NSA Illegally Collecting US Citizens’ Email

I am not surprised, but I am still dismayed, by the continued erosion of our personal privacy in the shadow of George W. Bush’s administration. The New York Times reports in E-Mail Surveillance Renews Concerns in Congress that the National Security Agency (NSA), as recently as early this year, is illegally collecting email from Americans:

Since April, when it was disclosed that the intercepts of some private communications of Americans went beyond legal limits in late 2008 and early 2009, several Congressional committees have been investigating. Those inquiries have led to concerns in Congress about the agency’s ability to collect and read domestic e-mail messages of Americans on a widespread basis, officials said. Supporting that conclusion is the account of a former N.S.A. analyst who, in a series of interviews, described being trained in 2005 for a program in which the agency routinely examined large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants. Two intelligence officials confirmed that the program was still in operation.

A decade ago, I was a strong proponent of OpenPGP-encrypted email. I gave up when I got tired of trying to push that rope uphill. Maybe it’s time to try again.

Did you know that, unless you encrypt your email, it is as easy to read as a note written on a postcard? Now before you say, “So what? I don’t care,” consider how you would feel if NSA wanted to listen to all of your phone calls or wanted to read all of your regular mail. I suspect that, even though you are a law-abiding citizen and have nothing to hide, you might object a tad to that invasion of your privacy.

I have published my PGP key on this web site (and it is in the popular key servers). Using this key, you can send encrypted messages to me and you can confirm that messages which I sign electronically actually were signed by me.

I sign and encrypt my email messages using EnigMail and GnuPG (Gnu Privacy Guard) with Thunderbird, all highly reliable and free software. If you use something other than Thunderbird for your email (like Outlook or Eudora), here is a list of other mail user agent frontends. And if you use Gmail or any of the other email systems though a web browser, FireGPG is just the ticket.

Setting up the software is a little bit of work, but you will probably be done in less time than it would take you to drive to Office Depot and buy a box of envelopes. Once you have the software installed, you can encrypt an email message faster than you can lick and seal an envelope.

Checking In, Avoiding Hidden Dependencies

I woke up in a good mood this morning and then…

Sometimes one piece of technology makes another, seemingly unrelated, piece of technology misbehave. It happened this morning at 12:15am CDT when an automated program that I run in Amazon EC2 failed to do its thing. The EC2 instances (that’s geek speak for “virtual machines” which is geek speak for “computers which aren’t really there but act like they are”) started up but never got around to doing any useful work. Six hours later, all of the instances were still running; they should have finished their work and died off in about two hours. I killed all of the instances, grumbling because I had paid for six hours of time and gotten nothing for it and did not even know why.

The underlying problem, it turned out, was a new SSL certificate that we had installed on our e-commerce store yesterday. One of the first things that each EC2 instance does is to fetch the latest version of the software from a Subversion server, which, coincidentally, is on the same machine as our e-commerce store. With a new SSL certificate on the server, each instance was waiting for a human being to say that the new certificate was OK. Inconveniently, the human being was sound asleep.

Who would have thought that renewing the SSL certificate for our on-line store would break an unrelated Amazon EC2-based application? Hidden dependencies suck.

Now I am in a bad mood, grumbling because I did not get my relaxed waking-up time after my shower, sitting next to my wife, drinking coffee, cruising blogs. Instead I dove directly from the shower into debugging and it left me feeling edgy.

We have a mechanism at Hen’s Teeth Network which works pretty well to keep emotional baggage like this from blindsiding our coworkers: we check-in every morning. It is a chance for me to say, “I’m in a bad mood. Better watch out; I may bite.” Better forewarned than not.

I am finishing this post a couple of hours later, after checking in with my coworkers. The check-in worked beautifully, giving me a chance to blow off some of the steam. I am more relaxed and I got some support from sympathetic ears. We even laughed a bit about the situation.

We missed the hidden dependency between the e-commerce store’s SSL certificate and the EC2 application and were caught unawares. Fortunately, we did not miss the hidden dependency between my early morning upset and my interactions with my co-workers. Knowing about the dependency and having tools at hand and in daily use for handling the dependency, proved a good thing for all of us.

IE6: Get Over It

I am fed up with wasting clients’ dollars “fixing” web sites so that they look good in Internet Explorer 6. IE7 has been out for 2 1/2 years. IE8 is available as a free beta. There are lots of other browsers available for free. All of these browsers work better than IE6. If you still use IE6, it’s time to get over it and move on. Upgrade for free to something better.

This web site, and the others for which I am responsible, now display a warning similar to this when visited with IE6:

Sample IE6 warning message
Sample IE6 warning message

For more information, see Moving Past Internet Explorer 6.

Added Benefit of On-line Family Trees

I published my family tree on-line so that other family members and genealogists would have easy access. I never imagined that it would turn into a way to find long lost friends. I just received this email message:

A friend of mine from college was looking for me.  So, he googled my family name and saw me on your family tree.  So he got my married name and saw me on my work site and then he sent an email to them and they forwarded it to me.  It is truly amazing how the internet works….

Too fun!

Google Chrome to Replace Microsoft Windows, Apple OSX, and Linux

Google Chrome logoGoogle released Chrome today and you will see “Google Chrome is a browser” if you visit the Chrome web page. Do not be deceived, though. Chrome is not designed to replace Internet Explorer or Firefox or Safari. Chrome is designed to replace your operating system and virtually all of the software that you use every day. Chrome is the key to letting you do all of your computer stuff on the web instead of on one computer.

Think of the advantages. If you edit your grocery list on your home computer and want to print it at work, you are stuck. You cannot print that grocery list until you get home again. But if you edit your grocery list on the web, you can get to the same document and print it from any computer anywhere in the world. Similarly, if your hard disk dies, you can still get to your stuff if it is on the web. All you have to do is switch to another computer and keep on working. I could wax rhapsodic about the possibilities for way more paragraphs than you want to read but I’ll spare you.

Google wants to make this transition so easy for you that you will wonder why you did not make the switch yesterday. Chrome will take over your whole computer and hide all of the confusing gunk of Windows or OSX or Linux so you do not have to worry about it any more. You will be able to simply do your work or read your email or stare at your videos or whatever strikes your fancy. And if you are on a Mac today and on a PC tomorrow, it will not matter one bit because everything will look exactly the same.

Does this seem a bit far fetched? Take a look at how your computer appears if you use Internet Explorer to read the news. (Click on the picture to see it larger.)

Reading the news with Internet Explorer

That looks pretty normal. You can see that you are running IE because there is lots of IE stuff on the top and bottom of the screen and the news is in the middle. Now here is the same web page in Firefox.

Reading the news with Firefox

That is pretty much the same experience. You can see that you are running Firefox instead of IE because the stuff at the top and bottom is different but the browser stuff is still there and the news is in the middle.

Now look at the same page in Google Chrome:

Reading the news with Google Chrome

Now that looks different. Where did the browser go? It vanished in much the same way that your operating system vanishes into the background. As you are reading the article, are you really aware of whether you are using Linux or Windows or OSX? Of course not. But you see Firefox or IE or Safari all the time because it intrudes on your life so boldly.

Chrome is not a web browser. It is the platform on which your application software runs. Reuters picked this up when it reported,

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said Chrome was designed to address the shift to using software from within a Web browser rather than as locally installed computer applications running inside Microsoft Windows or some other operating system.

“I think operating systems are kind of an old way to think of the world,” Brin told a group of reporters after the news conference at Google’s Mountain View, California headquarters.

in Google sees new browser displacing desktop software.

Does this sound familiar? Pick your poison:

  1. Microsoft Windows + Microsoft Outlook + Microsoft Exchange + Microsoft Office
  2. Google Chrome + Google GMail + Google Calendar + Google Docs

Is this good or bad? That is the $64 question, of course. Google’s web-based applications carry no license fees and ought to be highly reliable. But they come with advertisements and the implicit agreement that you trust Google to manage your data properly. Naturally, Chrome will also run other applications, just like Microsoft Windows runs applications which were not written by Microsoft. But by providing one platform which runs identically across all computers, and which is written and maintained by the same Google which provides all of those whiz-bang applications, you can bet that Google is assuring a first-class user experience if you settle comfortably into the Google environment whole heartedly.

Which do you want on your computer? Microsoft Windows or Apple OSX or Linux… or Google Chrome?

When Words Fail: Use The Lazy Bloggers’ Post Generator

Sometimes the words just won’t come. What’s a blogger to do? I have a little confession to make: I turn to the Lazy Bloggers’ Post Generator. After you read this latest sample of it’s output, I’ll bet you’ll agree that you can’t tell the difference between what the Post Generator creates and my usual witticisms.

OMFG! I just totally realised I have not updated this since Paris Hilton was in jail… You would not believe the amount of people that are totally stalking me. Apologies to my regular readers! Even the little blue ones!.

I am lost in a sea of pseudo-olde-english with discovering time doesn’t stand still, rock crushing, just generally being a coach to the local soccer team, my day lasts forever from the second star on the right, straight on to I am begging my kid to go to sleep or so help me God that kid will be decorating my wall, ‘Duct tape still life’. I am avoiding recapture. but this damned rock is heavy.

I send you kisses I will write something that makes sense soon. No, really! The Piccaninnies say I have to!.


Technology is challenging enough when we really know what is going on. The situation deteriorates rapidly as we progress through only thinking we know what is going on to being completely clueless. My step-mother just started using a computer, the first computer that has been solely hers, the first one where she can do whatever she likes with it and no one is going to tell her to keep out of their work. It is also her first computer (other than a WebTV) on which she can get to the world wide web.

The Internet for Dummies She bought a copy of The Internet for Dummies and that has been helpful but even this book assumes she knows too much. She has had questions for me like, “When do I press on the right side of the bar?” She is using a touch pad on an Asus Eee PC so her question translates to, “When should I right-click?” That’s a good question and the answer, “When you want a pop-up or context menu” means nothing to her.

Then she asked, “When do I click twice on the left side of the bar?” This was a little easier. To be non-technical, I advised her to single click and, if that does not do what she wants, try double-clicking. The jury is still out on whether this helps.

Finally, she described a real corker of a problem. Neither Candy nor I had any real advice for her, other than to check her manual for a Num-Lock key. The problem, as she described it, was that whenever she typed the “3” key, she would see an asterisk. Since she lives 850 miles away, I cannot see her screen. I am dependent on her descriptions. I assume she accurately describes what she is seeing and she assumes that I understand what she tells me.

Bad assumptions all around.

At first, it sounds like she is getting shifted characters, or at least the asterisk, all the time. Then it develops that the problem only happens in Firefox, not in OpenOffice.org. Then she tells me that it only happens when trying to enter her password into a new web site, not when doing anything else in Firefox. Ah ha! It turned out that she was typing her password and the browser was obfuscating it, completely correct behavior. But she is so new to the whole computer “thing” that even this behavior, which we take as much for granted as getting water from a sink when we turn the tap on, was baffling.

It’s easy to forget how much we know. That forgetfulness makes teaching all the more difficult.

Moving Beyond TV

Thanks to Jeremy Zawodny for drawing my attention to Clay Shirky’s talk on the cognitive surplus. Shirky makes some excellent points. Give it 17 minutes of your time and watch. My comments follow.

I agree with Shirky, we like to do more than we like to watch. That’s why it was so funny when Peter Sellers, as Chance in Being There, said, “I like to watch TV.” Have you ever watched a child show his newest toy to his friend? The friend can only respond in one way: Let me see it! And we all know what that means. The friend does not want to look at it; he wants to touch it, play with it, fully experience it by interacting with it.

Like Shirky, I too grew up watching TV. There were not many choices in how to spend my time. I could watch TV, I could read a book, I could play with my toys, I could go outside, I could do homework. I had a creative bent as a child, too. Most of us do. I took a lot of pictures, entered photo contests, showed them to my family and friends. But there were no web sites on which I could publish them. I decided to write a book on drawing. I only got as far as the chapter on “How to draw an airplane” before quitting. Why? In large part, because I realized that I would never get it published. Without blogs, there was no way for amateur artist Art to share his new-found wisdom.

The world has changed since the dark ages of home entertainment. Now, in addition to watching TV, reading a book, playing with my toys, going outside, and doing homework; we can use our brains, create something, and show it off. What could possibly be better than improving the world a little bit? What could possibly be better than being admired? The internet and the computer have given all of us the capability to take our ideas out of our heads and manifest them in the real world. We can have real impact on other people’s lives. How can passively watching television possibly compete with that?

Is TV doomed? I don’t know the answer to that big question but I can tell you that, in my house, we don’t have a television receiver or a satellite receiver or a cable TV box. There are so many more compelling ways to spend our time that the cost of a satellite subscription far outweighed the value of the few shows that we took the time to watch.

This is a Good Thing. Thinking and doing is much better than simply watching.

Coming Soon: OpenOffice.org 3.0 Support for Microsoft Office 2007 Files

I run my company using OpenOffice.org instead of Microsoft Office. It does everything we need and costs a whopping $0.00; not a bad deal for a small business. To be more specific, OpenOffice.org

  • Gives us word processor and spreadsheet programs that more than handle our documentation needs,
  • Allows us to open Word and Excel documents which clients send to us,
  • Allows us to save our documents in Word, Excel, and Adobe Reader (PDF) formats, and
  • Runs on Windows and Linux, which is critical since three of us use Windows and one uses Linux.

About the only fly in the ointment is that OpenOffice.org version 2 cannot open Microsoft Office 2007 documents (e.g., .docx files). In practice, this has not been too much trouble since everyone who has sent such a document to us has been able to send us an older format .doc file upon request. Still, I would like to avoid bugging clients with such requests.
Relief is on the way, though. OpenOffice.org Ninja OpenOffice.org 3.0’s new features, an early look includes this snippet, along with several other cool features:

Microsoft Office 2007 (also called Office Open XML) file formats include .docx, .pptx, and .xlsx. Despite the similarity in names, these formats are significantly different than the Microsoft Office formats used since 1997. OpenOffice.org 3 will offer native read and write support.

There are lots of other useful, new features, too. See the article for “full disclosure.”

The scheduled release date is still about six months away but one of the nice things about open source software such as OpenOffice.org is that you can download the early versions if you want them.

Sure, Microsoft Office provides features that OpenOffice.org does not. But for the vast majority of home and office users, OpenOffice.org will do everything you need and save you hundreds of dollars in license fees. Download it and give it a try.