2 or b

Over at the Google+ ErgoEmacs community, Xah Lee asks is it easier to type 2 or b on a QWERTY keyboard. The majority of people said ‘b’ but I was surprised at how many felt ‘2’ was easier. If you have an opinion and would like to express it, follow the link to the poll.

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All Your Conversations are Belong to Us

LWN.net is reporting on a Debian bug report complaining that Chromium, Google's open source version of their Chrome Browser, was downloading a binary blob after it started. The responsible Debian maintainers did not have access to the code for the blob and had no way of knowing what it did. After a bit of investigation, it appears that the blob—called Chrome Hotword—turns on the computer's microphone and enables audio capture.

Doubtless, this is to support Google's OK Google feature that enables audio searching but its stealth installation and the initial absence of a way of disabling it raised serious questions. Even now, the function is enabled by default and the user has to find the—reportedly obscure—control for opting out of the system.

Google says that while the blob is installed and the microphone is turned on, no audio data is transmitted to Google unless the “OK Google” feature in explicitly turned on in the browser. That's almost surely true too but consider: Google gets a secret warrant from some 3-letter agency and suddenly the government is listening to everything you say. Pre-Snowden that might have been considered paranoid but now we know better.

Falkvinge has a more muscular objection over at Private Internet Access. He explicitly makes the same point: after Snowden, we should trust no one with the ability to listen in on our conversations. Even if the organization providing the capability is completely trustworthy, there is no reason to believe that it won't be coerced into spying for the government. Nor is there any guarantee that the capability won't be exploited by criminal elements.

You'd think Google would understand all this and realize that audio searches just aren't worth the danger to privacy that comes with them. Apparently not.

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There is No Cloud

A handy reminder from vierito5 (via Karl Voit):

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Undoing Git Actions

Git is a wonderful thing and despite its reputation for being really hard to use, is easy to understand and use for the usual cases. The problems occur when you make a mistake and the easy mental model you have of Git doesn't tell you how to recover.

Over at the GitHub Blog, Joshua Wehner has an excellent post on how to recover from common Git user errors. By “error” he means some action that you wish to undo even though the action itself was legal. Even with a good mental model of how Git works, many of these recoveries are not obvious so it's well worth your time to read through the post.

It's valuable enough that I bookmarked it because when I do one of those things, I can never remember how to recover. For example, I learned how to start ignoring some files even though I had already started tracking them. You might think that just adding them to the .gitignore file would do the trick but it doesn't. It's easy to fix this problem but it certainly isn't obvious. Take a look at Wehner's post to find out how.

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Trust Us—We're Wise

The next time the government asks you to trust in their good and mature judgment, remember this.

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Org and Beamer

Presentation software. Windows has Power Point, Apple has Keynote, and Linux has Open Office. Everyone hates presentation software and everyone uses it. If you're someone who works on multiple platforms, you might have to learn to use two or more of them.

Unless, that is, you're an Emacs user1. In that case, you can learn how to use Beamer with Org mode and take it with you wherever you go. If you want animated slides with lots of gee whiz features, Beamer probably isn't for you but if you want to make nice looking slides for a talk or other presentation, it's easy, portable, and free. You don't have to worry about the machine that will be projecting the slides since the output is PDF and any PDF projector software will do.

Over at the Worg Site they have a very nice tutorial on generating Beamer slides from Org mode. Even if you don't know LaTeX or Beamer, you can still generate nice slides directly in Emacs. If you find yourself having to put together slides for a talk, it's worth taking a look at the tutorial. It's not too long and afterwards you'll be able to generate slides on any platform that supports Emacs and LaTeX.

UPDATE: Eric S. Fraga, who authored the Worg tutorial I linked above, writes to point out that there's a newer tutorial by Suvayu Ali that covers the new(er) exporter.

Footnotes:

1

Or you know LaTeX/TeX sufficiently well to use Beamer directly.

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I.F. Stone, Call Your Office

Glenn Greenwald has a blistering evisceration of the recent (UK) Sunday Times front page article claiming that the Russians and Chinese have cracked the Top Secret cache of Snowden documents and that MI6 is pulling out their officers to prevent them from being killed. One Home Official official even claimed that Snowden had blood on his hands although the government admits that there is no evidence of anyone being harmed.

I.F. Stone famously said, “All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.” This appears to be a case in point. The article depends entirely on anonymous British officials without a shred of evidence for their lurid claims.

Although Greenwald's diatribe is mainly aimed at what he considers journalistic malfeasance, he does describe many of the factual problems with the article. First, Snowden has always insisted that when he left Hong Kong he took no documents with him specifically so that the couldn't be forced to turn them over to hostile governments. He gave the documents to Greenwald and Laura Poitras but kept no copies for himself.

Then they claim that David Miranda, Greenwald's spouse, was seized at Heathrow Airport with 58,000 stolen documents after he visited Snowden in Moscow in 2013. The problem is that Miranda hadn't been in Moscow in 2013 and, in fact, had been stopped at Heathrow after he visited Poitras in Germany.

They also report that Snowden stole 1.7 million documents but even the NSA says that they don't know how many he took. The 1.7 million figure is an estimate of what he had access to, not what he took.

Greenwald's article is a fascinating read and well worth your time, especially if you need your eyes opened as to the veracity of what passes for reporting on the Snowden matter.

As they say on those television offers, “But wait; there's more!” Craig Murray, who has extensive experience in these matters, has an outstanding post on Five Reasons the MI6 Story is a Lie. The most important of these are that the quotes from “knowledgeable sources” use incorrect terminology that a real intelligence officer simply wouldn't use and that the whole premise of MI6 officers being in danger is simply nonsense. That's because 99% of such officers operate under diplomatic cover and are well known to the the Russians and Chinese. Furthermore, no officer has been killed by the Russians or Chinese in 50 years.

If you want to read a devastating takedown of the Sunday Times' article, be sure to read Murray's piece. It's terrific.

UPDATE: MI-5 → MI6

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Computer Security and the U.S. Government

If you're interested in security, you really should subscribe to the semiweekly SANS Newsbites newsletter. The subscription is free except for the occasional email notifications of SANS courses and events. Each letter comprises a series of short (typically a paragraph or two) items about security issues.

The lastest edition (v. XVII, n 47) notes1 that in the wake of the OPM breach that exposed the personal information of potentially millions of federal employees, the White House has directed all federal agencies to immediately implement basic security measures such as keeping their patches up to date, using anti-virus products, and checking their logs. Really? This is 2015 and the President of the United States has to tell his agencies to perform the most basic security measures? What does it take to get fired?

One of the Newsbites editors gave the administration credit for doing something but most were incredulous that the government has spent billions of dollars on IT security in the last decade and is still telling its IT departments to do what “a high school freshman studying information security [would] suggest.”

Footnotes:

1

This report is the first item in the newsletter.

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A Handy Calc Tip

mxavier has a nifty tip for calc:

It's hard to put a lot of context into a tweet so let me fill in the blanks. If you're in the calc buffer, typing【y】 (calc-copy-to-buffer) will copy the top of the stack to the most recently used editing buffer. The documentation clarifies that as

More specifically, this is the most recently used buffer which is displayed in a window and whose name does not begin with ‘*’. If there is no such buffer, this is the most recently used buffer except for Calculator and Calc Trail buffers.

This makes it easy to pop into calc, make some calculations, and then copy the result back to the buffer you were working in. Actually, calc-copy-to-buffer is a bit more flexible. You can read the Yanking into Other Buffers section of the manual to get the details. It's short and well worth a look.

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Storing and Retrieving Files by Tags

Wilfred Hughes points us to this interesting paper on tag-based file systems. The idea is that rather than storing files in the traditional hierarchical manner, they are stored and retrieved by tags. The idea of tags is quite general and can even include key word searches. If you're like me, the idea of doing away with hierarchical file systems is unnerving. Still, I find that a great deal of my workflow amounts to exactly that through my use of Org mode.

I file notes, links, and other information in a handful of files and retrieve that data via tags. Org mode makes this easy and natural and I can even do regular expression searches through the same Org mode interface. I've become very interested in this approach after hearing and reading about Karl Voit's work on Memacs.

If you're interested in this sort of thing, Voit has a research implementation that you can try out. He also has some interesting papers on the system and related ideas. On a smaller scale, there's Memacs. If you're on Linux, it looks to be pretty easy to get it going. If, like me, you're on OS X, it's going to take more work but looks doable. I'm slowly implementing much of the same capabilities and will probably steal and adapt some of his scrips as I add more data gathering functionality.

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