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Crypto and You

3 min read

So you want to learn more about the encryption debate.1 Well, take a knee, gang, its .

Flash back 10 years ago. No one gave a shit about cybersecurity unless you were in China or a ghostwritten Tom Clancy novel. Then, as people started using networked services in more places, the information leaks began. It was still not an issue for the government (particularly, law enforcement), because useful data was just as accessible to them as it was to nefarious agents, like hackers or Facebook.

In 2013, the Snowden leaks began to paint a picture of just how much our own security agencies relied on cybersecurity weakness in their day-to-day operations. Snowden had trouble finding a journalist who could figure out how to use PGP to read his heavily encrypted messages to disseminate this information.

The leaked information made Silicon Valley companies very angry. So they began to encrypt transmissions between their data centers, as well as building it into their email, messaging, and mobile operating systems.

Now, encryption is just lots of math. Ever watch a movie about code breakers in WWII? Encryption. The only difference now is that common computers can do a lot more math in a short amount of time. But before this point, it was never viewed as particularly important to consumer software.

Think of it this way. In the same way that a gun is an offensive weapon, encryption is a defensive weapon. It protects your information from prying eyes, whomever that may be.

So now law enforcement has a problem. This technology is widely available, even to enemies of the state. Their proposed solution is to break it. Or to put it in their words, make it work for some and not for others. Kind of like how if you point a gun at something or someone you like, it will not fire. Because it only works in certain situations.

This is obviously a farce. As the old argument goes, if we outlaw guns, only law breakers will have guns. Since enemies of the state are not likely to stop using encrypted communication if it is outlawed, the only people without it will be law-abiding citizens. Effectively the exact opposite of the stated goal.

Remember this when some idiot presidential candidate2 tries to tell you how encryption is bad because terrorists are bad. The only benefit of outlawing encryption is to spy on you.

  1. I know there is a new John Oliver monologue about this. I haven't seen it. I hope he makes some of these points better than me.


    via GIPHY




2 min read

Dear Cheryl1 (my NSA angel),

Hi there. I have been reading (but you knew that) about the latest cycle of ad blocking, and how it will be the end of advertising/journalism/the internet as we know it2. It is fun to remember how pop-up blocking was also the end of internet advertising as we knew it!

Anyways, my favorite piece to come out of all this is a talk transcript by the head of Pinboard.3 I encourage you to read it yourself, but here are some choice pull-quotes.

On ad morals:

The ad networks’ name for this robotic deception is ‘ad fraud’ or ‘click fraud’. (Advertisers like to use moralizing language when their money starts to flow in the wrong direction. Tricking people into watching ads is good; being tricked into showing ads to automated traffic is evil.)

On regulation:

When I flew over to give this talk, I wasn’t worried about my plane falling out of the sky. Eighty years of effective technical regulation (and massive penalties for fraud) have made commercial aviation the safest form of transportation in the world.

On smart refrigerators:

Samsung recently got in hot water with their smart refrigerator. Because it failed to validate SSL certificates, the fridge would leak your Gmail credentials (used by its little calendar) to anyone who asked it. All I wanted was some ice, and instead my email got hacked.

On living in San Francisco:

You wouldn’t hire a gardener whose houseplants were all dead. But we expect that people will trust us to reinvent their world with software even though we can’t make our own city livable.

Seriously, it is ten minutes of reading well spent.

Have a great day,

  1. The NSA is an equal oportunity employer.
  2. Here is the same guy from that editorial (he is EIC, btw), two months earlier, lamenting the terrible mobile web user experience, which is almost entirely caused by ads and trackers.
  3. My least favorite piece was Marco Arment’s, who, after proclaiming ad blockers the future and creating the most popular one on iOS, probably found out it was blocking ads on his own site.


The Elusive Private Cloud

3 min read

It is the DMZ week between the two major developer conferences of the year, I/O and Appple's WWDC. Shots were fired by Google in the form of free and unlimited photo storage and an omnipresent search assistant for its upcoming OS update. fans have already begun reflexively asserting that "Google ain't no thing":

Everything has a price. With Apple, you typically pay them money, and they sell you premium products and services in return. That type of cost and relationship is easy to understand.
With Google, you typically pay them attention and data, and they give you free or cheap products and services in return. That cost and relationship is harder to understand.

First of all, no, it is not hard to understand. For decades if not longer, services have used advertising to mitigate cost to the user. Ever listened to a radio, or read a newspaper, or received junk mail?

Second (and more nitpicky), you would be hard pressed to find anyone else making the argument for Apple offering users more choice. I am running a custom launcher, a third-party SMS client, and readily switch between three different browsers depending on my use cases. Ever tried that on iOS? */android-troll*

Apple CEO Tim Cook even joined in:

“We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.”

The first takeaway from this is that the Apple camp is placing a priority on while at the same time knocking "so-called free services" down a peg. This implies that privacy is only available to those who can afford it. This sentiment is much larger moral hazard than allowing tailored advertising to subsidize service.

The most important takeaway, however, is that this sentiment could turn into Apple's Waterloo if they don't make some major improvements to their services. Google Photos has long been superior to iPhoto, only to be hamstrung by its dependence on Google's misunderstood social network. Google solved that problem this year by separating them. Apple needs to give people a reason to pay out the nose for their competing product besides "hey, we won't check out your pictures."

Google offers value in exchange for information, which is why they are seen as a pinnacle of innovation. Apple offers value in exchange for cold hard cash, which is why they are seen as a walled garden surrounding a mountain of cash. Hopefully Apple's private will open up and rain some new ideas on WWDC this year, instead of nude photos of celebrities. */terrible-apple-troll-pun*


Work email

1 min read

My work just sent out a company-wide email with no text, just an attached Word doc that took 2 minutes to load. It was a bullet list of tax information, which could have just been in the email itself.

Microsoft Office makes people worse at software.


The Verge: Offline

1 min read


I’m still here: back online after a year without the internetPaul Miller returns after a year off the internet.

I was wrong.

One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.” It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.

And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.


Facebook Break

3 min read

I finally uninstalled the Facebook app on my phone about two weeks ago, mostly because it sucks. I checked back a few nights ago via the browser, and I had not missed much of anything (except an old friend getting engaged - congrats!). The next logical step is to stop sharing things on Facebook. For the better part of a year, I have prided myself on doing my sharing almost exclusively through third-party avenues (because I want control over my data, and I am a social network hipster), and the only step left is to stop.

Why do I go back, even to share? Because everyone else is there. Facebook has been around for eons in Internet Time. In the beginning, it functioned more like an actual "face book", which people did not update daily. However, it was still people you actually knew and wanted to keep up with. Those roots continue to reinforce themselves over time as you build a digital archive of yourself, but what is left is a gargantuan filter bubble. It is much harder to break out of a filter bubble of people you know IRL, which Facebook knows. That is why the point of the site was lost somewhere between the immediate, actual, meaningful connections and "Your friends like Diet Coke, you should too!" (Of course, this could all change in a week.)

The laundry list of things Facebook actually does is pretty impressive until you consider that several other places offer the same service, usually better. General status updates work very well on Twitter; if it is longer than 140 characters, get a blog. Dropbox, Flickr, and Picasa all offer picture storage and sharing, with the added bonus of export. Instant messaging can be done with GTalk, iMessage, or the mother of all internet communique: email. Link sharing and other content curation are Tumblr's forte. Foursquare has check-ins locked down. Personal moments meant to be shared with only close friends and family can be set up easily in Path or Google+. In fact, G+ does pretty much all of this, and shares it more intuitively than Facebook.

Lifehacker beat me to it, but the way Facebook has adapted their advertising is annoying, albeit nefariously intuitive. Ads themselves are not all that bad. The service has to make money somehow. Google is basically an advertising company, but aside from the search results page it is generally unobtrusive, and the service is good enough that it warrants forgiveness. Almost all the services mentioned are ad-supported, and the alternative to that is paying your own way with something like

So, for those visiting from my Facebook link, welcome to my page. You may see it pop up occasionally on my FB feed in the future, but independence has to start somewhere. One last cleanup of various outdated likes and other personal details, and I will be on my way. This is a break, not a full-on deletion (because how else will I occasionally use Spotify?). And if they change and improve somehow, I will gladly eat these words.



2 min read

The amount of people that do not (or even choose not to) understand modern technology and the internet is bewildering. I see it day to day at work (my company thinks it is a "tech" company! Cute) and from the people elected to make laws. I remember a TA in a software engineering course tell us about an internship he had in which he automated all his work in the first couple days using a few Python scripts. This gave him a free summer to goof around. Menial tasks can generally be avoided these days.

I guess that is why CISPA bothers me. It seems like a step in the right direction from SOPA, but that step mostly benefits the intermediaries handling user information, not end users themselves. Internet communication is (generally) free speech, and expecting to know who can see your data seems reasonable enough. But the people writing the laws do not see this perspective; they see terrorists and scofflaws (always wanted to use that term) that must be stopped at all costs, and the internet as a readily governable entity. If you can't obtain a warrant for that information, then why do you need it?

The bottom line is just understanding what you are getting into when you are sharing data online. Microsoft keeps calling out Google for this, and the only reason it gains any traction is from the personification of Google reading your email. Putting any rational thought into that renders it absurd (how many people would they have to hire to read every Gmail account?). Part of the reason I started this blog, besides having a place for longform thoughts, is that I don't really trust Facebook with my data that much to begin with. Ever since they went public, they have seemed a little desperate about finding new ways to monetize my data. I would like to use that data to interact with people instead of with more computers. And if I would like it to be private, it should be private.



1 min read

I am battling with how to write a post without dropping into the mundane details of everyday life. It is something we have all become aware of with the rise in social media. There are people that inherently know how to use it, and there are people who do not. It is an ongoing internal struggle for me to grok this. It is probably why I started this blog.

I don't think I've ever been that guy that puts up 14 pictures of the omelet he just made for breakfast. And that is not just a "do unto others..." thing; it mostly stems from the feeling that I don't have much important to say. I don't text friends or family out of the blue, even really good friends. I'm good at returning email, but not initiating the conversation.

So, before this post ends up eating itself, get to the point. That is why this blog was started. See if inspiration can be wrung from the person described above. Or, not even inspiration -- just content. Balancing sparse entries with insight. Learning to make fingers type sentence good. Creating.