That's how many, out of 1,457, requests for electronic surveillance the FISA court rejected—in part or in whole—in 2015. But there's nothing new here; that's the same number they rejected in 2014.

So don't worry about all that spying the government is doing on us; They are under the strict supervision of the courts.

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What to do When Emacs Hangs or Crashes

Jisang Yoo has a very nice post on recovering from Emacs hangs or crashes. He considers three topics

  1. What do do when Emacs hangs
  2. How to enable debugging
  3. What to do when Emacs crashes

His advice on Emacs hanging seems mostly aimed at Windows users and doesn't mention my preferred method of

pkill -SIGUSR2 Emacs

That will usually unstick Emacs enough that you can save your files and quit. Sometimes you can even keep going but I've found it's generally better to save your files and restart Emacs. If you aren't on a Mac, you will want to use

pkill -SIGUSR2 emacs


The problem with a crash is that you can lose unsaved work. What I've always done in that case is to use recover-file to get the file from disk and fold in the information in the autosave file. Yoo suggests using recover-session instead. This has the advantage of recovering all files from the session that crashed. That's something I didn't know but that I'll use from now on.

Yoo's post is fairly short and one well worth reading. Knowing the things he talks about doesn't make crashes/hangs painless but it does take a lot of the sting out of them.

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Tips on Writing a Major Mode

Wilfred Hughes wrote an Emacs major mode for Cask. Afterwards, he distilled what he learned into a post on writing major modes. The post is not a tutorial on how to write major modes; it's a few tips that will make things easier.

This post is a nice followup to a previous Hughes' post that did serve a tutorial role. I wrote about that post here. If you're thinking of writing a major mode or think you might in the future, it's worthwhile bookmarking both his posts.

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Blake Ross and I have something in common. We've both learned a fact that blew our minds. The thing is, it blew our respective minds for opposite reasons. Ross suffers from a condition called aphantasia: the inability to form mental images. He describes it as being blind in your mind.

The startling revelation is that Ross is 30 years old and has just learned that not everyone is like him. Likewise, I was shocked to discover that this condition, far from being the rare result of a physical trauma, is perhaps not common but far from uncommon. Studies show that perhaps 2% of the population suffer from aphantasia.

Ross's post is a long description of what it's like to be unable to visualize things in your mind. It's more than being unable to imagine a beach scene. Ross can't recall his father's image or even “see” a triangle in his mind. Those of us who don't suffer from aphantasia find it difficult to imagine what it's like but Ross does a good job of describing it. To me, the astounding thing is that he was 30 before he discovered that most people are constantly forming mental images.

Read his post; you'll find it fascinating. I especially enjoyed the reactions of his friends when he started asking them about it.

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Still No Justice

Yesterday, I saw James Clapper on TV. That reminded me of this. It's been over 3 years and Clapper still hasn't been charged or even fired. If you're an American, ask yourself what would happen to you if you lied under oath to Congress1.

It's no wonder more and more people are convinced that the system is corrupt and that high officials live by different rules from the rest of us.



Hint: You wouldn't be walking around free after 3 years.

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Happy Birthday Irreal

Today is the 5th birthday of The blog, in its Blogger incarnation, is a couple of years older but 5 years ago today Irreal opened for business at as a WordPress blog.

Things haven't worked out quite as I planned—it was originally supposed to be about Lisp and SICP—but just like in real life, things adapt and change. I hope you've had as much fun reading Irreal as I have in writing it.

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Blogging with Org Mode

John Louis Del Rosario offers another nice example of blogging with Org Mode. What makes Rosario's solution unique is that he doesn't use Jekyll, Nikola, or any other blogging engine. Rather, he serves static pages to his hosting provider via Dropbox.

The blog is organized as an Org mode project so that the publishing is completely automated. He even auto-generates his index page so that he doesn't have to worry about adding links to new posts. The result is a simple blog but one that requires nothing but a hosting provider.

As Rosario says, he can make things fancier by adding a bit of CSS and adding to his custom site-map function but that can be done as he finds the time and inclination. In the mean time, he has a working site with minimal resources. If you're looking for a very simple way of blogging that still allows you to customize things as you like, take a look at Rosario's post.

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Elisp Summary

Mitch Fincher has posted an excellent summary of Emacs lisp. If you're vaguely familiar with Lisp-like languages but don't know the particulars of Elisp this page will help you get up to speed. If you're already familiar with Elisp, you might enjoy reading through the page to discover new functions or capabilities.

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Emacs for Prose

I just came across a tweet pointing to an old post by Urpo Lankinen about using Emacs for writing prose. I'm always interested in that topic so I followed the link and read the post. It seemed vaguely familiar—especially with its emphasis on the (then) new visual-line-mode functionality—so I searched Irreal and found that I'd written about it 5 years ago.

When I wrote about it the first time, I was mostly concerned with the importance that he gave to visual-line-mode. Reading it now, I am struck by how he leveraged Org mode to organize his writing. This was back in 2011 so Org was nowhere near as capable as it is now. He has a follow on post that he wrote after using Emacs/Org to write his 2011 NaNoWriMo entry. That post recounts his experience with using Emacs/Org on a long project.

It's interesting to see how many of the things he complains about are fixed now. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be an easy way to search his blog so I'm not sure if he's posted further, more recent thoughts on writing with Emacs. If you use Emacs for writing straight prose, as opposed to code, you will probably enjoy his posts.

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FISA Abandons the Fourth Amendment (Again)

Remember how I told you and told you and told you and told you and told you about the Iron Law of Data Collection? That no matter what the government says or promises, data, once collected, will find other uses and will, inevitably, eventually be abused. Remember how the U.S. Government promised that their bulk data collection was for fighting terrorism only and would never be released to other agencies or used for other purposes?

The government's data collection is no exception to the iron law, of course, and in a FISA ruling from 2015 recently unsealed, the government admits that terrorism data is being used for routine law enforcement purposes. FISA, demonstrating its contortionist proclivities, managed to twist itself into believing that this was somehow compatible with the fourth amendment. It isn't, of course, but nothing must be allowed to interfere with the iron law.

This abuse is justified under §702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which is scheduled to expire in 2017. When it comes up for renewal, you can be sure that the government will paint dark pictures of our future if they are precluded from collected this data. When they do, remember two things:

  1. They've already abused the data and will doubtless find new uses for it.
  2. The government is still struggling to point to a single instance (except for four guys who conspired to contribute $8,500 to the Al Shabaab group in Somalia) where their data collection led to actionable intelligence.

It won't be long before some divorce lawyer—using the government's own arguments—will insist that because the data is there and already used for routine purposes, his client should be allowed access to his or her spouse's email and texts.

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