Archive for the 'Review' Category

Review: OnePlus One Android Phone

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

I agonize over my technology decisions, often to a point that other people, including free software people, tease me about it. Is my distribution of choice free enough? Is it secure? Is my privacy protected so that I choose exactly what I want to share?

My current Android ROM of choice is OmniROM, and I’ve been quite happy with it. I do have issues with the limited number of phones that are officially supported, but it was my choice of ROM that drove me to buy an HTC One (m7).

I like the HTC. My main complaint is with the horrible battery life, and the phone is somewhat old having been replaced by the m8 which I don’t believe is supported by OmniROM. I’ve been frustrated in that it seems I have to choose between freedom and cool gear.

But maybe that isn’t the case anymore.

My friend Ronny first brought the OnePlus One (OPO) to my attention, and recently, through one of my Ingress friends Audrey, I was able to get an invite to purchase the new OnePlus One handset. While not supported officially by OmniROM as of yet, it is one of the new phones to ship with Cyanogenmod, and since OmniROM is a fork it should be compatible. Plus, it is very similar to the phones from Oppo which are supported by OmniROM, so perhaps support will come when the OPO becomes more widely available.

The first thing I realized when I opened the box is that this handset is a monster. It boasts a 5.5 inch screen at 1920×1080 pixels (full HD) which makes it the same as the new iPhone 6 Plus (401 ppi). It has a 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of DD3 RAM at 1866MHz which makes it fast. I bought the 64GB version (quite a jump from my HTC One’s 16GB) and the 3100mAh battery lasts all day and then some. I thought the size would worry me, but I quickly got use to it. I can even read magazines on it which may cause me to travel less with my Nexus 7, and as my eyes age I’m finding the OPO’s screen to be much to my liking.

The phone arrived two days after I ordered it via USPS in two separate boxes. There was a thin square one holding the phone

and underneath it a USB cable and a SIM tray removal tool. To remove the OPO SIM you need a longer tool than the standard Apple one, so I’ll have to be sure to carry it with me. In a separate small box was a wall charger.

There was zero paper and no earbuds of any sort, but I would rate the packaging equal to that of other premium products like those from Apple.

Even though it has pretty much the same size screen as the iPhone 6 Plus, the phone itself is slightly smaller and lighter, although thicker (the iPhone is wicked thin – you are almost worried you’ll bend it). The back of the “Sandstone Black” model is coated with a rough textured finish that makes the phone feel solid in your hand and I haven’t come close to dropping it.

Another improvement over the HTC is the camera. The OPO comes with a 13MB Sony Exmor IMX 214 with six physical lenses. It can shoot 4K video (including slow motion) or 720p video at 120fps. It takes nice pictures.

But you could have read that on the website. How does it fare in real life?

I was concerned with the fact it ran Cyanogenmod. When they announced they were going to take on investment to license their code to handset makers, they handled their community poorly (which resulted in the OmniROM fork) and I was worried that the OPO would be “less free”. I was happy to find out that it was very open. Unlocking the phone was the same as with Nexus devices, simple hook it up to your computer and run “fastboot oem unlock”. While I despised the “flat” icon theme that shipped with the device, it took about two taps to change it back. If I wanted a theme that looked like Windows 8 I would have bought an iPhone.

All my usual options were there. I disabled the Google search bar, increased the icon layout grid size and otherwise customized the phone exactly how I wanted it. I rooted the device and used Helium to restore my application settings and the whole conversion took less than an hour.

I did have to make a change to allow the phone to work with my Linux Mint Desktop. The system wouldn’t recognize it when I plugged it in, and I had to edit “/lib/udev/rules.d/69-libmtp.rules” to include the following two lines:

# Added for OPO
ATTR{idVendor}=="05c6", ATTR{idProduct}=="6764", SYMLINK+="libmtp-%k", MODE="660", GROUP="audio", ENV{ID_MTP_DEVICE}="1", ENV{ID_MEDIA_PLAYER}="1", TAG+="uaccess"
ATTR{idVendor}=="05c6", ATTR{idProduct}=="6765", SYMLINK+="libmtp-%k", MODE="660", GROUP="audio", ENV{ID_MTP_DEVICE}="1", ENV{ID_MEDIA_PLAYER}="1", TAG+="uaccess"

After that it was a breeze. Note: that on one system I had to reboot to get it to recognize the phone, but I don’t think I did on the first one. Strange.

There are a few shortcomings. It took me several tries to get it to pair with my Motorola T505 bluetooth speaker, but once paired it seems to connect reliably. The voice recognition sucks like most Android phones. I don’t use Google Now but I shouldn’t have to send information off to a remote server to voice dial a call. I do miss that from my iPhone days when the original (non-Siri) voice dialer rarely made a mistake. Voice dialing on the OPO is usable, though, and there is a rumour that there will be an “OK OnePlus” voice activation feature like on the Moto X but it isn’t there now. No microSD slot, but with 64GB of internal flash memory that is less of an issue and fewer and fewer phones offer that. I also just tested this little dongle I have for accessing microSD cards via the USB port and it worked just fine.

I’m sticking with the stock ROM for now to see what Cyanogenmod will do in the future, but I know that I have the ability to put on my own Recovery and ROM should I so choose. At the moment they are in the “not evil” column, but I was a little worried about their Gallery app. I noticed a new Galley app account on my phone that looked like it was going to sync my pictures somewhere. Some research suggests that it is disabled when autobackup is off, but it would still like a little more transparency about random, non-removable accounts on my phone.

All in all I’ve been very happy with the OnePlus One and I’m eager to see where they take it. I am especially enamored of the the price. At US$349, the black 64GB version is the same price as a 16GB Nexus 5 and half the price of the iPhone 6 Plus. Probably the best bang for the buck in the Android world at the moment, if not phones in general.

Review: Question Bedtime by MC Frontalot

Friday, August 15th, 2014

The best perk of my job is that I get to meet some truly amazing people. From the people I work with, to others in the open source world, to people like Damian Hess, my life has definitely been enriched by the people in it.

I was able to sponsor Damian, aka MC Frontalot, to perform at the Southeast Linuxfest (SELF) last year in Charlotte, and it was a great weekend. One evening ended up with a group of us in a hotel room, and Damian played some of the raw tracks from what would become his sixth studio album, Question Bedtime.

When he told me that he was doing an album based on bedtime stories, I was like “Wha?”. It didn’t seem to fit in with his “nerd” focus, but now that the album is out I can see why it works. First, while classics like “Goldilocks” and “Little Red Riding Hood are represented, most of the songs reference more obscure tales. Fairy tales are, by definition, fantastical, in much the same way as comic books or other geek friendly literature, so it isn’t as much of a stretch as I originally thought.

One of the tracks I heard that night at SELF was called “Devil in the Attic”. It is based on an obscure Japanese fairy tale called “The Ugly Son“. Such was their vanity, the parents of a very beautiful girl send out notice that she should only be wed to the fairest youth in all the land. Some grifters with a deformed (but intelligent) son think up a plan to wed him to her. They claim he is the fairest in the land and a courtship ensues, but based on tradition they do not see each other at first. On the night of the wedding, the boy’s father goes up into the attic of this grand house and starts claiming to be a demon who will visit a curse on the boy for daring to wed the girl, which the demon claims for himself. The curse turns out to be to deform the features of the boy – thus explaining his looks once they are revealed.

Front puts his own spin on the tale, turning it into a story of the oppression when women were considered property, as well as a lesson on conceit. In the chorus the father of the girl brags “Anything you could have, we have it. Even got a devil in the attic.”

Well, more than a year later, the CD Question Bedtime is now available for pre-order and immediate download. I’ve been listening to it for several weeks now and just got the final copy when it released this week.

The “his own spin” theme flows throughout the album. In “Gold Locks” the classic “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” story is retold from the bear’s point of view, portraying Goldilocks as the boogie man, creeping into your house to chop you up and eat you. The opening track “Start Over” is the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told by Front to a group of children who, in the chorus, exclaim “That ain’t how it happened”.

Just like in Solved, the album is laid out with tracks separated by little interstitial skits, this time with the theme that Front is a babysitter talking to his charges. Only they are all adults. In the opening one Front is trying to get “Li’l Kyle” (comedian Kyle Kinane) to go to sleep, and Kyle questions the arbitrary nature of a “bed time” – hence the name. It’s funny just to hear the arguments presented by the “children” in the skits – I wish I could have thought up some of those when I was younger.

I like every track on the album, but as can be expected I like some more than others. Almost all of them have a hook that will give you more earworms than the victims in The Strain. This morning I was walking around getting ready for work with “Gold Locks, gets in through your open door” on repeat in my brain.

My favorite track is “Two Dreamers” which is based on a tale from 1001 Arabian Nights. What has always attracted me to Front’s work has been the quality of the music. Too much of nerdcore rap tends to focus on the lyrics. While the lyrics are important, and Front excels at them, it is the music that takes it past novelty act and into valid art. In “Two Dreamers” there is even a bit of auto-tune, which I usually shun, but in this case it works. Quite frequently while listening to the album I switch over to Banshee and put that track on repeat.

Of course the track that is bound to be talked about the most is Wakjąkága. It is based on a tale from the native American Ho-chunk (Winnebago) tribe. Let’s just say that when I was learning how classical mythology explains things like why the sun rises and sets and why we have winter and summer, my instructors skipped over this little origin story.

If you are an MC Frontalot fan, you’ll like this album, and if you haven’t been exposed to him before, this album is his most accessible CD for non-geeks. It showcases his progression as a musician, and while my favorite tracks from Solved (“Critical Hit”, “Stoop Sale”, “Victorian Space Prostitute”) resonate with me more than the tracks on this album, they are offset by a couple of tracks I either don’t care for or actively dislike, such as “Invasion of the Not Quite Dead”. Overall, I like the album Question Bedtime the most, and tend to listen to it straight through.

As a bonus if you are an audio nerd, the download includes an 88.2kHz FLAC version which is as close as you can get to the music exactly as he mixed it. Be sure to read the README that comes with it though – if your audio card doesn’t support it he also ships a mastered 44.1kHz FLAC version that will sound better than if your media player is forced to downsample the 88.2kHz one.

Upgrades? Upgrades? We don’t need no stinkin’ …

Friday, April 25th, 2014

I am incredibly behind on blog posts, for which I apologize. Three weeks ago (sheesh) I was in the UK for the OUCE, and I owe a post on that. The week after that was filled up with meetings, mainly exciting meetings that I hope to be able to talk about in the near future, and this week I am supposed to be on vacation.

Unfortunately, I caught a nasty cold while in Southampton that I haven’t been able to completely shake and this week I hurt my back, which makes it even hard to type. As George Bernard Shaw said, youth is wasted on the young.

Anyway, apologies once again for disappointing my three readers (one of whom I met on the plane ride back from the conference, hi Greg!) and I hope to do better.

This quick, vacation week post concerns upgrades. I’ve been a bit of an upgrade fool and I thought I’d share some of my stories, most of them actually pretty positive.

The first concerns OpenNMS 1.12.6, which was released this week. That upgrade was the smoothest of the three I did. Upgrading from 1.12.5 only involved two configuration files changing: datacollection-config, which added Cisco Nexus metrics, and magic-users.properties, which added a new permission “role” for accessing the Asset Editor UI without being an admin user.

This release also addresses a security bug where an unprivileged user could get a list of user names via ReST. While not a huge issue for most OpenNMS users (How many of you still have admin/admin as the username and password? Be honest) it is still a recommended upgrade if just for all of the other fixes included.

The second upgrade I did was to the latest Ubuntu LTS, Tasty Trollop. It, too, went pretty smoothly.

Many years ago I got frustrated with my laptop and laptops in general. First off, they seemed to be expensive for the performance you received. Second, I would often have to make the “laptop drive of shame” when I forgot it on my way to the office. Finally, I just hated to have to lug it around when I wasn’t traveling.

So I saw a deal on woot for an HP desktop with pretty nice specs, and I bought two of them: one for home and one for the office. While I do have a small laptop for travel, for the most part I use these desktops, and with modern network speeds I can usually access any information I need from either machine.

Now the office machine, which is the one I use most of the time, gets a lot more attention than the one at home. While they both started out running Ubuntu 12.04 (Pastel Pederast), I upgraded the office machine to the newer, non-LTS Ubuntu releases and wasn’t as happy with them. I ended up switching to Linux Mint on both that machine and my laptop, but I left the home machine running Ubuntu.

My initial thought was to wait until Mint 17 came out and then switch to it, but I figured there could be little harm in upgrading to the new 14.04 LTS release in the meantime. The first challenge was actually getting the operating system to realize there was a release out there. I ended up running “sudo do-release-upgrade -d” with the “-d” option finally finding it and getting it started. I run a pretty vanilla setup at home, so there were only a couple of configuration files requiring attention and otherwise the whole thing went smoothly. Took about two hours to download and complete.

So far I’m pretty happy with the new release. No huge new changes, and everything seems to work well together. I did have to re-enable workspaces, and I took advantage of the new option to move application menu bars back to the window versus being in the title bar (I use a 27 inch monitor and it can get a bit tedious swiping the mouse up to the top) but other than that, I don’t see too many changes. Empathy has gotten worse, at least for me, but it was easy to switch to Pidgin. The only bug so far is that if I let the lock screen kick on automatically, a good portion of the time I can never get it to come back up: the screen just remains blank. I usually have to ssh in from another machine and reboot. Other people are reporting the problem (search on “lock screen freeze”) and I have yet to try and restart lightdm (suggested as a way to bring the desktop back), but as a workaround I just manually lock the screen whenever I leave, which is a good habit to be in in any case. I figure they’ll fix this soon.

I still prefer Cinnamon to Unity, but I’m happy using either, and due to the ease of upgrading I’ll probably stick around to using Ubuntu at home for the foreseeable future.

The final upgrade I did this week concerns OS X. I still have three Macintosh computers at home. There is an older Mac Mini that solo boots into Debian that I use for a web and file server. There is an older 24-inch iMac that tri-boots OS X, Ubuntu and Windows 7 that is usually booted to Windows since that is what my wife uses, and there is a newer Mac Mini that runs Snow Leopard and acts as my DVR using the EyeTV product. It also gathers and publishes my weather station data via wview.

I was cleaning up the DVR when an “Upgrade to Mavericks” window popped up. Now I really hated Lion and never used Mountain Lion, so there was no real reason to upgrade, except that I’ve been having an issue where I can’t add any bluetooth devices to the Mini. I really wanted to add a mouse, since some times stupid windows pop up that ruin the DVR aspect of the setup and they can be a pain to close if I have to VNC in. I figured, what could go wrong?

Of course, the first thing I did is make sure I had a full Time Machine backup. I really wish I could find a “bare iron” restore app for Linux that was as easy to use. I do like the Ubuntu backup integration with Déjà Dup, which seems to be missing in Mint so I use BackInTime, but neither offer the ease of Time Machine.

The upgrade to Mavericks didn’t go as smoothly as the others. At some point close to the end, the monitor went blank and wouldn’t come back, so I had to power cycle the system. This caused the install to start over, but the second time it finally completed. I then had to go through and turn off all of the “spyware” that seems to be on by default now. It automatically signed me up for “iCloud” which I turned off (good thing I didn’t have any contacts, etc., on this system or Apple would own them) and I also disabled Facetime, which required deleting a plist file out of the Library directory. My weather station software didn’t start because of a missing USB to Serial driver, but once that got installed things seem to work. I was even able to add a bluetooth mouse with no problem.

Then I found out that Front Row was missing.

Now when I had a Macbook, I hated Front Row. I was always turning it on by accident. But for my DVR, it made a great interface to EyeTV. Apparently Apple has dropped it since Lion, so I spent a couple of hours trying to find a replacement. When nothing I found was acceptable, and with my growing distrust of Apple with respect to the information it was going to capture on my computer, I decided to go back to Snow Leopard. Should be easy, right?

Wrong.

Both the version of Snow Leopard I have on a USB stick and the install disk that shipped with the computer would now gray screen when trying to boot. I know that Mavericks futzes around with the disk partitions, so I figure that is to blame. I was just about to boot to an Ubuntu disk just to repartition the disk when I decided to try and boot into the new “recovery” partition that Mavericks installed. While I didn’t have much hope that it would be able to access a Time Machine backup made with Snow Leopard, I was pleasantly surprised when it worked.

Another surprise came when I found out that my bluetooth mouse was still associated with the computer. I’ve always thought of the term “backup and restore” to mean one puts a set of bits into storage and then puts those same bits back. Apple has a weird interpretation of this, especially when it comes to the iPhone, where “backup and restore” can mean “perform a complete operating system upgrade in the process of putting back user data”. Apparently Time Machine is similar, and my new device settings were remembered.

So in summary, I guess the time I spent playing with Mavericks was worth it. I know now that I don’t ever want to upgrade from Snow Leopard, and I got my bluetooth issue addressed, if not fixed. Ubuntu 14.04 LTS is worth checking out, especially if you are looking to get rid of Lion/Mountain Lion/Mavericks, and do upgrade to OpenNMS 1.12.6.

You’ll be glad you did.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

[NOTE: While I try to avoid out and out spoilers, purist may want to skip this post].

The easiest way to describe The Circle by Dave Eggers is as some sort of 1984 prequel for the digital age.

It is not a happy book.

The story follows Mae Holland, a relatively recent college graduate who is working a dead-end, soul sucking job at a local utility in a small town in California near Fresno that no one has heard of.

Through her college roommate Annie, she manages to land a job at The Circle, sort of an über Google/Facebook/Twitter company in The Valley. Annie quickly rose through the ranks at The Circle and is now part of the Gang of 40 – the 40 most influential people in the company. Through her, Mae is introduced to the culture of the company, including learning about its three founders, called the “Three Wise Men”.

Ty Gospodinov is the boy genius who created TruYou, a now ubiquitous single sign-on technology that made sure that people on the Internet were who they said they were. His goal was to remove some of the hate and vitriol that anonymity on in Internet permitted, and TruYou soon became the standard for most web-based commerce. Socially awkward and a bit of a recluse, Ty hired the other two wise men: Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton. Eamon was the ebullient visionary and Tom the corporate man who found a way to commercialize Ty’s product which resulted in a huge IPO. They later subsumed their competitors and became the main social, search and e-commerce company in the world.

Mae was extremely happy to be at The Circle, on its gorgeous campus with all the perks one could hope for and working among all the amazing people employed there. The Circle even allowed her to put her parents on her health plan, which was important because her father suffered from MS and was having issues with his current insurance company. It was like a dream come true.

Mae’s initial role in the company was in the Customer Experience department, basically customer service. While she gets off to a great start, things start to sour in wonderland when she is reprimanded, in the nicest way possible, for not being “social” enough – not sharing enough of her life, her likes and dislikes, and getting involved with the rest of the Circle community. At times it comes across as a little sinister, and much of the story follows her fumbling steps to become fully integrated at The Circle and her efforts to excel there. She does attend more company events which eventually creates a love triangle between her, a shy fellow employee named Francis with whom she feels empowered, and a mysterious stranger named Kalden who randomly appears and disappears at the oddest times, but for whom she has a strong attraction.

My favorite aspect of the book is the technology that Eggers introduces. I’m not sure if he came up with it all on his own or, Malcolm Gladwell-like, just assembled it into a narrative. My guess is a little of both. One such innovation is called SeaChange – an inexpensive, tiny camera that can be deployed anywhere and introduced with the slogan ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN. As the book progresses we learn about the impending “closing of the Circle” which is identified as the completion of some grand plan that would make Big Brother blush.

Not everyone is as thrilled as Mae with The Circle. On a visit home she sees an ex-boyfriend named Mercer. He delivered one of my favorite quotes of the book:

Listen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren’t doing so well socially. And judgments like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest sh*t in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.

I learned that Eggers was the founder of McSweeneys, which is really cool, and although this isn’t “Literature” with a capital “L”, his prose is well written and easy to read. I only had one issue with the book, concerning a subplot where CEO Stenton has The Circle create a submersible so that he can go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a lá James Cameron, and return with specimens. These animals are kept in a normal aquarium, exposed to atmosphere, which really bothered me since any life that could live at those depths would simply explode when the pressure was removed. He also talks about coral and other things that simply wouldn’t exist at those depths. I’m willing to forgive him since the whole thing is required for an metaphor at the end of the book, but it still bothered me. Plus, The eventual denouement is a little predictable, but overall I really enjoyed the book.

My reference to 1984 is not casual. While Orwell was working with post World War II technology, The Circle is what he would have imagined had he written the book today. Even the iconic “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” is mimicked as “SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT”.

There is much more to the book, many more little jewels of social interaction that I loved, but I am trying hard not to spoil anything. It is worth checking out, and I’ll end with another of my favorite quotes, this one from Mae when she is distressed about some “frowns” she receives:

Why was there so much animosity in the world? And then it occurred to her, in a brief and blasphemous flash: she didn’t want to know how they felt. The flash opened up to something larger, an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable – it was too much.

Review: The Snowden Files

Monday, February 17th, 2014

As someone with very strong opinions of the illegal surveillance being performed by the NSA, I was eager to read the account of how they became exposed in The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially those people who believe the government exists at the will of the people and not the other way around.

Do note that the book is entitled The Snowden Files and not The Ed Snowden Story. While Edward Snowden does figure prominently, the book is much more about the Orwellian domestic spying machine his revelations describe than the man himself. It has a lot of detail on the NSA as well as organizations such as Britain’s GCHQ, massively funded by the NSA to spy on people both domestically and abroad.

Among my social circles, Snowden is a bit polarizing. There are those who think that he broke an oath when he used his position as a contractor at the NSA to obtain these documents and that the end didn’t justify the means. Other more public figures describe him as “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison“. However, most of my friends tend to believe, and this book demonstrates, that Snowden is a patriot in the truest sense of the word.

The Snowden portrayed by Harding is a rather humble and shy man. Nothing in this story indicates he is a narcissist. Perhaps his brief association with Wikileaks and Julian Assange (a narcissist of the first order) is where the idea comes from, but I think that NSA apologists feel more comfortable portraying him as a man acting in extreme self interest. If that were the case, he would have sold the information secretly and be living out his life in some warm paradise instead of remaining as a “guest” of the Russian government.

The only inflation of his position I found in this story was in the beginning when he describes himself as a “senior” member of the intelligence community. He was, in fact, a rather junior member, and the mere fact that he was able to acquire all of this extremely secret information just goes to demonstrate that the government can’t be trusted with it. I’m pretty much willing to forgive him for that, since had he prefaced his initial press contact with “yo, I’m a contracted sysadmin for the US government and happen to have a treasure trove of sensitive documents” he wouldn’t have been believed.

Critics will often cry that he should have used formal channels to express his unease. This book shows several examples of people who tried to do just that and found their lives ruined and their careers over. It is hard to trust in the system when people like James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, lies directly to Congress and not only still has his job but is not in prison.

While the book is written in a very “matter of fact” manner, parts of it read like a spy novel. One of the more surreal chapters deals with the forced destruction of computers at the London offices of The Guardian. Great Britain doesn’t have a written Constitution nor does it guarantee freedom of the press. So to avoid possible incarceration of Guardian staff, Two GCHQ agents named “Ian” and “Chris” arrive to oversee the physical demolition of the computers used to break the story (of course, The Guardian simply moved the operation to their US offices and while there were similar threats nothing at this level occurred).

Personally, I think Snowden’s greatest “crime” was embarrassing the powers that be. President Obama won his first term on a campaign to overturn the Constitutional abuses of his predecessor and Snowden demonstrated that he not only continued those policies but strengthened them. The British government in this affair comes across as not only petty but pretty much lap dogs to the US intelligence service, with US tax money going to fund the GCHQ. Congress is currently full of self-interested sheep who take being lied to in stride as long as they don’t look weak on “terrorism”. Basically, forget popular opinion, just don’t end up on Jon Stewart.

While I try very hard to avoid Godwin’s Law, perhaps I should mint Balog’s Law, a corollary where all discussions of national security abuses end up referencing Al-Qaida.

Often, power is referred to as a “structure”. In my experience it is much more fluid, and right now it is flowing into the hands of a small minority of people. I know from first hand experience that these people are way more concerned with their own wellbeing versus mine, regardless of the rhetoric they spout to the contrary, and the end result will be disastrous.

There are things you can do to make power flow in the other direction. In general these are things like shopping locally (the more self-sustaining a community is the less they can be influenced by central government) but concerning privacy in particular there are a number of steps you can take to make the NSA’s job more difficult.

Use encryption. It is easier than you think. There are a number of tools that can plug right into your e-mail client. I use Enigmail for Thunderbird. OS X Mail.app users should check out GPGMail. There is even GPG4Win for you Outlook users. Once installed and configured it can be pretty seamless to use. The biggest thing you lose is the ability to search your encrypted mail.

Use as much open source software as you can. The Snowden documents reveal that the NSA has been actively trying to both subvert encryption standards (making all of us less safe from foreign prying eyes) as well as to install backdoors into commercial software. This is much more difficult with open source. Even if, say, Canonical put in a backdoor to openssh-server into Ubuntu, someone would notice that the package they compiled had a different hash than the binary on the server, and an investigation would ensue. Even if you can’t make the jump to an open source desktop operating system, a lot of open source applications (think Firefox and Thunderbird) are available on proprietary platforms such as Windows and OS X.

Also, limit what you share. Remember that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product, so think twice about your Facebook habits. You can also learn about tools such as Tor that allow your Internet traffic to be somewhat anonymous. I also “sandbox” all of my Google activity within the Chrome browser but do most of my work in Firefox using Firefox Sync to coordinate with all of my devices.

To bring this somewhat “more rambling than usual” post to an end, I just want to point out that totalitarian societies do not happen overnight. Instead, there is a gradual erosion of personal freedoms until one day there is nothing left. Some people I’ve talked to about Snowden reply with “of course the government is spying on me”, in much they same way that getting groped at the airport is now “normal”.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and sometimes it takes brave people to point that out.