Letter to the Home Office to Protect Encryption

The Home Office are having a secret consultation to bork encryption in the name of keeping us safe.

I felt inspired to write them an email. Here it is:

Please don’t weaken encryption and so endanger us in the name of making us safer. Anyone can access backdoors into encrypted software. Not just the “good guys.”

Here is an analogy to show what I mean:

Encryption Housing Developers build a housing estate.
These houses are the most secure design in the world. One of the features of the Encryption House is that they are all laid out exactly the same. The stuff inside each house is different, but the structure of each house is exactly the same. They are completely burglar-proof. Most of the people who live in the housing estate are good, law-abiding citizens. I’m one of those law-abiding citizens. I bought a house in the estate, and I’m very happy with it and feel confident that my stuff will never be stolen.

Guy Fawkes also bought one of the houses. But Mr Fawkes is up to no good. the government are watching him closely, because they think he is planning to plant a bomb and blow up the Houses of Parliament. The police want to arrest him before he plants the bomb, but they don’t have enough evidence. He probably has his plot written down in a notebook inside his burglar-proof Encryption House, but the police can’t get to it (Encryption Houses even stop warranted police officers from getting into the house — that is how secure the house design is).

The government passes a law forcing Encryption Housing Developers to dig a secret tunnel into Guy Fawkes’ Encryption House. The tunnel exit into Mr Fawkes’ house is placed there without him knowing. The entrance to the tunnel is on Back Alley Way in Internetborough. The entrance is well-hidden, and only the government know where it is.
Because Encryption Housing Developers had to dig a tunnel into Mr Fawkes’ house, they had to dig a tunnel into every other Encryption House in the housing estate, so that they would all stay exactly the same. Unlike normal houses, if one Encryption House is modified, they all have the same structural modifications. And every Encryption House owner is oblivious to this weakness in the security of their home.

But that’s OK. The government only wants to get into Guy Fawkes’ house. It isn’t interested in my stuff in my house, or my other lovely law-abiding neighbours.

The government sneak into Guy Fawkes’ Encryption House, find the documents describing his plot to plant the bomb, and armed with this evidence they arrest him, preventing a terrorist attack.

Sarah is part of a criminal gang of very sophisticated burglars called The Hack. She and her gang members like exploring all the side streets and back alleys in Internetborough for secret passages. There are many secret passages in Internetborough.

A little while after Guy Fawkes is imprisoned, Sarah wanders down Back Alley Way. She spends a few hours looking in the wheely bins, in the stormwater drains, through the cracks in boarded up windows, kicking paving stones hoping for a loose one. She bumps a particular brick and door slides open. It’s the secret passage to all the Encryption Houses. Sarah goes and calls the rest of The Hack shows them all the Encryption Houses they can sneak into with impunity. The best thing about the secret tunnel is that the Encryption House owners won’t even know that The Hack have snuck in. What an opportunity. Now The Hack can expand from just burglary, to blackmail, identity theft, fraud, and all other kind of lucrative illegal business opportunities.

 

Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbons

Pink Seat by psd on flickrOctober is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. You need to get yourself a nifty pink ribbon to show your support, but who sells these mysterious ribbons?

If you are in South Africa, your search for beautiful pink ribbons is over.

Equip makes beaded goods at their Diepsloot project, including these elusive breast cancer awareness ribbons .

The ribbons on sale by Equip are beaded pink ribbons with safety pins, made by unemployed women in Diepsloot.

They sell for R15 each, and R3 goes directly to CANSA for every ribbon sold.

But don’t just buy one for yourself, get your company involved too. Cover the world in these outstanding pink ribbons!

Image credit: psd on flickr

Equip — Skills for Living

Equip Skills for Living LogoAngie’s charity has gone through a re-branding process and is now known as Equip.

This happened a while ago, but I was waiting for their webpage to go live before announcing it here.

Where many charities aim at educating children, Equip focuses on those who fell through the Bantu-education cracks when they were young. The philosophy is that adults who are better educated, and value education, will inspire these virtues in their children. An education will then change, not only their own lives, but shape the future lives of their children.

To this goal, Equip provides Adult Basic Education and Training to Matric level, via night schools. They also offer other courses including computer literacy, cashier training for point-of-sale machines, dressmaking and crafting skills, English literacy and financial literacy. Where possible, they also try to get people who successfully complete courses employed.

As with all charities, Equip needs donations to keep up the good work helping those in need. Contact Equip, and loosen those purse-strings!

On a technical note, the menus in the sidebar don’t render correctly in Firefox on Linux. When I complained, the developers showed me that Firefox for Windows doesn’t suffer these mysterious problems. Ah well. Linux and it’s 0.00000005% market-share will just have to suck it up

Why haven’t you been recycling?

Is it because you claim not to know where to take recyclable materials to be processed?
Ha ha! If you live in Johannesburg, scratch that excuse off your apathetic list, and revert to the “I am a useless human” excuse.

I present, for your benefaction, the Pikitup list of Garden Refuse Transfer sites (something of a nightmare to discover on your own via that site’s page navigation) — many of which include recycling facilities for all manner of substances. In fact, almost everything you are currently chucking in the bin could probably have been recycled — even electronic waste.

Make an effort. Keep those recyclable plastics, cardboard, paper, glass, and tins separate, and deliver them to your nearest site every now and again. The list on the webpage even has street addresses. I promise, it gives you a cheery warm feeling deep inside when you drop off a batch of stuff that would otherwise have reported to a landfill.

Putting money where my noisy mouth is

I go on a lot about media and software freedom, but what do I actually do about it?
Realising that talk without action achieves nothing, I decided to put some of my hard-earned money behind some of my principles.

In recent times I’ve become quite disheartened by the record industry’s protection racket. Their business model is failing and, since they are big bureaucratic monoliths, they are struggling to adapt. Their approach has been to stick DRM on everything, which basically restricts your ability to do what you want with something that you paid for, and should technically belong to you.
They say all these measures are to protect their artists, but they really only protect the company profits (and seem to be failing at that anyway). This draconian nonsense caused me to boycott music. I just don’t buy it any longer.

That is, until I looked around on the internet a little and found a vast resource of independent “record labels.” A few examples are:

I purchased two albums from Magnatune, and 50% of what I paid goes directly to the artist.
But Magnatune doesn’t stop there. They tell you to share the album with three friends. They figure that if people are going to be dishonest, then that’ll happen anyway — regardless of whether record companies try to do something about it or not. Might as well encourage sharing — cheap marketing.
Another bonus is that you, as the consumer, get to choose what you think the music is worth. The price isn’t set you decide — but the more you pay the more the artist gets.
The albums I bought are

Take a listen. If you like them, let me know and I’ll give you the url and password to download them (or you can just come over to my house and copy the files — geography and familiarity permitting).

The other music sites have varying business models and they all work differently. Throughout though, the music is DRM-free, and that’s what really matters to me.

I haven’t stopped at music. I’ve extended my approach to software
I’m a big advocate of open source software, but I’ve never given anything back to the community. I use the software. I tell people about it. I lord its merits.
But if everyone only did that, there wouldn’t be any software to promote.

The logical way to contribute to open source software is to write some code and submit it to a software project. I suck at writing code — so there goes that one.
I’m not too bad at writing deciphered words, so I tried contributing to the Ubuntu documentation team. That didn’t last very long. Writing documentation quickly became tedious and mundane. Perhaps I’ll look back into it sometime.
No, the easiest thing to do is contribute money to a project. It minimises your time investment and optimises the value of the contribution because that money can be used to pay an expert to do what you would have done poorly.
I sent the team that develops the Firefox add-on, DownThemAll, a donation. It was really a sort of experiment. They sent me an email thanking me for the contribution. Now I intend to send donations to other open source projects which I find to be particularly useful, and well implemented.

It’s interesting to me that I was inspired to make these donation because my brother had registered a shareware application called Total Commander. It’s not open source, and it only works on Windows. Still, he spoke about how he was so impressed with it that he figured the developer deserved the money.
That sentiment seems to have had a lasting impression on me.

Driving to work is stupid

Note: This post has been sitting around in draft form for longer than expected, thus references to dates are likely to have inadvertently been turned into lies.

I conducted an experiment. It’s an experiment I’ve been meaning to carry out for a while now, but it involves getting up a little earlier in the morning than I usually do. Getting up in the morning isn’t something I have a natural aptitude for, and so it is understandable that getting up even earlier than normal was something the core of me abhorred.

On Tuesday this week, I managed to drag my protesting body out of the bed in time to eat breakfast and leave for the office on foot.
I could’ve risen at the usual time and just left for work when I normally do without my car, but then I’d have arrived late. Arriving late means staying late, and since I’d have walked to work I’d be needing to walk back home.
Since I live in Johannesburg, I didn’t feel to comfortable walking home late at night.

I set out into the suburb by taking a short-cut past the dam that my property overlooks, instead of leaving home via the main entrance and walking a circular route to get back to the main road.
Walking on the grass next to the dam, feeling the wind on my face and hearing the birds chirping was something I missed out on while driving. The squeaky noises from the yapper-dogs, who disrupted the serenity with their barking, were less appreciated. The barking soon faded away behind me, and I paid it very little attention.
As I approached the road I noticed a great number of cars parked along-side it. That was my first impression, but I quickly realised that the reality of the matter was not that the cars were parked, but rather that they were stationary. Occupants resigned to their fate of slow, painful progress up the hill to the stop street. Slow, painful progress turning left into the next road, and then excruciatingly slow and painful progress of turning left on to the M5 and trundling along towards the turn-off to the highway. Most cars had only one occupant, and they all seemed so lonely and detached.
I walked passed them all.

Probably it is only fair that I point out how close I live to my place of work. Most people work a lot further from their homes than I do, and so walking to work is likely to impact dramatically on their commuting time.
I live about 3.5km from my office, yet I’ve been driving there every day. The walk took me roughly 40 minutes and, considering my life has lapsed into a somewhat more sedentary style, if I did it every day it would be an excellent substitute for dragging myself off to the gym. Remember that I’d be walking back at the end of the day too.
For those who try to make as much distance between their homes and their offices as possible (probably due to hating their jobs inordinately) the challenge of walking to work is much greater.
Most of those people probably haven’t explored the possibility of driving their vehicles to a certain point, and walking the rest of the distance. How practical that might be will vary from person to person.
Angie has tried it by leaving the car at a conveniently placed shopping centre (positioned where the traffic starts to get unpleasant) and walking the rest of the way to her office[1].

My walk to the office was invigorating. I was outside, in the world. Feeling and experiencing it more fully. I wasn’t enclosed in my personal confinement capsule, detached from other people. I wasn’t able to delude myself that those other people were not really people, but arseholes who conspire to ruin my drive to work by cutting me off.
I couldn’t do this because I walked passed people on the street, and if I wanted I could reach out and touch them (they might have been a bit alarmed by this though). I confirmed their existence as real, living people — not obstacles in my way to my destination. They were the ingredients that added to the richness of my journey.
I could interact with these people. If I said “hello” they greeted me back (sometimes with puzzled looks on their faces, other times with more enthusiasm). Not one of the people I greeted ignored me or showed me the contempt that other drivers showed me when I drove my car.
A white guy walking to work in South Africa is quite a rarity and because of this I had one guy whistle to me from across the road. Once I spotted him, he seemed abundantly happy and waved at me enthusiastically. I returned the gesture.

What a rosy picture I paint. There were a few drawbacks though. Something unavailable to the pedestrian is the driver’s isolation. I’ve just shown how isolation is a bad thing, but isolation also allows the occupants of the vehicle to keep exhaust fumes out of their lungs by closing those air-vents. I could wear a gas-mask with a filter of some sort, but I think people would be more inclined to cross the road to get away from me when I attempt to greet them.
Walking is exercise, and depending on the ambient temperature, perspiration ensues. I forget to apply deodorant at my peril (or possibly everyone-in-my-office’s peril).
Walking hurts the feet, but that’s just because I don’t do it every day. I’m upgrading this experiment to a habit, and so I think my feet will get used to it (although they do ache a little at the end of the day at the moment, and I have a blister).
Pavements and sidewalks are in short supply. Apparently municipalities don’t expect people to walk any where near a road. Roads are for cars, and everyone important has a car, right? There are some pavements scattered about, but the effort to lay pavements has been organised in a very decentralised manner. A little pavement here, and then long stretches of heavily eroded dusty footpaths.
I’d like to say that if more people walked, then more pavements would be laid, but that’s ridiculous since most people in South Africa walk to work, or walk to catch a taxi which takes them to a point where they must walk to work. Understandably, pavements might not be a top priority in South Africa, but maybe they could be nudged up the list a little. Expect more on this pavement issue in a future post.
Smokers stuck in the traffic get nervous and need a cigarette but find they have none left. They might ask you for a cigarette as you walk by. This isn’t really a drawback, but since I’m not a smoker I felt bad not being able to ease their pain just a little.

As with everything, there are positive and negative aspects. My contention is that the positives of walking to work easily trump the negatives. I’ll be walking from now on, unless I need the car to get to a meeting or something, because driving to work is stupid.
You should try it too. Probably walking to work (or taking public transport) will be too much for you to do every single day. That’s not a problem. Try it for one day.  If it works out ok, try it  another day. Set a goal to get to work by alternative means once a week, or once a month.
At the very least, even if you decide not to adopt the behaviour, you managed to experience something different.

[1] I lie. We’ve simulated this when I needed the car and dropped her off at the mentioned shopping centre. The end result is the same though.