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.