Last week, I decided to make a move on a decision I’d been debating for a while. I decided to get myself a fitness tracker.
I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for health metrics. I’m completely aware that gamifying parts of my life causes me to be a tad obsessive about them, but I feel that health is the one area where I could afford to be compulsively concentrating on improvement. I was a somewhat early adopter of Nike + iPod and continued using Nike+ to track my runs for six years. I’ve always felt that having my performance tracked gave me extra motivation to do better. In the last year, I’ve been using Sleep Cycle to keep track of my sleeping patterns.
Neither of these services were particularly intrusive or required much work on my part. Sleep tracking was a bit more intense than run tracking, because Sleep Cycle requires keeping my phone on my bed during sleep, but since both running and sleeping are activities with a definitive start and end, it wasn’t difficult to incorporate tracking into my routine.
Conservatives might have most of this country convinced that staying alive in the US is something you have to earn, but apparently, they haven’t convinced Millenials. I’m happy to see this particular statistic.
“It’s not that the government should never act in secret. Quite obviously that’s neither advisable nor practical. But when it comes spying on citizens by the government — which has the power to take away one’s life, liberty, and property — it would be irresponsible of us to assume that because our view is obscured, there is nothing to see.”—Michael Luciano on why yesterday’s fantastic Intercept piece on the NSA targeting prominent American Muslims is good journalism
It’s a little simplistic, because at least at the outset there couldn’t have been a way to know that the F-35 program was going to be so disastrous. But now that it’s still being funded 7 years past its deadline, the point must be made.
There is a massive problem with how funding is allocated and viewed in this country. Military operations are necessary and always expensive, but the amount of overhead that this country tolerates for military projects, epitomized by projects like the F-35, is shockingly large compared to the money we would need to fix our societal issues. But military spending is approved every single time, while social investments are deemed “too expensive” and often — especially in the case of basic income — written off as somehow “socialist.”
“The five Americans whose email accounts were placed on the list come from different backgrounds, and hold different religious and political views. None was designated on the list as connected to a foreign power. Some have come under sharp public scrutiny for their activities on behalf of Muslim-Americans, and several have been investigated by the government. But despite being subjected to what appears to be long periods of government surveillance, none has been charged with a crime, let alone convincingly linked to terrorism or espionage on behalf of a foreign power. Taken together, their personal stories raise disturbing questions about who the government chooses to monitor, and why.”—
Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain for The Intercept, reporting on 5 prominent Muslim American citizens whom the FBI targeted for NSA surveillance
So far, we know how the NSA spies on American citizens. We know the tools they use and who cooperates with them to enable it. We know how powerful US law is in forcing companies to comply with surveillance. We know that these tools and legal frameworks come together to create a powerful surveillance dragnet that collects the private communications of millions of people every day. We know that the NSA uses this dragnet on American citizens, whether it’s in a general manner during wholesale collection of metadata or in a semi-targeted fashion by monitoring Americans who have contact with suspected foreign threats. We know that the NSA has broken its own policies for protecting Americans from unwarranted surveillance thousands of times. We know that all of these things together form possibly the most dangerous threat to American civil liberties, individual freedoms, and protection from oppressive government in the world today. And now we know that this system consciously has been used to spy on prominent figures in the Muslim community, a massive cultural group that the government unofficially sees as dangerous, even if those figures have no demonstrated ties to terrorism, espionage, or any other activity normally warranting surveillance.
The cry of privacy advocates who find the NSA’s actions to be dangerous has always been to warn that the systems designed to protect us from dangerous foreign elements could be abused and turned against innocent American citizens. And with The Intercept's reporting today, it has become clear that this is possible.
We don’t know why these individuals were targeted. But we do know that FBI and NSA have documented histories of viewing Muslim-Americans as potential threats simply because of their heritage. And the fact that the NSA’s massive surveillance apparatus can and has been used against people with no ties to the types of activities it was built to prevent against is evidence of how dangerous it could be for the average citizen.
My last essay on the topic of NSA surveillance in the wake of the Snowden leaks
“The system seems too full now of opportunities to grind and to bully. We have politicians, most of whom will never have to work another day in their lives, making the argument seriously that there is no role in self-government for the protection and welfare of the political commonwealth as that term applies to the poorest among us. We have politicians, most of whom have gilt-edged health care plans, making the argument seriously that an insurance-friendly system of health-care reform is in some way bad for the people whom it is helping the most, and we have politicians seriously arguing that those without health-care somehow are more free than the people who have turned to their government, their self-government, for help in this area. In the wake of a horrific outbreak of violence in a Connecticut elementary school, we have enacted gun laws now that make it easier to shoot our fellow citizens and not harder to do so. Our police forces equip themselves with weapons of war and then go out and look for wars to fight. We are cheap. We are suspicious. We will shoot first, and we will do it with hearts grown cold and, yes, cruel.”—‘The United States of Cruelty’ – Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
When the music industry moved into the digital world, consumer pressure eventually forced them to sell an accessible, high-quality product at a reasonable price. Everyone in technology predicted that the same would happen to Hollywood.
How music became friendly
The early 2000s were a nightmare for digital music. The RIAA and the studios it represented were clinging desperately to the album model of music sales while early MP3 players and the iPod forced them to reconsider their options. Some rallied against ripping CDs to restriction-free digital files, as the rising popularity of file sharing over the Internet provided an easy avenue for pirates to distribute songs without having to buy the CDs. They even went so far as to plant malicious rootkits on CDs that would implant themselves on customers’ computers and prevent them from getting music off of CDs. When digital downloads finally got label support, the files you could download were terribly low quality and were tied down by strict DRM that limited where the files could be played, how they could be copied, and who could play them. It was a nightmare for listeners. The easiest way to maintain a digital music collection that could be played on any device was, unfortunately, to pirate it.
Consumer and business pressure gradually changed this landscape. Today, it’s perfectly legal to rip music at any quality from a CD and put it on any device. Music purchased online from any store is completely DRM-free and uses standardized formats like MP3, AAC, and even lossless formats FLAC and ALAC. Artists can distribute music in digital formats on their own, through a label, on any of the mainstream online stores, and through physical media. For the cost of listening to periodic ads, users can steam virtually any song for free on various streaming services. For $10 per month, they have access to the same massive catalog on any device on demand without ads. Getting music today is relatively easy and fair, as it should be, and the incentive to pirate is greatly decreased.
iTunes songs, encoded without DRM in the standard AAC codec play perfectly in 3rd party media players like VLC.
I can’t download a movie the way I want
The movie industry has always been a few years behind music. Some of this is technological — transferring a movie over the Internet is orders of magnitude harder than doing the same for a song. It wasn’t until this decade that the average user’s computer was even capable of playing an HD movie. As buying music became increasingly consumer-friendly, everyone in the tech press operated under the assumption that the movie industry would be quick to follow music labels in opening up to consumer wishes.
Instead, while access to music is affordable and open, buying movies is a terrible experience. I stumbled across this while trying to buy The Wolf of Wall Street earlier this year. Here are the options for buying a major studio movie right now:
Blu-Ray: This is the gold standard for video quality. A copy of a movie in on a Blu-Ray is generally the highest quality available to consumers. These contain 1080p video at a very high bitrate, normally around 40-50 mbps. The video files are encrypted, and unlike with music, ripping them from the disk is illegal. To play a Blu-Ray, you need a licensed, often quite expensive player, hooked up to an HDTV with the licensed ability to decode the encrypted video sent over HDMI. It’s a content creator’s dream, and a nightmare for anyone who thinks owning a movie should allow someone to watch it wherever and however they want.
Retailer Digital Copy: Buying a movie is easy these days through a content store like iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon. Each of these services allow users to watch what they buy on virtually any form factor, with limitations. For example, iTunes movies can be watched on a TV and smartphone, but only through Apple TV and iOS devices. Amazon Instant Video can be watched on TVs, but only through players that integrate with their VOD service. The problem here is obvious: building a movie collections requires buying into one of these providers’ walled garden ecosystems. In doing so, competition is eliminated. Users who buy their movies on iTunes and watch on Apple TV don’t really have the choice to buy cheaper movies on Google Play because they would need to buy compatible hardware to watch them the way they like to. Beyond that, the video quality on these services, which optimize the files for streaming, is far below that of Blu-Ray. In fact, the files are often on the order of 10× lower bitrate. And of course, they are entirely locked down with DRM and can only be played with custom software.
Media Player Classic, a popular media player, shows an error while trying to open a DRM-laden iTunes movie.
UltraViolet Digital Copy: In an effort to compete with streaming services like Netflix, the major studios have collaborated to support a service called UltraViolet, which serves as a digital locker for a movie library, making user’s movies viewable (on approved devices with custom software) anywhere they want. The movies themselves can be purchased any any of a number of participating online stores, including Target Ticket and Flixster. Despite the good design surrounding this platform, the actual viewing experience suffers greatly due to clunky technology and DRM. The UltraViolet digital copies that come alongside Blu-Ray movies, for example, are almost always SD, rather than HD, which to me is just unacceptable. Flixster at least allows watching on a TV via Chromecast, but that seems to be almost a fluke of opportunity rather than a designed feature. You can watch on your computer through a custom piece of software that decodes the DRM, or on your phone through a similar app, but again, it’s impossible to mix your UltraViolet collection with an existing digital video collection due to the DRM.
The store on Flixster shows prices at various UltraViolet and non-UltraViolet stores.
Cable Provider On Demand: Cable providers offer On Demand movies to their subscribers, but these platforms are even more locked down than the ones listed above, even if they offer access on TVs, phones, and computers. Not only do users need to purchase an extremely expensive cable subscription to qualify to purchase On Demand movies, but the libraries are only accessible for as long as the customer remains a cable subscriber. This is clearly not a safe or affordable way to build a movie library.
Netflix: This one doesn’t need much explanation. A limited collection of films, determined by the studios, available to stream on any device for $8 per month. This is by far the most attractive option for many people. The limited selection and lack of offline ownership is made up for by the convenience of access to Netflix’s collection. It’s a great service, but it isn’t a solution for just-released movies and offers no permanent ownership.
These are effectively the only ways to buy movies currently. Every single option is tied down in some way or another. Blu-Rays are absolutely useless outside of a living room and can’t be played on anything but a TV with an expensive player. Movies purchased through iTunes or one of the other online companies are tied down to hardware and software offered by that particular company. UltraViolet copies have similarly limited use, and like retailers, they offer lower quality experiences to end-users.
None of the current offerings come remotely close to offering the quality of experience and flexibility that currently accompanies buying music online. Every single service offers video encumbered by DRM, locking users into hardware and software options dictated by the provider.
What struck me as most surprising was that it is actually impossible to purchase a DRM-free, HD copy of a major motion picture in a standard video format, playable on all of your devices. There is no such store. Music and movies are fundamentally no different in terms of digital purchases, but the options for consumers couldn’t be any different.
Hollywood is fine with what consumers want
The surprising thing is that movie studios have shown that they will happily afford customers all of the freedoms that we ideally want from buying movies. Blu-Rays let customers view very high quality copies of films on their TVs. Digital copies on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play allow them to watch movies on their computers and mobile devices. UltraViolet lets users keep collections of movies in the cloud, watch them on generic hardware, download offline copies to keep hard libraries, and provide a way for stores to competitively sell the same formats to consumers.
The studios are selling users products that let them do all of things I’ve asked for in this article, though none of them allow users to do all of them with a single purchase, like they can with music they purchase.
No one cares?
I’m honestly surprised that so few in the tech or even mainstream press are talking about this. Obviously, it isn’t the biggest problem in the world, but there isn’t anywhere near the kind of outrage we saw when the music industry was crippling products to fight piracy. I’m somewhat disappointed, hence this article. The difference between buying a song and buying a movie is striking, and it shouldn’t be. In a world where consumers are empowered to fight against restrictive systems, it’s increasingly odd that the movie industry still has such a tight grip on their startlingly poor offerings when nearly every other consumer technology product offers a much higher level of service to customers.
The most commonly offered argument against selling DRM-free movies is piracy. The idea is that unrestricted formats would allow users to share their movies easily online. The same argument was made for music before digital downloads became DRM-free. The fact of the matter remains that pirated, HD, high-quality copies are easily available on hundreds of sites on the day movies go on sale at stores. There is no way that the situation could get worse for the studios. So now, the only option for them is to do what the music industry did, what they should have been doing all along. Instead of restricting the content further, making it harder and harder for customers to enjoy the movies they purchase, the industry needs to embrace open access and standard, DRM-free formats. The increase in convenience will deter piracy more than any technological restriction ever could. It’s been shown multipletimes that the way to combat piracy is to offer customers a higher quality product. In this case, that means allowing them to use their movies in any way they want, on any device they want, instead of forcing them into the utter mess of walled gardens and complex restrictions that is available to them now.
Hopefully consumers can effect this change through their wallets by avoiding the lackluster buying options currently available to them. The popularity of Netflix will hopefully play a role in showing the industry what it needs to do. For now, that isn’t much of a solution, but we can hope the situation will improve over time.
The Supreme Court ruled today that police need a warrant to search a suspect’s cell phone, which might be the first substantial improvement in the privacy of digital information in years.
It’s still unclear whether those protections apply to information accessed via a cell phone but stored on a private company’s servers. That doesn’t seem to be the case, which leaves the door open to the NSA’s surveillance practices.
I wrote this about a month ago, but forgot to publish it:
In the past I’ve focused the content here on highlighting projects and multimedia I created, those of others I find interesting enough to share, and for writings related to issues I think are important. Moving forward, as I have more free time this summer, I’m going to make an effort to produce more personal things. This doesn’t mean spilling out my feelings — I have Day One for that — but hopefully it will involve cogent and engaging thoughts on things that are happening in my life. I might have more time for something like this now that I’m out of school for the summer, and I’ve always wanted to do it.
Yesterday I took my last final exam of my sophomore year at Princeton. The course was COS 217, a systems programming class that teaches C and IA-32 assembly language and machine language. It’s one of the most infamous computer science classes at Princeton, and it’s the only class in the engineering school to have never changed course number (it was part of the electrical engineering department back before Princeton had a separate department for computer science). The assignments for the class, which take well upwards of 15–20 hours each, are dreaded by students, as mastering manual, dynamic memory management, command line GDB debugging, and eventually writing assembly programs by hand is a tall order for underclass programmers whose only previous experience in a real programming language was in Java (the language used by the popular intro-level and algorithms courses). That said, I found each of them to be a nice challenge. I was surely worried about being able to finish them, sometimes, but I’m really glad I took the course.
My other finals were for my semiconductor devices ELE class, a history-like course on technology and society, and a differential equations class (ugh). I also took a developmental psychology course for a distribution requirement.
Looking forward, I’ll be starting work as a Product Development Engineering Intern at Comcast this week. I’m really excited to finally get to develop in a professional setting. Hopefully more updates to come.
Office 365 University is the best deal in software
I’m absolutely blown away by Microsoft’s University pricing option for Office. Here’s what it is.
You need a .edu email address to qualify. It costs a single $79.99 fee, and for that you get the following for four years:
You get full versions of most of the Microsoft Office suite — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access. With the first four, you’ve already met the office productivity needs of virtually everyone working outside of an enterprise setting. On top of that, you get the latest updates to those programs for the full four years. If Microsoft releases Office 2015 next year, you’ll get those updates for free. You can also download on-demand versions of Office programs on any computer with an internet connection that let you use the full functionality of Office on computers that you don’t own. The Office Web Apps also provide a decent subset of this functionality.
Let’s stop here for a second and consider the value. Office is one of the most essential pieces of software for anyone. There are alternatives, of course. LibreOffice/OpenOffice are decent substitutes for people who don’t mind the lackluster interfaces. Google Drive provides alternatives for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint that are pretty good, but editing with them is harder than using Office and their feature set is limited. I’ve tried to replace Office for years and have always failed in the end. I, and most people in the world, would be willing to pay hundreds for Office alone.
But we’re just getting started.
For the last few years, Office has been tied pretty tightly to OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), Microsoft’s Dropbox alternative that supports file backup and mirroring across devices, cloud access, and collaborative online editing. The collaborative part isn’t nearly as seamless as Google Drive, but it does work well. And you can always pop over to Google Drive for your collaborative documents.
Up until this month, Office 365 University customers were allowed 20GB extra storage space on OneDrive, up from the 7GB given to free users. That was already a lot of space, but now that total has been increased to a 1TB. Most Office 365 plans will now come with 1TB of OneDrive space for the duration of the subscription. Just think about that. What was once $80 for four years of Microsoft Office now gets you 1TB of cloud storage for whatever you’d like for that time as well. There isn’t a cloud storage company on earth that currently comes close to that price with the access speeds and feature set that OneDrive has.
Some other odds and ends: you get 60 Skype world minutes per month to 60+ countries; tech support is free; and Office programs can be installed on 2 computers (and used on others via Office On Demand and Office Web Apps).
I bought Office 365 University back in December, and I’ve always thought it was a great value. I hate paying for software, so I always try to use alternatives, but Office was one that I always kept coming back to. I hate software subscriptions even more. But $80 for 4 years of use and free updates is absolutely a great deal for one of the most popular pieces of software in the world. In the software world, it’s way out of the norm. Adobe Creative Suite used to cost on the order of $5000, and now Creative Cloud costs $50 per month. Sublime Text costs $70 for a single license, if you want to get it out of shareware mode. The idea of getting a software suite this large for about 60¢ per month is fantastic. The idea of getting that and what amounts to a terabyte Dropbox folder is absolutely astonishing.
And that’s why Office 365 University is the best deal in software.
The Swat team that burst into the Phonesavanh’s room looking for a drug dealer had deployed a tactic commonly used by the US military in warzones, and increasingly by domestic police forces across the US. They threw an explosive device called a flashbang that is designed to distract and temporarily blind suspects to allow officers to overpower and detain them. The device had landed in Bou Bou’s cot and detonated in the baby’s face.
‘My son is clinging to life. He’s hurting and there’s nothing I can do to help him,’ Phonesavanh said. ‘It breaks you, it breaks your spirit.’
How to install all of your programs on a new Ubuntu machine
A while back I used Ubuntu as my primary operating system, and I found myself needing to re-install Ubuntu quite often, whenever I’d muck something up. This trick saved me quite a lot of troubles back then, and it still works, but it’s fairly difficult to parse a good solution from the various forum posts floating around out there. So, here is what I used to do to completely restore my Ubuntu installation when re-installing.
To get a list of all currently installed packages:
$ dpkg --get-selections > packages.list
To restore all of those packages on a fresh system:
Note: Make sure any custom PPAs you’ve added are added first. APT can’t grab your packages if it can’t find them.
After this, all of those packages will be installed on the new machine. To configure them the same way they were on the old machine, copy your old home folder over to your new system. Any applications you installed outside of a package manager will have to be copied from /opt or wherever they were installed manually.
"Fiscal responsibility" always confuses me. There is immense opposition from Republicans to creating a minimum wage that automatically rises with inflation, which would prevent absurdly low minimum wages like we have now from happening in the future. But those same people are absolutely opposed to switching Social Security over to the more accurate but less lucrative chained CPI. So much so that they forced Obama to drop that change, long advocated by economists, from his budget. Why is it okay to give Social Security beneficiaries protection from inflation that’s too strong, while ensuring that every day a minimum wage worker has a job, they continually get paid less and less.
I get that raising minimum wage might cause a loss in the number of jobs. But the people who still have their jobs, and are being paid more, will do things with that money. They’ll buy stuff, and that consumption will need to be met, probably by creating jobs in the companies they buy things from. The money doesn’t just disappear.
The only possible reason is either mass delusion or a real hatred of the poor. And that’s not okay.
Foreign students — typically well-off ones — have become another group that college admissions offices have decided should be well represented in every freshman class, along with “legacy” applicants (the children of alumni), varsity athletes and underrepresented minorities. A large fraction of these groups comes from high-income families. And all of them, along now with students from around the world, are a higher priority for colleges than poor students.
Low-income applicants are left to compete for the remaining slots with applicants who have the highest test scores, most impressive extracurricular activities and most eloquent essays.
“That’s it. That’s the whole mistake. The wrong words. The entire American internet experience is now at risk of turning into a walled garden of corporate control because the FCC chickened out and picked the wrong words in 2002, and the court called them on it twice over.”—How the FCC Lost Net Neutrality and Could Kill the Internet, The Verge
“The Attorney General hereby is delegated the power to approve the use for intelligence purposes, within the United States or against a United States person abroad, of any technique for which a warrant would be required.”—
The implications of such a decision would be profound. Web and mobile companies will live or die not on the merits of their technology and design, but on the deals they can strike with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others who could otherwise ‘shakedown’ startups and established companies in every sector, requiring payment for reliable service.
This doesn’t bode well. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.