An Absolutist View of Encryption

March 11, 2016

President Obama spoke at length today about privacy and encryption. He cautioned against an “absolutist view of encryption”, claiming that search warrants can apply to the virtual world just as well as the physical provided we build our technology wisely.

Alas, Obama is fundamentally wrong. Digital encryption has no analogue in the physical world. Doors locked by lost keys can be busted down. Digital doors locked by lost encryption keys can never be re-opened.

What Obama misunderstands is that “encryption absolutism” is not an ideological position. It’s a technical one.

March 3, 2016 @ 10AM

Today, Mitt Romney delivered an unprecedented speech addressing the toxic state of the 2016 presidential race. I agree with Romney completely when it comes to The Donald: Trump represents an existential threat to our country; he must be stopped.

My Microblog

February 22, 2016

A trip to the Wayback Machine reminded me that back in 2001, my blog looked like this:

What my blog looked like in 2001. It was on the domain back then.

Later, it looked like this:

What my blog looked like in 2003. It was on the domain back then.

It seems my early blog was a microblog! (I was tempted to go all hipster-than-thou about this, but I’ll refrain.)

In any case, there’s a lot of interesting energy around microblogs again today; I thought I’d revive my own.

My original plan was to import my entire Twitter history and merge that with my original microposts, but that led to sadness: Jekyll fares poorly when faced with tens of thousands of posts.

Instead, I simply revived my old microposts and placed them at New microposts will also appear on my site’s front page. To see just the meaty blog posts (and I use the word “meaty” rather loosely), you can visit I’ve also introduced new master, blog-only, and micro-only RSS feeds for your reading pleasure.

Ansible Bustedness

January 8, 2016

Ansible continues to frustrate. It’s one of those tools that looks good at the outset but as you use it more, you begin to question its fundamentals.

Here’s a simple example of an Ansible design decision that is both deeply embedded and probably deeply wrong. (This comes courtesy of my partner Peter, who did the spelunking under Ansible’s hood.)

Ansible consumes YAML that defines a configuration. YAML values can be Jinja2 template strings, if desired. (Apparently, Ansible merely sniffs for telltale opening double braces to decide whether to send a string through Jinja.) That’s useful as far as it goes.

But after rendering these mini-templates, Ansible next calls Python’s eval(...) on the resultant string. If this happens not to blow up, Ansible tosses the python instance that results down the chain rather than the rendered string. Yet there are many configuration strings that you might want to keep as strings that nevertheless happen to eval(...) successfully. For example: JSON literals, certain RabbitMQ configuration syntax, etc.

There’s no facility to be selective here. Just another day of software.

1Password for Teams

November 3, 2015 :: external link

Congrats to AgileBits on today’s launch of 1Password for Teams.

We’ve been using beta builds at Cloak and it has measurably improved our process. From where I sit, 1Password for Teams is an easy purchase for any business that needs to manage shared passwords — these days, that’s pretty much every business.

Building a tool like 1Password for Teams isn’t easy: it requires thoughtful security design and extremely careful execution. It’s not surprising, then, that the 1Password for Teams security whitepaper is an interesting read. Even the “key security features” front matter is enough to convey the sophistication and thought behind the product.

Hacker History Bookshelf, Revisited

August 25, 2015

A tweet by @hmason convinced me to dust off my hacker history bookshelf. This is my personal take on the papers and books that anyone interested in the history of the computer industry should someday read:

  • As We May Think, Vannevar Bush’s milestone post-war article arguing for a revolution in information accessibility and management.
  • The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner’s history of influential Bell Labs.
  • The Man Behind The Microchip, a biography of Robert Noyce and Fairchild Semiconductor. We probably don’t appreciate today just how much Fairchild (and Noyce) set the tone for entrepreneurship in the Valley. Also of interest is The Chip, a further account of Noyce and of Jack Kilby, another microchip pioneer.
  • Father, Son and Co, Thomas Watson Jr.’s first-person account of the rise of IBM. Follow up with Louis Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, which tells the tale of his time as turnaround CEO of IBM in the early 90s.
  • The Curse Of Xanadu, a look at our industry’s first true vaporware, and at the tragic genius of Ted Nelson, one of its countercultural heroes. (See also Nelson’s famous and expensive-to-acquire Computer Lib/Dream Machines, which declared that “You can and must understand computers NOW”.)
  • Soul Of A New Machine, Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize winner about a team of engineers at Data General working to breathe life into a new minicomputer.
  • Dealers Of Lightning, the story of Xerox PARC. Also worth reading is Fumbling The Future, which focuses more specifically on the Xerox Star.
  • The Supermen, the story of Seymour Cray and the early supercomputer industry.
  • Commodore: A Company on the Edge, Brian Bangall’s examination of the complex early PC market, and of one company’s epic rise and fall. A fun follow-up is The Future Was Here, a history of the Amiga.
  • Bootstrapping, (alas) the only biography I know of Douglas Engelbart. (Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos is required viewing for anyone who is interested in the books in this list.)
  • Where Wizards Stay Up Late, a fascinating history of the ARPANET.
  • Hackers, Steven Levy’s wonderful book that focuses on the key personas, regions, and eras that defined the hacker ethos. As a potential follow-up, Levy’s In The Plex carries many of the threads to modern-day Google.
  • Fire In The Valley, which tells the story of the PC revolution. Fire is also one of the few books I know of that delves into detail on Gary Kildall and CP/M.
  • From Counterculture to Cyberculture has become my favorite book about how sixties counterculture gave birth to the early computer industry. It has much to say about Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog, one of the influential countercultural artifacts of that era. For a lighter read on counterculture, I also enjoy What The Dormouse Said.
  • Console Wars, the story of Sega and Nintendo’s epic rivalry.
  • Core Memory, a beautiful photo book of vintage computers with interesting historical blurbs. It sits on the coffee table in my office.

If you have any further suggestions for this list, I’d love to hear them!