Oct 21, 2016

Traitorous Technology

Last month, on the same day, several HP printers suddenly stopped accepting 3rd-party ink cartridges.

The cause was more sinister than you might think, and raises the question: What happens when built-in firmware makes your devices work for their manufacturers first, and for you second?

Oct 17, 2016

Giving Public Comments to the SECU

Picture courtesy of OpenMedia
Today I was lucky to be able to attend a public consultation by The Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, a multi-partisan parliamentary committee tasked with examining Canada's national security apparatuses, and related issues such as oversight. I prepared a short spiel on encryption which, I hoped, would pack as much rhetorical punch as possible into about four minutes. It was enthusiastically received by the public in attendance and by several members of the committee, who provided thoughtful feedback and asked follow-up questions. 

It feels utterly fantastic to have made what I know is a big, positive impact on our country today, and it's a feeling that I know is only going to make me thirst for more. Here's the pre-written version of what I had to say:

My name is Jesse Schooff. I’m a blogger, and I volunteer with OpenMedia. I’ve also worked the IT Manager of a small company for the last decade.

I’m here today because I’m troubled by many aspects of The Anti-terrorism Act of 2015, also colloquially called C51. I’m troubled by the extraordinary powers given to law enforcement. I’m troubled by the implications for Canadian privacy. I’m very troubled by the lack of oversight compared to some of our democratic neighbours. I am extremely troubled by the idea that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – one of the most sacred embodiments of Canadian values – could be sidestepped, even if it is for non-Canadians under the most extraordinary circumstances.

But the main reason I’m here speaking is because, as an IT Professional, I’m concerned, – nay – I am terrified at language of a question in the Online Canadian Security Consultation. I quote:
“How can law enforcement and national security agencies reduce the effectiveness of encryption for individuals and organizations involved in crime or threats to the security of Canada, yet not limit the beneficial uses of encryption by those not involved in illegal activities?”
The short answer is: you can’t.

The long answer would require much more time than would be polite for me to take. But I can explain by way of analogy. A few years ago, the Transportation Security Administration in the United States decided that they needed to be able to open luggage at will, without cutting off – and thus destroying – travellers’ luggage locks. So the TSA went to lock and luggage manufacturers and worked with them to create a TSA Master Key, which could open any luggage lock.

But it wasn’t long before someone created a 3D-printable model of the TSA Master Key, that could be downloaded and printed, allowing anyone – including criminals – to open any “TSA-approved” lock.

When we talk about “weakening encryption” or “creating a backdoor that only the good guys can access”, what we’re really talking about is deliberately putting bugs into our software. And any IT security expert will tell you that when there’s a bug in software  hackers will work hard to find that bug, and exploit it.

Encryption is not just a feature which makes it safe to use our credit card on eBay, or keep our racy instant messages private. Encryption keeps our data infrastructure safe from hackers, criminals, and yes, even terrorists. Encryption is the brick and mortar that allows enterprise IT to exist. If government weakens or backdoors encryption, I can say, without hyperbole, that we put the entirety of all our technology infrastructure at serious risk.

Thank you for your time.

DON'T Call Me "Ginger"

So today, after being called at on the street by a stranger, I've finally hit my breaking point on the word "ginger".

I have typically been quite hesitant to write about my experiences as a redhead. The biggest reason is because, as a normative-presenting white male, I've lived a life of extraordinary privilege. I feared that discussing a subject which, almost necessarily, might use some of the modern language we employ to discuss prejudice and even oppression, would not only be inappropriate and disrespectful to many groups (who suffer much worse and more frequent injustices) but also wouldn't be received well by my peers, many of whom keenly follow issues of social justice.

That said, one of the things I've been working on lately is finding my own voice, and not feeling like my aforementioned privilege is a reason I shouldn't stand up for myself when I feel I'm being wronged. What follows is my experience, from my shoes as someone with red hair. I don't presume to compare my experience to that of anyone from a different marginalized group, though I would argue that my experience does inform my sense of empathy on certain matters.

With that baggage stowed, let's begin.

All throughout public school, K-12, there was a good chance that I was one of between two-to-five kids at my entire school with red hair. It is, and remains, a pretty uncommon feature, especially in a more multicultural society (ie: one not entirely composed of European-descended persons). Red hair is visible at a fair distance, and as such, growing up red-headed is like having a target marker for bullies painted on the pack of your head. I was bullied, frequently, often by older kids who I didn't know, who had no grievance with me other than I was easy to pick out in a crowd. Everything that follows in my identity as a redhead is informed by that abuse, so if you're here to call me oversensitive, I politely suggest you keep that to yourself.

It's worth mentioning that "oversensitivity" is one of those negative redhead tropes that I've perennially been accused of. Even my own mother would try (unsuccessfully, I might add) to calm my tantrums by chortling sidelong to bystanders that it was my redhead's temper at work.

But oversensitivity is just one rose in the shitty bouquet of assumptions people make about redheads.

Just ask popular culture. We're devious and ruled by our sexual desires. If you asked Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park, they'd tell you that we're creepy and have no souls. Redhead men are often portrayed as either dopey and weak or as borderline sociopaths. Redhead women, meanwhile, are often smouldering sex kittens – a portrayal which, in a culture of sexual assault, is incredibly harmful.

I'm glad that Game of Thrones brings us the flowery descriptor "kissed by fire", and strong, principled, characters such as Sansa Stark, Ygritte, and the incomparable (and sexy) Tormund Giantsbane. But the show also brings us the Red Priestess Melissandre, whose multitude of horrible and callous sins is surmounted only by the frequency with which she takes off her robe, as well as the ill-fated prostitute Roz.

To break with my formal language for a moment, I must digress: I fucking hate the term "ginger". Not only do I hate being called a ginger, but the term itself makes no sense. Most ginger root is pale yellow, the flowers are often red. Is it about being "spicy" somehow? I can only assume that the term is quite old and dates from a period where some languages didn't have a word for the colour orange. It's a nonsensical term that's due for retirement, but has unfortunately enjoyed a resurgence thanks in part to South Park.

I know that this blog will get some pushback; Again, mostly from people who will play the oversensitivity card. To them, I counter thus: when red-haired kids are no longer regularly beaten bloody by their peers for having red hair, in part because some people think it's funny to celebrate Kick a Ginger Day, then you can tell me my complaints are oversensitive. Bullying leaves you scarred for life, and we won't build a better, healthier society by encouraging it, under any guise.

I'll wrap up here and let the commenters on Facebook have their say. But I'd like to go out with a quote by one of my favourite Star Trek characters, B'Elanna Torres:
"When the people around you are all one way and you're not, you can't help feeling like there's something wrong with you."
I realize that I'm on somewhat shaky ground here, since B'Elanna was talking about race in this scene (or more precisely, species, as a half-Human/Klingon). I nevertheless feel that the sentiment is portable, especially when we're talking about the intrinsic way someone was born, or a way that they immutably are. People feel it necessary to remind me that I'm a little bit different than they are on a quite regular basis. I'm okay with the compliments, but I could do with less of the presumptions. They build up over time and make me feel, as B'Elanna says, that something is wrong with me. There isn't.

This article is about my experiences, my self-worth, and my comfort. It is something I needed to say, and I will remain glad that I said it.

ADDENDUM: My friend Eva (also a redhead) provided a much-needed dose of levity by linking me this performance by English-Australian comedian Tim Minchin, who says everything I need to say, only funny.

Aug 22, 2016

Parenting Alongside Technology

My latest blog for OpenMedia.org is the culmination of lots of research, several interviews, and a week of furious writing. I interviewed the parents of four families to find out how they navigate the difficult and complicated matter of parenting alongside modern technologies like video games, snapchat, Facebook, and YouTube. From the article:
One of many topics that the OpenMedia community regularly requests information on is the intersection of parenting and technology. How do I keep my kids safe online? How do I talk to my kids about the Internet? What kinds of rules and boundaries should I set? It’s a doozy of a subject: broad, with lots of complexity, and many subtleties. Furthermore, when many of today’s parents were young, the Internet was young too, so parents often don’t even have a personal frame of reference to gauge if they’re doing an okay job.

Special thanks go to my friend Kurtis Findlay for providing the adorable portraits.

Aug 21, 2016

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson - What I Loved and What I Hated

So as the title implies, I just finished a fairly rapid read of Seveneves, prompted by Adam Savage mentioning it in one of Tested's videos. I cut my teeth on Anathem, which I found brilliantly unique and quite challenging. I also read Snow Crash earlier this year.

Let me say first and foremost that, for the most part, I found parts one and two to be brilliant.  I'm utterly in love. The premise of Human civilization counting down the days to their inevitable death is haunting. Equally engaging is Stephenson's Apollo 13-esque setup of taking all the spacecraft and technologies available to Humans currently (or perhaps a few years from now), throwing them on a table and essentially pronouncing to himself: "We have to keep the Human race alive for 5000 years in space with everything on this table." Through his characters and story, we can Stephenson himself working through this problem, and its fascinating to watch.

From my standpoint though, there are a number of problems with the book. Let me say unequivocally that I wouldn't be sitting here airing them if I felt "meh" about this story. It is an AMAZING story, there are so many places where I'm in awe of Stephenson's imagination and storytelling; which is why it's so irksome that certain problems stick out like sore thumbs for me. So I need to have a little rant about those things.


Aug 18, 2016

Blocking Ad-Blockers: The War for Our Attention Span

My latest blog at OpenMedia.org uses the freshly-declared war between Facebook and AdBlock Plus as a framework for the discussion of ad-blocking software: and why its necessary to protect our privacy, our computer security, and frankly, our sanity!

"Ad-blockers are programs which do pretty much what you’d expect: they scan content loading into your web browser and block any elements which look like – or are known to be – advertisements. For those of us who use ad-blockers, they’re a godsend. It’s no secret that throughout our daily lives, online and offline, we are continually bombarded by every manner of advertising. Transit ads, billboards, TV commercials, radio jingles, street posters, spam email… just to name a few. When it comes to the web browser, though, advertisers have taken their already-potent methods and weaponized them."

Read the full article at OpenMedia.org...

Jul 24, 2016

Ensemble… and Trumpets

Sometimes, in a quiet moment, I’ll try to deconstruct all the influences which helped to form my socio-political views on how society should endeavour to function. My mother’s progressive outlook during the Mulroney years was one of those influences. Star Trek was a huge one - the United Federation of Planets permanently cementing into my mind the ideals of a sharing, multicultural, pluralistic, civil society. The friends I have had growing up, and continuing into adulthood, both in terms of their own political outlooks and their diverse natures. But there is one thing that, only recently, I have realized had a huge influence, one that you might not expect.

Band class.

From grade 8 onwards, I was a band geek. Tuba at first, and later trombone as well. Concert and jazz bands defined my social circle during high school. I have fond memories of band trips to various not-so-far-away places. After graduation I stuck around for an extra year, just to be in band and really figure out what I wanted to do. In the end, I chose to attend college and university for the bachelor of music program. All together, that’s almost a full decade of my life where I was regularly part of a large music ensemble.

What kind of impression has that left?

When you’re playing in a large ensemble - like a concert band - there is no room for ego. Oh sure, occasionally a piece of music will have a lovely solo melody for a particular instrument, but for the most part, the ensemble is a single organism. You give yourself over to service a larger entity, almost as if you become an organ (obviously, that would be the biological kind, not the musical). You learn to sense things like tuning, timing, dynamic blending. You learn to help keep the greater whole in balance.

Anyone who has listened to a world-class symphony orchestra knows the ultimate manifestation of ensemble. Symphonic music is unequivocally unlike any other aural experience humans have produced. It is music that is intensely moving. It can be powerful or delicate, with an enormous dynamic range. But perhaps what is most amazing about symphonic music is that it’s made up of around a hundred individual musicians acting, literally, in concert - in perfect harmony, to bring to life a piece of music conceived in the mind of a single person.

That, to me, borders on magical.

And that’s why harmony, ensemble, is such an essential approach to how I interact with the world around me.

When I, in my very Canadian way, hold the door for someone a couple of steps behind me, they benefit, and may in turn hold the door for the next person. Perhaps next time they’ll hold the door for me. Sometimes we don’t make eye contact, or say thanks. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that we moved in unison, we harmonized. And through that harmony of movement, people continually benefit. My approach is the same on a crowded train or bus. Be mindful of my surroundings, move when someone needs to get up, or get to the door. We learn to move in harmony, and over time, everyone benefits. We coexist peacefully, and we reinforce eachother.

When someone releases a door early to let it swing back in my face, or bang against my anticipating, outstretched palm, well, it’s not the end of the world. But I am nonetheless annoyed on a fundamental level. It feels like someone in the clarinet section came in too early, or too late, or with an awkward HONK. We’re all going to try to keep playing together, but you’re going to get an annoyed sideways glance.

Some may think I’m arguing for authoritarianism, or uniformity. That’s not possible in an ensemble. I mean, for practical purposes, a conductor is usually the boss - either a professional superior or a teacher. On the podium though, even a conductor has to move with their orchestra. A conductor doesn’t always maintain perfect control, they too must make adjustments based on what the ensemble is doing. A conductor would like you (either the musicians or the audience) to think that they make the rules, but at the end of the day, the composer of the music makes the rules, and the conductor makes very strong suggestions.

As for uniformity, that’s not possible because the instruments of an orchestra are intrinsically different. A flute, for example, will never be able to play as loudly as a clarinet, and neither will ever be as loud as a trumpet. But a flute can play a melody more sweetly, if the rest of the music is quiet enough for the audience to hear that flute.

When you’re in a high school band, one of the many strong suggestions that the teacher-conductor gives their students is for the brass to quiet down a bit. “There’s a woodwind melody here kids, and I can’t hear them. You trumpets are just harmonizing during this part, so pianissimo, please.”

It becomes necessary to give this particular suggestion quite strongly, and quite often, for several reasons. Reason one is that it’s easy to play loudly on brass (and somewhat harder to play very quietly). Reason two is that it’s fun to play brass loudly. Reason three is because those loud trumpets are usually being played by equally loud, straight, teenage boys who give exactly zero fucks whether or not anyone can hear the woodwinds.

Maybe you’re starting to see where I’m going with this.

There are plenty of nice trumpet players out there, I know several. In high school though, and in early college, there are also lots of - shall we say - “trumpet bros”, who are devotees of the mantra, “MORE BRASS! LOUDER BRASS!” The truly successful brass players, the ones who make it to more prestigious music schools (like universities), they are the soft-spoken types. They understood the importance of playing quietly. The importance of ensemble.

I will concede: sometimes rules need to be broken. Sometimes you need to step out and take decisive action for the greater good. But that greater good is the ensemble: you should not be taking such action out of selfishness. Nonetheless, everywhere I look, players break the harmony for selfish reasons. People block sidewalks, bus corridors, and hallways so that they can chat with their friends. They take dangerous risks on the road so that they can get where they’re going very slightly quicker. They cut into lines. They talk about what’s best for minority groups, despite not being a member of those groups. They don’t care about you, they don’t see you, and they don’t hear the ensemble. All they perceive are obstacles to finishing their trumpet solos.

Ooh, how this infuriates me.

A soloist trumpet might think that they can ignore the ensemble. Maybe an Ayn Rand quote is circulating in the back of their skull telling them to just reach for that next justifiably-selfish objective. Bullshit. We’re all a part of the community around us whether we like it or not. We’re a part of a civil society and our planet and we depend on both to survive. No one is an island (unless they live on an actual deserted island).

Occasionally, in that high school band, our teacher would be forced to ask a trumpet player to leave. Between his blastissimo dynamics and his incessantly interrupting jocularity with his fellow brass-bros in the back row, he became disruptive to the ensemble as a whole, and needed to be ejected until he could learn to behave himself. The same goes for our larger lives outside of bands or symphonies: occasionally, someone needs to be given a time-out until they can learn to interact with the world and communities around them in a constructive manner.

A brash trumpet must learn the importance of ensemble.

And if they can’t, please don’t try to promote them to conductor.

trumpet image courtesy of wikimedia commons

Jul 15, 2016

The Parable of the West-Rose Bakers

Author's Note: I was frustrated, so I wrote a thing. It may be a euphemism for real life frustrations.

Once upon a time there was a bakery: West-Rose Bakers. This bakery made the most delicious bread you could ever imagine: a round, old-style, poppyseed sourdough, baked in traditional wood-fired ovens. The crust was just the right amount of crispy, the insides were soft and tasty, and cracking open a fresh-baked loaf produced such a maddeningly-yummy smell that no mouth could resist watering.

The bakers that made the bread didn’t have a store: rather, they operated in a small warehouse. To sell their bread, they partnered with a grocery-delivery business, FoodTube, which brought groceries to customers’ homes by truck.

The problem was that, to get West-Rose bread delivered to their homes, customers needed to meet a “minimum order” with FoodTube, which meant buying a lot of other things those customers didn’t necessarily want or need. The fruits and vegetables FoodTube provided weren’t the freshest, nor were the meats and fish. Nevertheless, the delivery company turned a great profit, because they knew that the only way for the customers to get West-Rose Bakers was through their grocery delivery.

May 27, 2016

Digital Deadbolts Part 2: How to Protect your Security and Privacy Online

Hello readers! This is the first article in a series of articles I'm doing in collaboration with digital-issues advocacy group OpenMedia. You can also read this article on their website. Enjoy!

Last week, I talked about some different methods that you can and should use to protect your privacy and security online. 

One of the key takeaways from that discussion is that each of you  need to assess your own specific security requirements. A good deadbolt will stop most people from entering your home without your consent, but it won’t stop a skilled individual with a set of lockpicks, and it certainly won’t stop a battering ram. Likewise, the tools I discussed last week will protect most of us from most threats we face online, but they won’t necessarily stop sophisticated hackers with sophisticated tools. 

Most of the time, you don’t need to worry about sophisticated attacks. Higher profile targets are people like journalists, dissidents, and political activists, who are less able to count on their data being safe, or their communications being private. 

While investigating the Panama Papers, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists knew that they couldn’t take any chances with their digital security. There are a number of groups that would be interested in compromising that investigation, including powerful politicians, big business, and criminals. Such parties are formidable adversaries, and may have the ability to hack into email servers, or demand e-mail content from service providers via warrant. 

So even with basic digital diligence, not everyone will  be able to fend off hackers. In such cases, we need to go the extra mile with digital security practices. Once again, let’s dig in.