Other writing — July 2018

Where have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Opensource.com

Other writing – June 2016

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Red Hat/Fedora

Microsoft

Stuff I curated

Microsoft

 

Book review — A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees story

It’s easy to see the modern Ku Klux Klan (KKK) not as the domestic terrorism organization that murdered and oppressed black and Jewish people for decades, but as a small group of impotent ragers making noise on the fringes of society. And it’s equally tempting to see this diminished stature as the direct result of society coming to realize that the KKK’s views are abhorrent. But for as much as we might like to think that American society marginalized the KKK on its own, credit also goes to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC’s novel suits against KKK organizations helped bring legal constraints and financial ruin to prominent KKK organizations in a time when they were feeding off the resentment festering in the wake of the civil rights movement.

At the center of the suits was SPLC co-founder Morris Dees. In his book, co-authored with Steve Fiffer, Dees tells his story. He talks about how his upbringing as the son of a poor Alabama farmer shaped his life and his resulting career as a private attorney and the leader of a prominent anti-hate-group non-profit.

I received a copy of A Lawyer’s Journey after making a donation to the SPLC. If I knew I was going to receive a copy when I made the donation, I had certainly forgotten by the time it showed up. The title hardly suggested an exciting read and I didn’t know who Dees is. Nonetheless, I picked it up. Within a few chapters, I had a hard time putting it down.

As a white person who grew up in the (nominally) not-South during the time many of the cases in question were tried, I had very little knowledge of the efforts the SPLC and others made to stop the KKK in the 1980s. I assumed that the KKK went away because polite society realized it couldn’t tolerate white supremacy. Instead I learned how a few very motivated lawyers (and their brave clients) went toe-to-toe with the KKK using legal strategies that had never been tried.

As interesting as the content is, this book is not great from a literary point of view. The timeline jumps around without a clear reason. As with any autobiography, readers are obliged to read with a critical eye. Even if Dees is entirely truthful in what he tells, he presents only what he wants the reader to see. He mentions his divorces in passing, but his personal life beyond his teens years is largely absent. Apart from describing the time he and his daughter fled to a panic room (and her subsequent attendance at a major trial), we don’t know what effect the lawyer’s journey had on his family’s journey.

Given the recent resurgence of nationalism and white supremacism, this book deserves a read. People can fight hatred in many ways, and Morris proved that civil suits can be effective.

Other writing – May 2018

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Opensource.com

Microsoft

Stuff I curated

Microsoft

Opensource.com

Other writing – April 2018

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Microsoft

Opensource.com

Other writing – March 2018

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Microsoft

Opensource.com

Stuff I curated

Microsoft

Hands on with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8

A few weeks ago, my Galaxy Note 4 began misbehaving. It would freeze for a few seconds. It would spontaneously reboot. After a day where it rebooted 14 times, I decided it was time to replace it. Of course the new Galaxy devices are coming out very soon, but if you take my usual approach and buy the previous generation to save money, this is a timely blog post.

Despite the recent flakiness, I’ve been generally impressed with Samsung’s phones. When I went to the T-Mobile store, I was trying to decide between the Galaxy S8 and the Galaxy Note 8. The Note 8 is bigger – bigger even than my Note 4 – and it has the S-Pen. I’ll admit that I don’t use the S-Pen often, but when I do, it’s really nice to have. So despite a price tag that’s about as close to $1,000 as you can get without being the iPhone X, I went for it. After almost a month, here’s what I think.

What I like

  • The size. I wish my thumbs were a bit larger, but I like the size of this phone. The extra real estate allows me to condense what had been five home screens down to 3. But the curved edges make it feel narrower than my Note 4, even though they’re the same width.
  • Wireless charging. Where has this been all my life? I have an aftermarket wireless charger on my night stand which makes getting up in the middle of the night much easier. And the model I keep on my desk flips up so that I can see and use my phone easily.
  • USB-C. I’m a firm believer in the rule that it takes three tries to correctly plug in a USB cable. USB-C destroys that rule and I love it.
  • The S-Pen. The Note 8’s S-Pen feels better to grip and it seems to have more pressure sensitivity. Sometimes I’ll just doodle on the screen for fun. It feels nicer to write with than most pens I’ve used.
  • Heart monitor. This is basically unchanged from the Note 4 as far as I can tell, but I really like this. Tracking my heart rate has been key to managing my mental and physical health during the last few turbulent months.
  • Smart Switch. This app made transferring apps and data from one phone to another pretty simple. Some settings, particularly with regard to notifications and third-party accounts, didn’t carry over. That may be more the fault of my old phone rebooting than a problem with the software.
  • Camera. I haven’t taken too many pictures yet, but the camera seems much improved. Picture quality at full zoom is particularly better.

What I’m indifferent to

  • The curved screen. I don’t (intentionally) use the little side tray. Stuff at the edges generally looks fine, but I’d be okay with a normal bezel.
  • Bixby. Bixby is limited. It doesn’t work with most apps I actually use. The voice recognition is decent, and it can at least tell the difference between my voice and my wife’s, which is nice. I played around with it for a few days just to see, but I’ve stopped since. I’m generally not interested in talking to my phone anyway.
  • USB-C. I like it, but I’m also indifferent to it. Mostly because I have a bunch of micro USB cables. As I begin to have more USB-C, my indifference will fade.
  • Waterproof. I haven’t put this to the test because I don’t want to break a thousand dollar phone. But if the specs are to be believed, I don’t have to worry about what happens if I accidentally give my phone a bath while I’m giving my kids a bath. (This is how my phone-2 was lost.)
  • Fingerprint sensor location. I know some people were upset about the fingerprint sensor moving to the back of the phone. I don’t use it, and I’m used to putting my finger on the back of the phone for heart monitoring.
  • Lack of physical buttons. It took a little getting used to not having a physical home button, or back and app switch buttons with a dedicated spot. Now that I’m used to it, I don’t care either way. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is.

What I dislike

  • The speaker location. The speaker is on the bottom of the phone when held vertically. When held horizontally, it’s on the side, which often means its inadvertently under my finger. This means I often muffle the sound.
  • The headphone jack location. I like that it has a headphone jack. I would prefer if it were on the top. It’s generally not a problem, but every once in a while, I’m holding the phone in just such a way that it’s annoying.
  • RF reception. I’ve noticed the Note 8 seems to have trouble getting signal in places my Note 4 didn’t. Specifically, it doesn’t get Wi-Fi in my bathroom very well. And I had no cellular signal in much of the terminal at SEA, which made trying to pull up my boarding pass a real adventure.

Thats where I am so far. The main thing I don’t have a good sense for is the battery life. It seems to burn up a little faster than I’d like, but since I usually keep it on a charger, it’s hard to tell. We’ll see what happens when I’ve had it for a year or so and the battery is well-aged.

Other writing – February 2018

What was I writing when I wasn’t writing here?

Microsoft

Opensource.com

Replacing food stamps with boxes

I generally avoid political posts on this blog. I hope my ones of readers will forgive me this rare indulgence. And at the end, I’ll turn it into a technology post, so maybe it’s okay. At any rate, the Trump administration included a proposal to revamp the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the recent budget proposal. Roughly half of SNAP funding would go toward providing boxes of groceries to recipients.

The administration called it a “Blue Apron-style program”. It sounds like a good idea on the surface. I was surprised by this, since I’m inclined to distrust anything coming from this White House. But what seems like a good idea on first blush doesn’t always hold up to deeper scrutiny. The proposal falls apart in a few critical ways:

  • No fresh produce. Fresh produce makes it more expensive and the goal is ostensibly to save money. But providing healthier food can lead to indirect savings by reducing healthcare costs and increasing productivity.
  • No choice. From what I’ve read about the program, it would be difficult or impossible for recipients to select what food they receive. Food allergies? Too bad! Your kids won’t eat a particular food? Oh well. Don’t know how to cook what you’re sent? Better luck next time.
  • Big government! For a party that claims to favor small government, this is a pretty big government imposition. And while grocery shopping isn’t my idea of a good time, allowing people to select their own groceries at least gives them some degree of dignity.

It’s not clear if this is meant as a serious policy proposal or a marker to compare the actual policy proposal against. At any rate, it seems like a pretty bad idea. But it doesn’t have to be. An opt-in program that included fresh produce and the ability to select what’s in the box could be a real improvement. It might cost more, but the cost of a program can’t be the only measure of its merit.

For many low-income people, just getting to the grocery store is a challenge. If they’re in a food desert and have to rely on public transportation, going to the store can be a multi-hour ordeal. If a box of groceries arrived on their doorstep once a week, the time savings could be truly meaningful. And with more time not spent trying to get to the store, that’s time they could spend helping their kids with homework, studying for night classes, etc.

But putting aside the politics of this proposal, it seems like we’re all too quick to say “oh there’s a tech company doing this, it’s clearly the right thing to do.” Blue Apron, the leader in meal kit delivery, is trading for over 60% less than their IPO price from last year. It’s losing customers and money. It may not outlast the Trump administration. It may not be the model we want to model cost-saving efforts after.

“We made this thing and it works for us, so clearly it will work for everyone” is a mindset that the tech industry struggles to overcome. But in the meantime, this proposed change to SNAP has inspired me to increase my monthly donation to my local food bank. They let clients shop and provide education to help them make the most of what they get. It’s a better investment than piling some cans of beans into a box and calling it a day.

Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a woman does pioneering work in a field, only to have the men end up remembered by posterity. So it was for Elizebeth Smith Friedman. But she’s starting to receive her due. Jason Fagone’s newly-published The Woman Who Smashed Codes is not the first recognition of Friedman’s work, but it’s the most recent.

Friedman and her husband William rival the Curies as the most impressive scientific couple in history. Their careers would be impressive on their own, but it is the combination that makes them incredible. Starting out on a rich man’s compound trying to provide that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, they went on to essentially invent the field of cryptanalysis.

Fagone’s book is a biography, but with a narrow view. He spends little time on Elizebeth’s life prior to joining George Fabyan’s Riverbank Laboratories. Life after World War II is similarly viewed on fast forward. But the three decades in between are covered in depth.

The outbreak of World War I saved the Friedmans from work they were rapidly coming to doubt. Their work decoding enemy messages – and inventing the processes for doing so – changed their personal and professional trajectories and brought them into prominence. Between wars, Elizebeth cracked the messages of Prohibition runners. When war came again, the Coast Guard cryptanalysis unit she created worked to crack three variations of the Enigma machine and was responsible for tracking the extensive Nazi spy ring in Argentina.

Despite her incredible work, Elizebeth often took a backseat to William. She seemed to prefer it that way. The Friedmans each felt the other was the smarter and more talented of the pair. Fagone devotes little of the book to Elizebeth’s personal life, except for her relationship to William. Their mutual devotion and admiration are as inspiring as their work.

This is a thick book, but it reads much faster than you’d expect. I enjoyed reading it and came away with a deep admiration of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a person I hadn’t heard of just a few days ago.