make it legible.

Today I post my response to what I got from Senator Feinstein.  Again, though, the format doesn't work well, so you'll have to visit the page on my website to read it.  Apologies, but with limited column width and no real way to indent text effectively, it's better this way.

I invite you to comment.  Even more, though, I invite you to send your thoughts to your elected representatives.  Even if you disagree with me, they need to hear what the people think.  But - and this is important - we need to be educated.  We need to read the news reports about what the NSA has admitted doing (or been forced to admit), along with what governments in other countries are doing as well.  And we need to think deeply about what this country stands for, and is (or should be) afraid of.

If you've done those things and still disagree with me, that's fine.  Rational disagreement is possible on these topics, and I accept that.  If, however, you're just taking it on blind faith that our government can do no wrong and that terrorism is the ultimate threat, I suggest you need to do a lot more reading about these things.

Anyway, feel free to read any or all of the above links.  I hope they are interesting and possibly useful.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

And Senator Feinstein (actually, her staff, I'm sure) Responds to my email:

In an earlier post I shared copies of emails I recently sent to my state senators and the president.  Today I got a response from Senator Feinstein's office.

I tried several times to include the text of the email in this post, but it turns out that Blogger's editor really doesn't have an easy way to make it look nice, or even readable. Kind of a problem.  And since I couldn't manage to do that I didn't even bother trying to include the contents of the PDF file here either.

Instead, I've posted both the email and the attachment on my personal website.  You can read them over there:

As you'll see, I didn't write up my response just yet.  For now, suffice it to say that I think her email and the PDF embody the same, tired reply the government has been giving the press for weeks.  "These programs really do work." "There really is effective oversight." You know the drill.

In short, in my opinion, it's a crappy canned response that some harried senate staffer decided was the most appropriate given what little s/he read of my email and the choices they had available.  If I am lucky they added one to some total of complaint letters they got about the NSA issue as well.  If I am unlucky, they forwarded my email to both the FBI and the CIA, and I am now undergoing "additional scrutiny", since I am such a threat to the security of our homeland.

That said, something funny happened when I tried to reply directly to the message I got.

The senator's email came from, so that is where my reply was going to.  Amusingly, it bounced with the following error message:

550 5.1.1 <>... User unknown

If only it was the case that Senator Feinstein was unknown, and that someone who cared about civil liberties was in her place.  And I love the fact that my own senator is sending email with forged headers.  Cool, eh?  I wonder if the CAN-SPAM act makes that a crime?  I may have to look that up.

I will mark up Senator Feinstein's response and share it here in a few days, when I can make the time.  It will wind up on my website as well, no doubt, but I'll publish a link here when it's ready to go.

For those that follow this blog... I post on G+ too

Just a quick note...

I generally use this blog for posting longer thoughts and more complicated things.  Stuff where reading - and space - are required.

I've had a few exchanges lately that tell me at least a few readers here appreciate what I do.  Thank you!

If you want to see more from me - shorter stuff, mostly links to news articles and other blogs I find interesting, sometimes with comments, you can find me on Google+.  Specifically here:

Just about everything I post over there is public, so no G+ account is required.  You go take a peek and see whether I am equally interesting (or offensive) over there.

If you like it, I encourage you to consider joining the G+ community.  I have found it to be a lot more issue (and/or interest) oriented that other social media platforms.  I get a lot of good news about politics and science over there, and a lot less of the mundane stuff that shows up other social media platforms.  For me, that's a good thing.  Of course, your mileage may vary.

Also note that the quality of the G+ experience is completely determined by the quality of those you follow (the G+ term is "circle") over there.  You need to circle people with interests similar to yours, or who post articles you find interesting or useful in some way.  In all likelihood these will be people you don't personally know.  That's OK.  In fact it's good. It's the way G+ works.  Give it a shot if you are interested.  I hope you like it.  And feel free to circle me if you like.  No worries if you do or don't - just trying to share what I do if you're interested.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Letters to my Elected Representatives

I am finally writing to my senators and the President about the NSA programs I abhor.  On July 4th. It seems fitting. And since I am no doubt getting myself onto a bunch of government watch lists in the process, I will share them here too. Maybe you will find them amusing, or not.

You may disagree with me and my conclusions. That's fine.

To President Obama:

I am deeply disappointed in you and your administration. I believed your promise of a more open government after the dark years of the Bush administration. Sadly, I now see I was mislead.

Edward Snowden has shown that the NSA and the rest of the intelligence community are operating without oversight, and without concern for the civil liberties of Americans. They are building huge datasets that can easily be used to tar anyone with a crime as an excuse for shutting them up. Every repressive government on the planet now looks to the US as a shining example of how to do exactly what they have wanted to do all along.

You are making that possible. Yes these programs have been around for a long time, and we know the Bush administration supported them, but I hoped you would reign them in. Clearly not.

These programs are violating the civil liberties of Americans every day. The data being accumulated can - and will - be used against the citizens of this country in various ways. This very message is Un-American enough to put me on a watch list, I am sure, and should you or some future administration decide I am a problem, it will be used against me.

Put simply, the US has too many secrets, and doing things in the dark has become the norm. We must not have secret interpretations of US laws. We should not support programs that violate the constitution. Edward Snowden should not have felt he had to release secret documents about secret programs to draw attention to them.

Your website says: "My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government."

Grand words that you have not lived up to.

We agree on many things. I believe in health care reform, though I think the program as it stands doesn't go nearly far enough. I believe in protecting women's rights. I believe in using the government as a force for good.

Alas we disagree vehemently where the NSA is concerned.

I do not want to live in a police state, but that is what we're coming to. If that isn't the case, prove it. Show the people what these programs really do, and how they are not a threat. Put clear limits on data collection, and real safeguards on stockpiles of collected data to avoid its misuse by anyone, now or in the future. Expose the workings of the FISA court while you're at it, and create mechanisms by which it can be challenged, or dismantle it entirely.

Secrets, in short, must be avoided. If I may quote John F. Kennedy: "The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society.

It is time to change course. It is time declassify much of what the NSA is doing, and to stop treating all Americans as criminals. It is time to have an open debate about their programs, and let journalists help us determine whether or not they actually work. It can and must be done. If it is not then we are lost and George Orwell's 1984 will go down in history as the most prescient work of fiction ever written. That is, of course, if history isn't rewritten to avoid that truth.

To Senator Boxer:

Back in 2005 and 2006 you took a principled stance against the outlandish spying being done by the NSA under the direction of the Bush administration. In case you have forgotten, here are some links to refresh your memory:
With that background, I must ask why it is that nine years later your voice isn't as stridently opposed to the same - and possibly worse - offenses being committed by the NSA? Is it perhaps because you've abandoned your principles to support a Democratic administration? Have you lost sight of the difference between right and wrong?

Here's an extract from a recent article - - quoting you:
But some senators held the line on Friday, when the Obama administration continued to defend the surveillance practices as necessary to defend the nation. 
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), though emphasizing the necessary balance between privacy and security, said that Internet monitoring had helped thwart terrorist plots, as congressional intelligence leaders said Thursday of the phone monitoring practice. 
“What they were doing is trying to save lives. I know for a fact lives were saved in both these programs. The issue is finding the balance between protecting people and our freedoms and that’s what I’m always after,” Boxer said, adding again: “I know they’ve saved lives.”
So now you worry about "balance"? When the NSA has a standing order from the FISA court letting it collect metadata on millions of phone calls? When we're performing computer espionage against even our allies? Now balance matters?

And you say you know these programs have saved lives. In response I say "prove it". Declassify enough information to show at least the broad outline of what these programs do. There is no harm in that.

Bin Laden himself wasn't using cellular or satellite phones when we finally got to him. The bad guys already have a clue, so saying that data about thwarted attack X was gathered by the NSA screening calls from the US to and from country A would be a start. Letting journalists actually dig into the meat of such claims would be even better. Every time I've seen such claims in the past it has been shown that the NSA was lying. They've claimed their data was key to preventing some attack or making some arrest when it really wasn't.

And we know the head of the NSA - General Clapper - has lied to congress about these very programs. Where is your call to see him removed for doing that? How can we trust a man who outright lies to those who supposedly oversee the programs he runs?

In fact, the only other thing I have heard from you on this topic recently was the misguided assertion that these programs employ too many contractors, as if "real" government employees could be trusted more. In response I give you these simple words: Private First Class Bradley Manning. Clearly he was a government employee. I'm sure that stopped him from giving a boatload of secret documents to Wikileaks. Oh, wait.

In fact the real problem is that people cannot keep secrets, and that we have far too many secrets that need keeping. It doesn't matter who someone works for, they are still human.

So, despite the fact that a Democrat sits in the whitehouse, it is long past time to reign in the NSA, and to shine a very bright light into all of its darkened corridors. We the people - the supposed source of political power in this nation - need to know what the government is doing to and "for" us, clearly and simply. Perhaps we will decide - as a nation - that the collection of phone call metadata is fine. Maybe the implication that we are all a threat is fine with the masses. But perhaps not. Perhaps we don't want to live in a police state, where every move is watched and every communication monitored. Only an informed public can answer that, and that is what you owe the people: the chance to be informed.

It is long past time to get our house in order. We are nothing like a shining beacon of democracy when we spy on our own citizens in ways the Stasi could only dream of.

Please stop worrying about Edward Snowden himself and start worrying about what he's exposed. The NSA is running amok, with no effective oversight. It is violating our civil liberties every single day. It's at least as bad as it was nine years ago, and probably much worse. It is time for you to voice those concerns and help lead the effort to bring it under control.

If you do not, I won't be voting for you again. These liberties are key to our way of life. If you have lost sight of the need to defend them, I will vote for a candidate who will do so.

You have a choice. I hope you make the wise one.

To Senator Feinstein:

I write you in astonishment. The recent revelations about the NSA's clearly unconstitutional surveillance programs have me very upset. I know you are a supporter, and I suspect the fact that I am opposed to these programs - and anything like them that we haven't yet been told about - means that you will never personally read this message. That's a shame.

It is clear to me that the NSA - and probably most of the US Intelligence Community - needs to be reigned in. As a country, we've let ourselves become afraid of every little shadow, and the results are obvious. We've allowed ill thought out laws - like the Patriot Act - to govern far too much of our lives, and we've let terrible practices - like secret courts and secret interpretations of laws - become the norm. And I doubt I need to remind you of things like enhanced interrogation techniques, renditions, secret prisons, and other obscenities from the previous administration. Sadly, I have to hold both Presidents Bush and Obama as well as congress - and you - responsible for this. At least I am realistic enough to know there is nothing significant I can do about it beyond complaining.

I cannot convey to you the depth of my revulsion for the things the NSA and other agencies are doing (and have done) to (and "for") the people of the United States. We are being treated as though we are all criminals, suspected of crimes - and terrorism - without charge. Without evidence. We are being spied upon in ways that should never have been allowed, and we are spying on the rest of the world as if we own it. This must stop.

Even worse, from what I read, congress is not providing any meaningful oversight of any of our spying programs, and the FISA court is merely a rubber stamp, approving just about every request it gets. And there are other, obvious, structural problems with the FISA court as well, like who can possibly oppose a request presented to it? Answer: no one. There are no checks on what it can and cannot allow, and no disclosure about what it does. That's wrong, plain and simple, and creates a system rife with abuse.

The huge data sets the NSA has collected - and is still collecting - are a threat to anyone. Fishing expeditions can easily make anyone look bad. I look Un-American just for writing this message, and if someone at the NSA decides to look it up in a few years, they could use it to tar me as a traitor. And that same strategy can be used against any citizen.

Keeping so many secrets is counter to our democratic principles. We need much more sunlight on these programs, and clear safeguards to protect the people from the misuse of the data they collect. But speaking as a professional programmer, it is my opinion that the only way to keep such data truly safe is to avoid collecting it in the first place.

Remember Watergate? Remember the McCarthy hearings? The ways the Prism program could be misused will make those look like a walk in the park.

Given what I have seen from you in the press, I suspect you completely disagree with me, and are ready to throw the freedoms we cherish under the bus. And in truth it may be too late. Maybe those freedoms are already gone. Perhaps we've gone from being the land of the free to the land of a few free oligarchs and 300 million oppressed people.

But still, I implore you to see reason. Edward Snowden himself is a distraction. He's a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. What matters is what the NSA and other agencies are actually doing, and just how much is being kept from the people - the people - who are supposedly the source of political power in the US. You were elected to represent the people, but on this issue you have failed us.

Unless you change your course I am done voting for you. I'll vote for a Green party candidate instead, even if they cannot win, simply because I find your stance on these issues repugnant.

The people deserve better. They deserve knowledge of what the government is doing to and for them, real oversight of any challenging programs, and a government they can trust. Given recent events it is clear we lack all of those things. Your job should be to find a way to get them back.

Somehow I think that will never happen, but I can dream.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Google Reader is Gone (and I don't miss it)

Today is the last day for Google Reader.  Or maybe yesterday was, depending on what they meant by July 1st being the end, and whether or not there is an off-by-one error in their code somewhere.  (Joke!)

But I don't miss Google Reader at all, and I was a fairly heavy user.  Why not?  Because I use BazQux Reader.

I started trying all of the alternatives back when Reader's demise was announced.  I tried bunches of them, and pretty much disliked them all.  But BazQux was different.  Actually, I think it's better than Reader, at least for my usage model.

I'm not paid for this plug, and I hope I am unbiased.

If you've been living under a rock and only found out that Reader dies today, now is the time to look for an alternative.   First, of course, export your Reader subscription list, if you still can.  Then give BazQux a try.  I hope you like it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thoughts on the NSA scandal

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
-- Benjamin Franklin

The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society...
-- John F Kennedy

I've been reading a lot about the NSA and the disclosures relating to it of late, and I have some thoughts on the situation, as those who know me might expect. As always with me, nothing is simple, and I am not going to give you a two line TL;DR synopsis. Read it if you care, and if you don't, well, then don't.

On Edward Snowden

Everything in the media about Snowden - his background, education, girlfriend, behavior, where he is, and so on - is a side show. Yes, he broke the law. But whistleblowers do that all the time, trying to raise attention about things that violate their principles.

Is he a criminal? Probably.

Is he a traitor? Maybe.

Is what he has done wrong? Not in my mind. You may feel differently.

Should be punished? Answering that is beyond my pay grade, though my gut says "no".

What is important - really important - is what he's exposed. Most of us knew - or at least suspected - it was going on to some degree, but the documents Snowden has released help shed light on programs that have been hidden for far too long. That is a good and necessary thing, and for that I thank him.

And that is all I am going to say about Snowden himself.

The Problem

Going back decades, but really gaining momentum after 9/11, we - as a nation - have run in fear. Fear of communists. Fear of the Soviet Union. Fear of terrorists. Fear of China. Fear of gays. Fear of the opposing political party. Fear of the other, of the different. Fear, pure and simple.

And after 9/11, it became possible for any lawmaker, of any stripe, to pass just about any law, no matter how restrictive or silly, by claiming it would help "secure the homeland" or improve national security. Fear is a powerful motivator.

And so we've become slaves to our fear, and make far too many decisions based on it.

The intelligence community is the major beneficiary of all of that fear, and (of course) the money all those new laws have made available. We used to have (and sometimes worry about) only a military industrial-complex. Now we have an intelligence-industrial complex. It's a huge beast of a system, employing tens of thousands, and consuming vast amounts of money that often cannot be tracked at all. Someday we're going to be appalled at what the NSA is paying for toilet seats, but up until very recently it's all been black budgets and a complete lack of detail about what they are doing. The recent leaks have shone a small amount of light into the system, and the results are, to me, rather scary.

What we know seems to include:
  • A president who ran for office espousing openness and transparency, but who has changed his tune and now runs a horrifically tight lipped and closed administration, particularly on national security.
  • Lax - or nonexistent - oversight of these programs by congress and the courts that are supposed to oversee them.
  • Agencies operating on secret interpretations of laws that are (and were) controversial. In one case, I have read speculation that the NSA is allowed to collect and record the contents of all the calls and emails it wants because that isn't the actual "intercept" the law prohibits without a warrant. In this interpretation the "intercept" only happens if some agent actually listens to a call or reads an email. Whether that is really true or not, I cannot say, but given the nature of the disclosures to date, it seems entirely plausible.
  • There are few obvious safeguards in place to assure these programs aren't (and won't be) abused, and certainly no proof that abuse hasn't already occurred. In fact one article I've read documented abuse of these programs recently, including capturing the calls of a certain senator from Illinois long before he began his presidential run.
  • There is no assurance these programs are actually useful. The head of the NSA recently said these programs had helped avoid over 50 acts of terrorism, but there is no way to verify that. And, on the rare occasion in the past six months when I have read actual research by journalists into claims of the benefits of NSA style intelligence gathering as they relate to specific incidents, they have all be debunked. In other words, in all the cases I have seen where an attack was thwarted by signals intelligence, the claims have been proven false, and the actual intelligence that did the job was collected in other ways.
  • The head of the NSA has lied to congress - and thus to the people of the US - about the nature of these programs. Don't take my word for it, though. Google him up - General James Clapper - watch him tell congress, in answer to a direct question, that the NSA is not collecting data on millions of Americans. Then read about the court order requiring Verizon to turn over call metadata for every call on their network. He lied, plain and simple. How can a person who does that be trusted with anything? How can a system that encourages that be trusted with anything?
  • And if you're not an American, it appears the NSA can do whatever they want with the data they collect on you: record your calls and listen to them, search your email, save it all forever. And all with no consequences. Isn't the USA just a shining beacon of truth and justice?
The NSA PR machine would probably tell you I am mistaken in all of these claims, but they will offer no proof. Proof would imply exposure, and that is inherently bad in their minds. I disagree. I think it is possible to tell the citizens of the US what the NSA - and any other agencies working in similar ways - are doing, at least in broad strokes - in our name, clearly and succinctly, without risking agents or compromising techniques. They won't do it, of course, but they could. If they did, however, they would have to deal with the backlash, and that might be a bit of political problem.

Personally, I think we've overreacted to 9/11. It was, of course, a horrible tragedy. But what we have done in response is either entirely reactive - looking for things that were done before, so now we're patting down little old ladies and making everyone remove their shoes at airports - or is so secret that we cannot talk about it under any circumstances.

Well I am sick of it all. The introductory quotes I gave are spot on. Just how much liberty should we be giving up? And just how much secrecy should we tolerate? The answers aren't necessarily obvious, but if we cannot discuss these issues, we're giving in, and creating what amounts to a police state in the process. America, the police state. How does that sound? Or how about: "Come to America for the freedom, stay for the monitoring."

They Can Watch Me - I Have Nothing To Hide

I have heard that argument from so many people over the years. It's practically an invitation: please, government (or company), feel free to read my email and listen to my phone conversations. Go ahead and track my movements even. I don't mind, because I am a law abiding citizen and I have nothing to hide. Only the bad guys have something to hide, so go get 'em!

I have two responses:

First, you may have nothing to hide now, but will that always be true? What if you're the one who discovers a crime on the part of those in power? Shouldn't you be able to protect yourself from discovery while you figure out how best to do something about it? Alternatively, maybe your tastes change at some point and you don't want the government knowing about some little habit you've picked up. Maybe it's just a fascination with subversive literature. Maybe you're a historian and you start digging into an event in the past which the current administration wants to keep buried, or sees in a different light than you do. Isn't it possible you might want to hide something, someday? Legitimately? If you cannot imagine that, I submit you're not trying hard enough.

Secondly - and more insidiously - a giant database of call records and similar data can - at the very least - be used to make most anyone look bad in hindsight. If you have interacted with me personally, for example, that makes a connection. And if this (or some future) administration decides this blog post is a problem, you could be looked at with suspicion. And who else have you talked to? Are you certain that every last one of them is a perfectly upstanding citizen, free from any possibility of shame or recrimination? That NSA database of phone call data - combined with a simple reverse phone directory to get at names - can be used to find any number of disreputable people we might have associated with. And five years from now, we won't remember the details, so we'll have a very hard time defending ourselves, if we're even given the opportunity.

The most repressive regimes in the world would love to have the kinds of data the NSA has admitted it is "accidentally" collecting about US citizens right now. Think about that for a minute. You know it's true.

On Our Elected Representatives

President Obama ran promising greater transparency in government. At the Whitehouse website, as I write this, you can find a page about Transparency and Open Government where you can read this opening paragraph:
My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.
I call "bullshit". The Obama administration has been just as bad as - and possibly worse than - the previous administration on transparency. We continue to have a government that stamps things "secret" just for fun, and anything to do with national security is inescapably hidden. The NSA programs have only grown under his watch, and the Patriot Act - a bad law that never should have been passed in the first place - has been extended.

It didn't have to be that way. With a simple presidential directive and a few hours of work on the part of a few key people, the broad outlines of the major programs the NSA is undertaking could be released, and we could have a conversation based on real data, not suppositions, rumors, and leaked documents.

Yes, the terrorists might learn some things not to do - maybe - but remember that Bin Laden was only interacting with others via courier when we finally found him. No satellite phones, no cell phones... just people. And email encryption is a reality already. Don't you think maybe the bad guys already have a pretty good idea about this sort of thing? If they are using unencrypted text in gmail to talk amongst themselves, perhaps they are dumber than we give them credit for.

On the other hand, we the people - the ones paying the bills and electing the leaders - would probably learn a lot. Remember rendition and secret prisons? How about waterboarding and government sanctioned torture? Destabilizing foreign governments? Assassination attempts? All in our name. And now we can ad near universal spying and cyber espionage/warfare (even against our allies) to the list.

And if we're outraged by those disclosures, well, then maybe putting these programs in place was wrong, or the ways in which they are implemented need to be changed. That's part of democracy. But maybe the President - and the rest of our government - has forgotten about that.

Farther down the chain we have a few senators who may or may not have been briefed on these things in some detail. Just how much they know is, of course, unclear. Some of them have missed the briefings entirely. Others have come to the conclusion that the intelligence system is worth every penny we throw in its direction, and that everything the NSA says is true. My own senators have both let me down on this. It appears they think anything and everything is allowed in the name of national security, and I simply do not agree.

I recently read a claim from a Senator that the problem with the system is that it employs too many contractors, as if government employees wouldn't give secrets away. I can only laugh. Benjamin Franklin had another quote that applies here: "Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead." Note that Franklin doesn't mention who these people might work for. And just in case you think the fact that the NSA related leaks came from a contractor justifies the claim, I have one name for you: Bradley Manning. Private First Class Bradley Manning, in fact. He's the US soldier - definitely a government employee - who passed a treasure trove of classified material to Wikileaks. That government paycheck really saved us in that case, didn't it?

The real problem is actually very simple. It's people. They can't keep secrets, no matter who they work for.

And the only real fix is not to have secrets. The less we classify and withhold, the easier it is for everyone to do their jobs, and the harder it is for someone to break these laws, or surprise others with revelations.

I will be writing my Senators, my Representative, and the President to express my extreme displeasure with the state of our security apparatus. And I suspect I will be voting differently come the next election as well.

I note, however, that with very few exceptions, both of the major parties are filled with people in the pockets of the intelligence industry. If you think you can just switch your vote to the other big party and cause change, you're fooling yourself. You'll have to look much farther than that.


Imagine for a moment that we're all rats in a maze. In this scenario the NSA is the guy running the experiments and watching from above, with video cameras and digital tape recorders. He can hear just about anything you say, if he wants to, and see just about everything you do. Sometimes you can hide in a tunnel for a minute or two, but the NSA guy knows when you went into that tunnel, when you come out, what you took with you, and everyone you met while you were in there. And if your personal maze happens to be overseas, the NSA guy is actively recording everything you say and do just because he can. And watching and reading it later, trying to determine if you're the right kind of rat or not.

Is that the kind of world you want to live in?

If not, I suggest you tell your elected representatives about it, loudly and clearly. A big backlash is about the only tool we have to change things at this point. A small backlash will only get the noisy ones watched more closely, and eventually their friends will be tarred with the same brush when these systems are misused by those in power.

All of these intelligence gathering systems are begging to be abused. If not by the current administration and people in charge, by those that replace them in the coming years. We will all suffer, and the McCarthy hearings will look like a cakewalk in comparison.


I've read a lot of articles focusing on these issues in the past few weeks. The list below is roughly in time order, and contains links to articles I found interesting, or that I bookmarked for one reason or another. It is far from a complete list of my research, which it would be difficult for me to regenerate at this point, though - and I say this fully understanding the irony - the NSA could probably tell you what I've read in a matter of minutes if they wanted to. There are a lot more articles to read if you dig. Feel free, if you don't mind building a track record on the web that the NSA will be able to follow, of course.
And one from December 2005, still shockingly relevant now:

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

TL;DR: go see Much Ado About Nothing.  Really.  Just do it.  Great movie.

Joss Whedon - who created enough of the modern American TV canon that I am starting to think of him as the Shakespeare of my generation, though I am certain he would disagree with that characterization - has done it again.

This time he's created a movie from a play by the original Shakespeare, and he's done it very well.  He cast a bunch of people you will recognize if you know his work, and they clearly have a great time.

Put simply, Much Ado About Nothing is great.  Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof have great chemistry as Beatrice and Benedick, and their acting is superb.

So, honestly, just go see it.  You'll have a great time.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Yellow Jackets: Scourge of the Earth, or something...

I started to do some mowing and tree trimming on Tuesday. I am trimming up a bunch of trees along the road I live on, as well as mow a field. It all belongs to a neighbor who doesn't mind if I do the work. In fact, I've been mowing this field for him for several years now - to the benefit of us both - and I am finally trying to trim up the trees so they don't rip my face off when I mow under them. And to reduce the ladder fuels as well.

I had been working on to the very first tree on my neighbor's side of the property line for maybe 20 minutes when I felt a sharp pain in my right hip. Inside the pocket. It hurt. A lot.

No sign of the critter, but it had all the hallmarks of a yellow jacket sting. Only then did I note the nest in the ground, not three feet from where I was standing. Grrr.

So I backed off, made sure I wasn't about to die from anaphylactic shock, and kept working, just a bit farther away.

Maybe half an hour later I noted that the inside of my left elbow was starting to itch. Odd... no bites or stings or anything... just a consistent itch. Keep working.

Half an hour after that, though, my elbow is covered with small pustules and swollen up. And itches like mad. Grrr. Again.

Take a break. Wash the elbow clean and examine. No bite or sting marks that I can see. Slather on some topical antihistamine. Examine hip. Clear sting mark and minor swelling. Slather on some antihistamine there too. Start wondering...

Two years ago I was stung by a yellow jacket on my left elbow, just about where it is all swollen now. Could the new sting on my right hip cause the swelling on my left elbow?

The rest of the day goes along without additional excitement. That evening the elbow swelling recedes, but the hip swelling (and pain) increase, then decrease overnight, then increase again the following morning.

And continue increasing during the day. Grrr for a third time.

Finally, despite the fact that I am not obviously dying, I decide to go see a doctor. Mostly about whether the new sting could cause my left elbow to swell than about the swelling in my right hip.

And here's the takeaway from this blog post. Things I didn't know:
  • Less than 1% of people have an allergic reaction to bee stings. That means that unless it itches - or your neck swells up and you cannot breathe - antihistamines don't help. This makes sense in my case. The antihistamine did nothing at all for my hip. Maybe it helped the elbow, but then again maybe not. There is no way to be sure without extensive testing, which given the situation is something I would rather avoid.
  • The doctor says he has never seen an infected bee sting either, and he has seen hundreds of them over the years. That means antibiotics are wasted treatment for them too.
  • The swelling around a bee or yellow jacket sting is actually a reaction to the toxin the little blighter has pumped into your system. It can make your whole arm or leg swell up before it resolves itself, but there is nothing much you can do about it. Maybe some pain killers if it hurts too much, but all that stuff we were taught about allergic reactions and the like: wrong. Unless you're part of that tiny group that actually has one, or you're stung in the mouth.
  • There is no pattern to whether later stings are more or less bad than earlier stings. You never know.
  • Oh, and get the stinger out ASAP if the bee left one stuck in you. Don't worry about squeezing it, just pull the thing out to get it to stop injecting more toxin into your body.
So the doctor told me not to worry about the sting. It will work itself out just fine, and given I hadn't already gone into anaphylactic shock - and the sting site didn't itch - I didn't have an allergic reaction to it. Wait it out is all I can do. OK.

Beyond that, though, my question about whether the new sting could have caused the site of the old sting to swell up and itch was new to him. He didn't know the answer, but said he would try to look it up. It does happen in some cases with poison oak, he knew, so it is at least an interesting question. If I hear anything from him about it, I will share that.

This morning the swelling on my hip is down again. Maybe it will swell back up, maybe not. And the elbow is basically back to normal. Life goes on.

Finally, if anyone knows of a way to render yellow jackets completely extinct - wiped from the face of the earth - with no side effects, please share it. We live with skunks, spiders, bees, wasps, poison oak and maybe scorpions and rattlesnakes (though I haven't seen any of those in 21 years), but yellow jackets are definitely the worst. They all need to die. Now.