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March, 2017

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Review: “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, Neil Postman

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In “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman, he warns against the perils of television as a communication channel for serious content, and explores why typographic media should be preferred over visual in public discourse, especially in politics, education and religion. He gives examples of how “the medium is the message”, that is, how the channel a message is sent through shapes the message itself. He worries that visual media, television in particular, transforms every message into entertainment, void of context, serious content, or troubling information. He references the fiction in the dystopian worlds of “1984″ and “Brave New World”, to point out “the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right”. (The original foreword and the last chapter argues this eloquently). In other words, we are not suppressed by a surveillance state and dictatorship, but instead distracted by bread and circuses.

Postman’s argument has two main parts: The historical value and importance of the written word as a medium of communication for serious content and public discourse; and the distractions and lack of context in visual communication, especially with television tending to morph every message into brief bits of entertainment.

From typographic to visual media
In the first part of the book, he considers how politics in colonial and 19th century America was mostly conducted and presented through long public letters, or by today’s standards, very long public debates, stretching over many hours in front of local audiences. He is amazed by the attention-span the citizens at that time commanded, and how engaged they were in the politics and arguments of the various politicians. He claims many people at the time would have recognized famous politicians by their writing, but not necessarily by appearance, which is of course the opposite of today’s situation.

In further chapters, Postman looks at how first the telegraph and later the photography changed the media landscape, and how those media shaped the content they channeled through. He traces the beginning of the irrelevant and out-of-context news bits to the telegraph, where snippets from afar could awake as much emotion, if not insight, as local business and news. He continues with discussion about the photograph, and asserts that a picture contains no context but itself. Any additional context is from information surrounding it, or prior knowledge we inject into it.

The medium is the message
To illustrate how the medium shapes and constrains the message, he uses the example of smoke rings for communication: Although they can be used to send very brief messages, it is not possible to conduct a philosophical discussion through that medium. Similarly, Postman argues, television cannot be used to convey serious content, since the visual presentation demands most of the viewer’s attention, and the narration or discussion will tend towards short sound-bites. (As an example of this, look at a site like euronews.com, which transcribes the audio of most of their short video clips. It is surprising how little text, read in 10 to 20 seconds, which goes with a minute of video).

In addition, most public television is of course funded by advertisement. This directly interrupts and distracts any and all programming, but also dictates the content. The message must be optimized to maximize the number of viewers, and thus eyeballs on their ads. The result can only be one thing: entertainment. Thus, whether the content is news, politics, education or religion, the viewer can never be allowed to get bored, challenged nor offended, lest he skips to another channel.

Must-read

Postman’s book was first published in 1985. In the 2006 edition, his son, Andrew Postman, points out why his father’s book is even more relevant now. Today, we are surrounded by visual content and entertainment, through the Internet; mobile phones; computers; never-ending TV station streams. Had Neil lived to see our world, he would probably have been even more shocked than he was back then, when an actor was elected US president in 1980.

What makes the book so approachable and readable, is its timeless message about the relevance of the written word for serious communication. Thirty-two years ago, the strongest opposing force was television, while today the Internet brings the same visual entertainment to large parts of the Western population. In fact, the lack of context have gone even further, with services like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit centered around streams of completely random pictures of irrelevant content, often from people we hardly know.

Recent political communication has taken this to a sinister level, when messages are now tailor-made based on a user’s profile. As a result, we might vote for the same party and candidate, but based on different promises automatically designed to appeal to our emotions. The choice of policy is based on the entertainment value of the candidate, or whether he seems like a guy we’d like to sit down for a drink with.

Today, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is a must-read.

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How to disable the touchpad while typing

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Most modern laptops come with a touchpad for cursor control. It is typically located below the space-bar, which means it’s easy to rest your palms on it while typing and send the cursor flying. There are two ways to get around the problem: Disable it altogether and use another pointing device, like the red “TrackPoint” or an external mouse; or temporarily turn it off while typing. Here’s how to do both.

First, make sure the these packages are installed:

apt-get install usbutils xinput xserver-xorg-input-synaptics

Permanently disable

Any input device can be configured through the xinput tool. However, as machine configurations will be different, we’ll need to look at what is connected first. This will list internal and connected devices:

lsusb
 
xinput list

The first command will list connected USB devices, which might be relevant. The second command will output a list like the following, where each device has an ID, but which will change based on the machine and what is connected. The example below is from a Lenovo Thinkpad with an external mouse, so three hardware pointing devices are listed: The touchpad; the trackpoint; and the external Logitech mouse. Notice the ID for the touchpad, which is 12 here.

⎡ Virtual core pointer                    	id=2	[master pointer  (3)]
⎜   ↳ Virtual core XTEST pointer              	id=4	[slave  pointer  (2)]
⎜   ↳ SynPS/2 Synaptics TouchPad              	id=12	[slave  pointer  (2)]
⎜   ↳ TPPS/2 IBM TrackPoint                   	id=13	[slave  pointer  (2)]
⎜   ↳ Logitech M570                           	id=9	[slave  pointer  (2)]
⎣ Virtual core keyboard                   	id=3	[master keyboard (2)]
    ↳ Virtual core XTEST keyboard             	id=5	[slave  keyboard (3)]
    ↳ Power Button                            	id=6	[slave  keyboard (3)]
    ↳ Video Bus                               	id=7	[slave  keyboard (3)]
    ↳ Sleep Button                            	id=8	[slave  keyboard (3)]
    ↳ Integrated Camera                       	id=10	[slave  keyboard (3)]
    ↳ AT Translated Set 2 keyboard            	id=11	[slave  keyboard (3)]
    ↳ ThinkPad Extra Buttons                  	id=14	[slave  keyboard (3)]

We can query details about a specific device:

xinput list-props 12
 
xinput list-props 12 | grep Enabled

There are two ways to enable and disable a device: By setting the “Device Enabled” property, or with the xinput command shortcut which does the same:

xinput set-prop 12 "Device Enabled" 0
xinput disable 12
 
xinput set-prop 12 "Device Enabled" 1
xinput enable 12

Temporarily turn off while typing

You might want to use the touchpad though, and only avoid the “fat fingers” problem while typing. Here the syndaemon tool comes to the rescue. It’s a “a program that monitors keyboard activity and disables the touchpad when the keyboard is being used”. It means, you’ll have to make sure it’s running in the background, typically through the start-scripts of your desktop.

There’s a few settings to play around with and also a CLI client “synclient“. See also the synaptics driver documentation for more options.

Having this in a startup script will cover most common use cases:

/usr/bin/syndaemon -i 1 -t -d

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Linux compatible notebooks and laptops

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You’d think that there would be a sizable market for a Linux based laptop, but Microsoft maintains its stronghold, and if anything it’s getting harder to buy random hardware and expect it to just work. Due to the UEFI bootloader; Secure Boot; various proprietary buttons solutions; touch screens; and no or little support from the hardware vendors. After doing a bit of research in small and mid-range notebooks and laptops that works with Linux, here’s a brief summary.

Most of the newer devices were evaluated with a USB live version of Ubuntu 16.10 64-bit.

(Disclaimer: This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all available brands or Linux compatible devices. Please take it as a snapshot in time of the laptops which happened to be available in my local market. Also note, beyond being a consumer of some of the mentioned laptops, I’m not affiliated with any of them).

Lenovo

The Lenovo Thinkpad is still top of the line when it comes to business laptops. After using the Carbon X1 2016 4th generation edition for about half a year, it’s a sure all-time favorite. It’s available with Intel’s 7th generation Skylake CPU at various speeds, it does not get warm and uses little battery, which again makes for long battery life. A full working day without carrying a charger is usually not a problem.

Any Lenovo Thinkpad you’ll pick up will support Linux easily. It has a huge community and following, which means drivers, special buttons, sensors etc. get support quickly. The exception might be some of the more exotic variants of the Yoga Book (which run Android). In general, booting and installing any version of any GNU/Linux distribution is not a problem.

The downside is of course the price. At 1500 to 2500 Euros, it can be a tough pill to swallow if you’re buying new. However, there is also a healthy used-marked, so if you’re willing to wait a bit longer to get the latest tech, it’s a good compromise.

Asus

In hardware circles, ASUS is perhaps more famous for their high quality motherboards, but they also have a healthy range of laptops, many of which support Linux. I looked at a few models, with the ZenBook as the clear winner.

ZenBook UX330

These are nice! In fact, there’s a wide range of configurations colors and prices, most with 13.30″ full 1080HD screens, some with touch screens or larger screens. The cheapest version is now around €750 for an Intel m3-7Y30 dual core (4 threads). At only 4.5 W TDP, it does not get warm and is fan-less. It comes with 8 GB RAM and 128 GB SSD which is decent. Best of all, it’s only 1.3 kg, so just as light as the Lenovo Carbon.

There seems to be a few different BIOS versions on these models. The traditional text-based BIOS had no problems booting the Live USB. However, with the UEFI version, a bit of fiddling with Secure Boot and Boot Priority was required. Turning off Secure Boot and making sure USB partition was marked with a “boot” flag fixed it. (Spoiler alert: I’ll get back to this in a another post, as I already bought this machine).

Furthermore, on Ubuntu 16.10, everything works out of the box: Wifi; suspend; all function buttons: volume; screen dimming; flight mode; touch pad enable/disable. Battery life looks promising at around 10 hours.

The higher end versions, with i7 CPUs; 16 GB RAM; 256/512 GB SSD are probably the closest competitors to Lenovo’s light weight laptops at the moment. At about 25% lower price, they might certainly be worth considering.

R105HA

The Eee line from a few years back were nice super-small “ultrabooks”, albeit somewhat under-powered by today’s standards. A more recent edition, the R105HA is a €240 2-in-1 11″ detachable table and keyboard. It has a USB A slot; it booted to the GRUB menu, but failed to load the Live UI. It could be that it’s not a x64 based CPU at all; not sure.

E402SA

A bit further up the range, but at similar price there’s the E402SA. It’s a 14″ laptop, with full sized keyboard, but only 2 GB RAM and 32 GB SSD. Still not bad for €280. It booted the Ubuntu live stick fine. Wifi; volume buttons; suspend works. Screen dimming works, but not through the function-buttons. The main downside is the cheap keyboard, where the SPACE-key is hinged in the middle, so it might not register a thumb-click in its corners.

PEAQ

I’m not familiar with this brand, and it could be only a label on generic OEM devices of some kind. However, I thought it was worth including, since they had the cheapest smallest notebook I came across.

PNB C111

This is an 11″ but full 1080HD laptop with a tiny keyboard; think early Asus Eee. The €180 version comes with an Intel Celeron N3060 CPU; 2 GB RAM; 32 GB SSD. It is light, but feels plasticy. And as mentioned, the keyboard is cramped, even for small fingers.

It booted the Ubuntu 16.10 64-bit live image fine, and wifi; volume function keys and suspend all work out of the box. Screen dimming also works, but not through the function buttons (this seems to be a common problem).

Other

HP and Dell

There were a few HP and Dell laptops in the shops I went to, but where I tried, none of them would boot the USB image. This could be down to bad luck; the Asus Zenbook was also difficult in UEFI mode, however, I’m not sure they are good options at higher prices than the Zenbook range.

System 76

This is one of the long time dedicated Ubuntu Linux hardware retailers. They don’t make their own hardware though, and instead merely put their name on OEM devices. The problem is, as much as I’d like to support a Linux hardware vendor, it comes at a very high price for mid-tier hardware. Of course, they put extra effort into making sure the drives are all available for their products, including keeping their own driver package repository running, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.

The version I have experience with and bought was the “Gazelle Professional” for some $1300. (New edition here). It works and has been running for five years, it’s nice, but extremely heavy even for its time. At some 4 kg with the charger, it can no longer be considered portable. The newer version in the picture above is the Lemur, at 1.6 kg and starting price of $700.

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Asus Thinker Board

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Asus recently released their single board computer “Thinker Board”, modeled on the same form-factor and pin layout as the Raspberry Pi 2 and 3, and at the same price point. It comes with some interesting upgrades over the RPi 3: 2 GB RAM (over 1 GB); 1.8 GHz quad core (over 1.2 GHz quad) dedicated Realtek 1 Gb/s Ethernet; Realtek audio codec; and support for 4k HDMI out. It could make both a good media player platform, as well as a usable desktop box.

In their early review, Hackaday laments the lack of website and community. The former has since been addressed, and Asus’ official site is actually rather slick fun and informative, and includes a Debian based OS ISO and other downloads. They have also put up a Facebook page, but it’s mostly linked product reviews and blog post for now.

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Linus: Hash function as identifier vs. crypto security

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Linus had an interesting observation last week, after it was announced that collisions could be found for the SHA1 hash algorithm. On the “Shattered” page, they declare that everything is broken, from cryptographic signatures to backup systems, and git. Linus however, refutes this, noting that the use of SHA1 in git is not for security, but rather as an identifier for the commit.

In fact, as is pointed out in the comments section of Linus’ post, git could probably have gone with a CRC 160-bit function (the default SHA1 is 160 bits). Or, if there was no need to relate the ID directly to the submitted code, an UUID would also have been fine.

The point is, security does not exist for itself, but rather as a reaction or mitigation to a threat. If the threat is cosmic rays or disk corruption, assuming no other intentional attack, and all that is required is to detect when there is a bit-flip, CRC, MD5, SHA1 are all fine alternatives. However, for dealing with encrypted messages, keys and signatures, other algorithms are needed. As for git, the biggest threat there is not bit-flips, accidental or malicious. Rather, it is the incorrect behaviour and functioning of the code in the repository. And for that, the solution is not hash functions, but unit tests. As Linus points out, you will definitely notice if characters and code is flipped around.

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Expanding police and surveillance powers across Europe

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In January, two interesting and thorough reports on expanding police and surveillance powers across Europe were published: Amnesty International published a 70 page report which summarizes its research into expanding police laws across EU and the troubling consequences to innocent citizens. It was followed up by an opinion piece in The Guardian by one of its authors, John Dalhuisen.

The second report was by Privacy International (original), and analysed the expanded surveillance and data retention powers in UK, Germany and France.

Each report paints a grim picture of the state of human rights and privacy across the EU. Overall a somber picture emerges: The liberty and freedom we have enjoyed over the last quarter of a century is eroding. Add to that the sweeping wind of right-wing nationalist politics across the continent, and the alarm bells should be ringing.

Too often, the counter-argument in this debate is “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”, or the corollary “I’m too boring for the state to be interested in”. Glenn Greenwald does a good job of dispelling that argument in his book “No Place to Hide”. He points out that surveillance stifles self-expression, creativity and experimentation. On a state level, its very purpose is to hinder deviant and radical thought and action. As such, surveillance and lack of privacy is an obstacle to political and cultural progress.

Given that mass state surveillance harms us all, our individual relation with the state authority, and whether we personally feel we have anything to hide or not, is nonessential to the debate. It is irrelevant if you yourself is involved in politics, opposition groups, and protests. Surveillance harms everybody, depriving us of freedom, and hindering political, cultural, and human progress. It makes us complacent, unable or unwilling to question authority.

Dangerously disproportionate

In their report, titled “Dangerously disproportionate”, Amnesty International analyses events and laws passed in 2015 and 2016 in multiple EU member countries, including UK, Germany, France, Holland, Spain, Poland, Hungary and Austria. They look at new emergency powers; legality of laws and powers; the right to privacy; freedom of expression; right to liberty; freedom of movement; and stripping of nationality. In each section, Amnesty International specifically calls on EU member states to respect established Human Rights and the rule of law. They provide multiple examples from the various states where it is questionable whether the police and the executive branches have acted legally, against their countries laws or against basic human rights.

The report is well written, and comes with several insightful and well placed warnings. Amnesty International is ringing the alarm bells, and points out that the governments of Europe are now the biggest threats to their own nations and freedom of their people:

“Ultimately, however, the threat to the life of a nation – to social cohesion, to the functioning of democratic institutions, to respect for human rights and the rule of law – does not come from the isolated acts of a violent criminal fringe (…), but from governments and societies that are prepared to abandon their own values in confronting them.”

Terms like “the enemy” and “terrorism” have always been deliberately vague. This is now causing real problems when such vague and undefined terms are used as part of laws:

Because there is no universally agreed definition of “terrorism” under international law, states and international bodies have created their own. In that process, over the years, definitions of terrorism have become ever more vague and overly broad. This lack of clarity in many counter-terrorism laws has led, in turn, to a lack of certainty regarding what precisely constitutes an act of terrorism. If people can’t tell whether their conduct would amount to a crime, they cannot adjust their behaviour to avoid criminality. The consequences can be significant, ranging from the profiling of members of certain groups thought to be more inclined toward “radicalization”, “extremism”, or criminality based on stereotypes – i.e. guilt by association – to the outright misuse by states of laws that define terrorism loosely to deliberately target political opponents, human rights defenders, journalists, environmental activists, artists, and labour leaders.

Mass surveillance is still illegal and against Human Rights:

Any communications surveillance measure used must be strictly necessary and, to the extent that it interferes with people’s rights, must be proportionate in the particular circumstances of each case. The cornerstone of lawful communications surveillance is that it is individualized and based on reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

Indiscriminate mass surveillance, in effect a fishing expedition and “just-in-case” retention of people’s communications and data, is the antithesis of this. States may refer to indiscriminate mass surveillance practices by other names – “bulk” rather than “mass”, “collection” or “interception” rather than “surveillance” – but linguistic gymnastics do not make the practices conform to human rights standards.

When laws are vaguely defined and the state can monitor everybody all the time, this is causing a chilling effect on freedom of speech, thought and expression. Simply clicking on the wrong link can be enough to land somebody in trouble. The report points out how musicians and other artists have already been the target of discrimination and “terrorist” laws.

The right to freedom of expression has been under direct and sustained assault across Europe in recent years. Measures that seek to curb speech and other forms of expression, taken cumulatively, reflect a landscape where freedom to access information, offer opinions, exchange ideas, and engage in robust and challenging debate – publicly or online – is in rapid decline. The risk that a person could be labelled a security threat or “extremist” has had very real consequences for some people as the examples below illustrate, while the “chilling effect” that such measures creates has left the public space for free expression smaller and more impoverished than it has been in decades.

Finally, the report discusses freedom of movement, and the dangerous trend towards “preventive measures” and “pre-crime” initiatives without the rule of law:

Indeed the extent of the remove can be seen from the fact that states are criminalizing not just the preparatory act of travelling abroad with the purpose of committing a terrorist offence, but also acts preparatory to the preparatory act of travelling abroad with this purpose. The problem here is that acts such as browsing “extremist” websites and looking up the price of flights to Istanbul can all render people liable to prosecution, long before individuals may have made up their minds to commit a terrorist offence, or without their ever even having contemplated it in the first place.

Mass Surveillance in Europe

The Privacy International report is shorter, but just as interesting and worrying. It covers the British “Snoopers Charter” or Investigatory Powers Act (IPA); the German Communications Intelligence Gathering Act (“Ausland-Fernmeldeaufklärung des Bundes-nachrichtendienstes”); and the French International Electronic Communications Law (“mesures de surveillance des communications électroniques internationales”). For each law, the authorized powers, oversight, and power over privileged communication is examined.

Although the terrorist attacks in these countries over the last years are driving forces, many of the laws being passed now seems to have at least some relation to the EU Data Retention Directive, issued a decade ago, in 2006. Although that was annulled by the EU Court of Justice in 2014 for “violating fundamental rights”. Still, similar and broader laws are now in place in many EU member states.

The report concludes:

The leaders of Germany, France and the UK are setting a dangerous precedent which echoes within the European Community and far beyond it: Mass surveillance by governments has become the new normal.

No sanctuary in Switzerland?

Upon till recently, Switzerland was a sanctuary of privacy and secrecy of private information and financial information. The latter was shattered a few years back, when the US threatened to throw out the Swiss banks if they did not disclose account details on what US citizens held. The former came under attack in 2015 and 2016 when two separate data retention and surveillance laws were enacted and passed. The BÜPF – “Überwachung des Post und Fernmeldeverkehrs” (“Monitoring of post and telecommunications”) and the NDG – “Nachrichtendienstgesetz”, an extension to the existing national intelligence law. There’s a discussion of both here, and more details by ProtonMail.

The laws call for all communication channels and services to retain certain metadata about the communication for a year, which apparently includes any open wifi hotspots; IRC chat rooms; email and chat services; message boards and so on. Again, similar laws which were declared illegal for violating fundamental rights by EU Court of Justice in 2014 have become national law. Furthermore, the laws make state hacking and wiretapping legal.

Even though Switzerland is neutral, they maintain close ties to the US, including data sharing agreements through the Privacy Shield Framework, like the other EU countries. (The double-speak has really gone far when “privacy shield” is a name for business and government information sharing). Furthermore, regarding financial details, Switzerland is taking part in the Automatic exchange of information (AEOI) program, under the guise of detecting tax evasion.

An interesting note about the “Nachrichtendienstgesetz” extension is that it met strong resistance, and ProtonMail were amongst activists who gathered enough signatures for the 2015 proposal to go through a national referendum, as is required in Switzerland. The only problem: they lost. On 25 September 2016, the vast majority at 65.5% voted in favour of the law. Although only about 43% of eligible voters cast their vote, the outcome was similar across all cantons, and therefore we must assume representative of the opinion of the population as a whole. It goes to show, that even in Switzerland when the choice stands between privacy and security, people will give up their privacy.

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