Reset the Net

It’s been one year since we started to learn the extent to which our government is surveilling us with massive, dragnet programs. There were hints before, but the government and the mainstream press actively suppressed the whistle-blowers who tried to warn us. Each revelation was met with denials and deflections, but each new revelation has been more damning than the last. And the revelations still continue a year after the story finally broke.

I believe these programs to be illegal, unconstitutional, and fundamentally incompatible with democracy. They have made us less secure, not more so.

Congress and the President have failed to take any significant steps during this year toward reigning in this unconscionable abuse. Worse, they’ve pardoned the telecommunications companies who collaborated with past illegal surveillance in order to buy their cooperation with the other programs. They’ve weakened encryption standards, which makes all of us less safe. They’ve sacrificed the moral high-ground necessary to use diplomacy to protect ourselves from cyber-espionage committed by other governments.

Congress needs to step up. This should be a matter of law, not of policy. Policies are much too fluid to protect the security and privacy of our nation and its people.

But if the government won’t protect us, we’ll have to do it ourselves. Learn to use encryption and privacy tools. Demand them from the software vendors you rely on. Think twice before committing to a cloud-based service. The NSA has taken advantage of the centralization of the telecoms systems and the trend toward centralization of the Internet in order to eavesdrop on all of us. But the Internet doesn’t need to be centralized. It wasn’t designed that way. Surveillance is damage, and we can route around it.

Fight Back

The government’s widespread surveillance of its own people is illegal, unconstitutional, dangerous to democracy, and bad for the economy. Let your representatives know that they’ve gone too far. Demand laws to curtail these unconscionable programs. Remind your reps that they swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

Petition to Award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Joseph Nacchio

I’ve started a whitehouse.gov petition to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Joseph Nacchio, the CEO of Qwest Communications, who was the only telecom CEO to say no to the warrantless wiretapping program back in 2001. Instead of being recognized for his bravery to stand up to the government’s illegal requests, his company was penalized by the loss of key government contracts.

An interesting thing to note is that Nacchio was approached about joining the illegal program in February, 2001, several months before the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Not one person who was involved in the illegal wiretapping program was held accountable. Nacchio, however, was prosecuted and served a six-year sentence for insider trading, charges which reek of government retaliation. Meanwhile, all the other telecommunications companies were awarded retroactive immunity for their collaboration in the illegal mass surveillance of U.S. citizens that continued for years.

Silencing a Wine Refrigerator

backing

grommet[This is a reconstruction of a blog post I made back in 2007, before I bungled my Word Press backup and lost the old blog posts. Several people have requested it. I might find the pictures later.]

My brother and I just had one of our quarterly project weekends. I can’t believe it was time for another one already, since I hadn’t even blogged about the last one yet. So let me catch up by showing off the projects we did this summer.

My wife and I have a wine refrigerator in our dining room. It has always bugged me with the noise it makes. There’s an air circulation fan that runs all the time. The manufacturer says it’s to prevent condensation and mold. We have a friend with a fancier model that doesn’t have the circulation fan, and he has had problems with mold, so it’s probably a good feature. But the fan cycles: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. So not only did I hear it when it’s running, I had to hear it whine as it revved up twice a minute. It drove me nuts.

So when my brother showed up for project weekend, I suggested we try to find a way to make the fridge run quietly. I had peeked at the fan, and determined that it looked a lot like a fan you’d have in a PC, so I hoped that there would be a super-quiet PC fan we could swap in. After all, there’s a significant number of people out there trying to make their PCs run silently.

We got the manufacturer and part number of the fan off its label. A quick web search gave us detailed specs, including dimensions, power requirements, air flow, and sound level. At Fry’s Electronics, we found a matching fan with a slightly lower decibel rating. I don’t recall the exact value, but it was something like 27 db instead of 30 db. I hoped it would be enough. Since decibels are logarithmic units, a small change might make a big improvement. And the fan was only $17.

We took the false back out of the fridge and wired in the new fan. Our first test was like a dream. Even with the door open, the new fan was significantly quieter. With the door closed, I could hardly hear it at all.

But that test was just with the fan sitting inside the fridge. Once we re-mounted it to the false back, it got dramatically louder. The backing acted like a soundboard, amplifying the vibrations of the fan.

My brother smartly pointed out that we needed to dampen the vibrations, so he suggested we get some rubber grommets to replace the washers used when fastening the fan to the backing. ACE Hardware had just the thing, and it really did the trick.

We put the fridge back together, and though it’s not silent, it a fantastic improvement. I wish we had done it years ago. And I wish manufacturers would realize how important these little details are. Between the fan and the grommets, we spent less than $20. The incremental cost for the manufacturer to have started with a quieter fan and used rubber grommets would have been tiny, yet it would have made their product noticeably better.

Quick Review: Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini

Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry HoudiniMasters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini by Christopher Sandford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This wasn’t quite as entertaining a read as Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer, but Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini by Christopher Sandford added dimensions to the era of spiritualism that the former book only touched on. I had never known that Doyle and Houdini had corresponded extensively despite their differing views on spiritualism. Nor did I know that, Doyle–creator of the scientifically-minded detective Sherlock Holmes–was an outspoken advocate of mediums, seances, spirit guides, and the afterlife. These aspects were fascinating, but I think I was able to appreciate them better because I had read Hiding the Elephant first.

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Review: The Bug

The Bug: A NovelThe Bug: A Novel by Ellen Ullman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled upon a description of this book earlier in the year and added it to my reading list. Just a few weeks later, a friend who had read my book, Blue Screen of Death, said he enjoyed BSoD much more than The Bug, so naturally I moved it up to the top of my reading list.

Comparing them isn’t fair. Blue Screen of Death is a genre mystery. The Bug is a mainstream literary work, mostly a character study. Nevertheless, there were some striking similarities: both are narrated from the point of a young woman, both are set in a software company in Fremont, California, both start during an unusual heat wave, and both examine aspects of debugging—tracking down and fixing mistakes (bugs) in software.

But the similarities end there. At times, The Bug is almost like poetry, with beautifully crafted sentences and a rhythm that evokes the feeling of programming and of debugging. Ullman captures the fleeting elation when months of development finally pay off in some little way, and the utter despair of pounding your head against the same intermittent bug month after month after month. Ullman understands and conveys the emotional journey of software development at a level I never expected possible from a novel.

I loved the book. That said, I don’t know if it’s for everyone. It’s immersive. Deeply. Ullman explains the software terminlogy and concepts enough to understand—if you care to. If you don’t care to, you’ll quickly be lost, as the story hinges on abstractions and the mental labors of the characters. If she had written the same story about a field I’m not interested in—say auto mechanics—I’d probably have been bored to tears.

Conclusion: If you work in the software business, read it. If not, you might want to sample it before committing to the entire book.

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Review: The Path Between the Seas

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m tempted not to review this book. I don’t like long books. I don’t enjoy much non-fiction, and I certainly don’t seek out history texts. So The Path Between the Seas, weighing in at more than 600 dense pages, wasn’t the type of book I’d pick out for myself. My wife gave me this tome before our cruise through the Panama Canal, so I felt obligated to give it a try.

It seems unfair to rate and review a book I’m destined to detest, but McCullough’s striking detail brought the difficult birth of this most amazing engineering achievement to life. Unfortunately, I was only a third of the way through when we departed for our cruise, but as soon as we returned, I picked it right back up again.

The people in this story–de Lesseps, Gorgas, Taft, Rooseveldt, Banau-Varilla–are portrayed so vividly, it’s hard to believe they aren’t characters in a work of fiction. But McCullough is a real historian, and there are 40-50 pages of notes at the end of the book that leave little doubt that every detail woven into this utterly comprehensive narrative is factual.

If you’re used to modern fiction’s lean prose, McCullough’s long, winding sentences might be off-putting, but I found myself acclimated to them after just a couple pages. McCullough covers the economics and engineering of the canal with the same dexterity as the people, the events, and the historical context.

If you ever plan to visit the Panama Canal, this book is a must. But even if a passage isn’t on your bucket list, the book should be on your reading list.

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