Archive for the 'Review' Category

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.

Review: Dell “Sputnik 3″ Ubuntu Edition

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

I’m in the market for a new laptop, or at least I was. My first generation Dell XPS 13 is getting a little long in the tooth and I really could use a little more screen real estate. I decided to order the latest third generation XPS 13 after trying out the second generation Lenovo X1 Carbon. After all, it has a nicer screen, Haswell, and since it still ships with Ubuntu 12.04 the hardware ought to be supported, at least with Linux Mint, my current desktop distro of choice.

When talking about laptops, it is hard to not make comparisons to Apple. While I think Macbooks are overpriced and too proprietary, they are nice machines and for the most part “just work”. I just wish I could buy something as good that runs Linux well.

The Sputnik 3 could have been that laptop but I had to send it back due to pretty severe LCD backlight “bleeding”, especially along the bottom edge. It was very apparent when I was booting up to install Mint, but my pictures don’t really do it justice. Here you can see a sort of “half moon” bleed on the left side:

and here is a similar area on the right:

Since I knew I couldn’t live with it, I decided to send it back and just stick with my older laptop awhile longer. While we have a small Macbook available to me that would probably run Mint just fine, I just can’t bring myself to use Apple products when they are so determined to use their marketing clout to prevent competition. I can’t go a day without reading about another example, such as the one I just read about Apple pulling a bitcoin app from their store.

I’d rather deal with “old shiny” than to give up my freedom like that.

Review: Second Generation Lenovo Carbon X1 with Linux

Monday, January 27th, 2014

As a Christmas present to myself, I decided to get a new laptop. My second generation Dell “Sputnik” Ubuntu Edition is getting a little long in the tooth. The screen resolution of 1366×768 is a little confining, and I’ve never been in love with the trackpad.

Now, while most of the folks at The OpenNMS Group are Mac users, the freetards in the group tend toward the Lenovo X1 Carbon. As Eric says, when it comes to Linux laptops you can’t go wrong with Lenovo.

Well, apparently you can.

While I ordered my unit in late November, it didn’t ship until the new year. I got the shipping notice the same day they announced the second generation X1 carbon at CES. Since I wanted the new shiny, I called Lenovo (their customer support is located in nearby Raleigh and is awesome) and returned the unit before it arrived. I then ordered the new model with the the extremely high density “retina” display. It arrived last week and I started playing with it this weekend.

In short: do not buy this laptop if you like Linux.

While sleek and stylish, the first thing they broke is the trackpad (one of my main reasons for switching). Instead of discreet mouse buttons like most Thinkpads before it, it is a single unit. I found it very hard to get used to using the “pseudo” buttons. Plus, it is mechanical and it feels really clunking when you press down on it.

The next thing they broke was the keyboard. While I’m not sure if the top row is OLED or just OLED-like, the functions keys are now programmatically displayed and gone are things like volume and contrast (those do exist when booted to Windows 8). And while I don’t know if this is new, but the “backspace” and “delete” keys are right next to each other which I found annoying, as I would often hit the wrong one.

But I could live with that, as it is only a matter of time before someone starts doing something cool with that technology and I could get used to the keyboard. Here is why I’m sending it back:

  • Suspend Doesn’t Work: Well, technically, resume doesn’t work. The system will suspend, but the OLED top row never dims and the laptop just starts heating up as something is obviously still running. The pm-suspend.log shows an error free shutdown, but once “suspended” you have to hold down the power key until it turns off and then reboot.

    UPDATE: I got this to work, sort of. Once Hibernate worked I ended up using this post to determine the issue was with the xhci_hcd (USB3) driver. I disabled it and now suspend works. However, the network doesn’t come back nor do the function keys.

  • Hibernate Doesn’t Work: Since this is a solid state machine with something like an 8 second boot time into Linux Mint, I’d be okay if I could hibernate instead of suspend. However, hibernate is just a shutdown with no warning to save your work.

    UPDATE: I got this to work, sort of. Removed the encryption on the swap partition and then updated /etc/initramfs-tools/conf.d/resume to match the new UUID and then “update-initramfs -u” to re-read that file. The resume isn’t always flawless (when run from the command line the mouse never came back and once I had to bounce the network).

  • Backlight Doesn’t Work: I like having a backlit keyboard. You can see the backlight come on when booting, but it never comes on when running under Mint.
  • Fingerprint Sensor Doesn’t Work: While I don’t know how much I’d use this, the model in this laptop by Validity Sensors (USB device ID 138a:0017) isn’t supported under Linux yet.
  • Weird Power Issues: Sometimes the unit fan turns on for no real reason, like something with Linux and the power management are out of sync.

I took this laptop on a road trip and was very unhappy with all of the effort I had to put into a system that was just supposed to work out of the box. At one point in time I changed a BIOS setting that wiped out grub (I had left Windows 8 on the system in a partition) and Windows Bootloader took over and wouldn’t let me back in to Mint. I finally based the whole thing just to see if that might help (I had to turn of secure boot to get Mint on it in the first place and thought maybe some weird UEFI issue was at play) but it didn’t improve things.

So it is a very sad day for those of us who looked to Lenovo to provide us Apple-quality laptops for Linux. Snatch up those Generation 1 models while they last or check out the new Dell “Sputnik 3“, but don’t buy this laptop.

Glasshole

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Back in December a friend of mine I met through OpenNMS offered up a Google Glass invite. While I have privacy concerns about the whole thing, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to play with the technology, so I accepted.

Well, it took awhile, but this week Google got around to offering me the opportunity to become an “Explorer”. After putting in my code, the Glass was added to my Google Wallet shopping cart and soon on its way via overnight shipping to the office.

Unfortunately, I ran into a problem right out of the gate. Apparently Glass doesn’t fit my head. While the picture above looks pretty normal, in order to actually see the screen I have to do this:

And that is painful. I soon had a vicious headache that stayed with me until I went to bed.

The way the Glass display works is pretty cool. It sits in front on the right eye and consists of an optically clear rectangular solid (made of plastic I believe). I’m going to call it a “cube” for lack of a better word, even though it is twice as wide as it is tall so it isn’t officially one.

The left side of the cube is mirrored, and the LCD is actually located on the right side, perpendicular to the long side of the rectangle. In the middle of the cube, at a 45 degree angle, is some sort of optical material that serves as the actual “display” – light from the LCD on the right passes through it, hits the mirror and then gets diverted toward the user’s eye.

The right earpiece is also a touchpad and you can interact with the device by swiping your finger along it. You pair it via Bluetooth with your phone, and that allows the Glass to have network access, although you can connect it via Wi-Fi as well.

But to be honest I never got to play with many of the features simply because I could not see the damn screen very well. I called the support line to see if there was anything I could do to adjust the screen on the glass downward, much like the “heads up” display on my wife’s car can be adjusted vertically, but unfortunately if you can’t get it to work by adjusting the nose piece you’re out of luck. You can rotate the display slightly left to right, but that wasn’t my problem.

The return process seems pretty easy. I called Google and they are sending me a box and shipping label. Once they get it and confirm it is not damaged, they will refund my money (and considering that the only thing I took out of the box was the Glass itself I’m not expecting any problems).

To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. If the display could just be a little lower in my line of sight I would have experimented with it a great deal. I’ve even taken it out of the box no less than three times during the writing of this post to see if some adjustment would give me some relief, but all I got was a headache.

I hope the return box shows up soon so I’ll quit trying to play with it.