The year of the Linux desktop (not)

There is an old joke in computer science that “This is the year of the Linux desktop.” It’s a joke because every year people say that, and every year there is a colossal fail in delivering a usable desktop. This is July 2018, about 15 years after I first heard this is the year of the Linux Desktop by default. I just installed Ubuntu on a Thinkpad X1 Carbon, and this is the welcome screen when you boot it up.

There are several things wrong with this:

  1. The splash screen is underlying the icons on the left. Clearly a horse designed by a committee of bumbling idiots.
  2. The UI is still the widely despised Unity desktop. If I had wanted a Mac, I would have overpaid for a Mac and gotten the real thing.
  3. The installation procedure is a voyage to hell. It took me about 6 tries to get a workable install.

The bottom line is that I still prefer it to Windows 10, which just feels like a mess. Now I will hear from my nerd friends saying that “But debian is the thing”, or “You should have installed Fedora”, but they all have warts. The only thing that saves the ass of Linux is that you can customize it to whatever you want – if you have enough patience. When I worked at Google we had relatively stable and usable installations of Linux, but that’s because the corporation supported a team of people to build and maintain them. Once I get Linux to stop looking like the ugly stepsister I’m sure it will be fine.

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Democrats may have found a new way to lose

When the Hillary Clinton email story broke, I predicted at the time that it would lead to her downfall. In the end I think it was a variety of factors, but that was the one that she couldn’t bring herself to shake. Now I think the democratic party has found the issue that may result in losing the congressional elections, and it’s illegal immigration.

A lot of it has to do with language. When immigrant advocates rejected the term “illegal immigration” and tried to replace it with the phrase “undocumented”, I could already smell trouble. I accept the argument that we shouldn’t call people illegal, but the fact of the matter is that crossing the border without legal authorization is a crime, and that act is illegal. You could argue that it’s not a serious crime, and you could argue that they are only pursuing the last resort because the legal way is infeasible. You could also argue that the US is too restrictive on the number of immigrants allowed into the country, or that it’s discriminatory. Those are discussions that we should have. Gallup has been running a poll for many years that shows strong support for legal immigration, and the number of people who support it has been growing under the Trump administration. Another study from the Pew center shows that there is a growing political divide over legal immigration. On the other hand, there is almost no evidence that the majority is in support of illegal immigration.

The recent separation of children from people who crossed the border illegally is of course gut-wrenching, but the old policy of releasing people into the US pending a hearing wasn’t working very well. Politifact wrote a story saying that 60-75% of them show up for their hearing, with perhaps a higher percentage for those seeking asylum. That’s red meat to the people who want to clamp down on illegal immigration. There are about 300-400 thousand people each year who enter the country illegally and stay. That doesn’t sound like a huge number to me, although it’s maybe 3-4% of the total population now. I find it annoying that so many who slip through while others queue up for legal immigration and end up being denied.  There are currently over 600 thousand people from India – in the categories with college degrees – waiting for green cards to be approved.

Much of the discussion now is over people from central America with asylum applications, which are a different category from people who want to simply improve their lives. It still raises the question of what constitutes grounds for asylum – does gang violence count even if the applicant was not a direct victim? Does domestic abuse count? Under the current administration the number of refugee admissions has been cut dramatically, and the grounds have been dramatically narrowed. This sounds unacceptable to me. On the other hand, crossing the border illegally places them on weak moral foundation for an asylum claim.

There are numerous arguments in favor of immigration, based on humanitarian grounds and based on economic grounds. When fashioning an immigration policy, it should seek to balance all of the different arguments. While the US is a large country that can absorb many immigrants, it’s not clear how many should be allowed to enter, and it’s not clear how they should be chosen. in 2017, 1.13 million people were granted permanent residence status, and legal first-generation immigrants now make up 14% of the US population. The USA has a higher percentage of immigrants than Russia, Italy, France, and the UK, but lower than Canada’s (which is apparently 22%). The USA has the largest number of immigrants of any country in the world – are we arguing that it should be more? What’s the argument in favor of this? I’ve never been a fan of the US thinking we can unilaterally solve all the problems of the rest of the world. That’s the kind of thinking that got us into the Vietnam war.

I hope that the democratic party doesn’t get distracted and try to defend illegal immigration, because that is a losing cause. There is strong support for continued immigration, and it’s a reasonable discussion to have about how much. Once we set those limits, let’s at least adhere to the rule of law, or else the swing states will swing against the democratic party. There goes the supreme court when Ginsburg retires. There goes health care. There goes freedom of religion. There goes the tax system. There goes any semblance of a safety net in the US. There goes our economy. Let’s just implement an immigration system with compassion and fairness, but keep our eye on the ball. Open borders is a losing cause.

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Google never clear on the concept of privacy

Over the years it became more and more clear to me that Google had redefined themselves as a company based on the surveillance economy. That was not true when I joined in 2005, but gradually became true as they tried to compete against Facebook in advertising. Advertisers covet demographic information, so they don’t show a BMW ad to a poor person and they don’t show an incontinence ad to a young person. Unfortunately Google has turned into a pathetic persistent privacy invader as a result. If you go to when you are not signed in, you see this notice:

Of course, if you click on the “START CHECKUP” button, it presents you with a notice to sign in:

This is of course oxymoronic – why the hell would you sign in to give them a cryptographically certified trail of your identity if you care about privacy? Their whole business model is based on assembling a detailed dossier connected to your login. Signing in is exactly the opposite of what you should do if you care at all about privacy.

This is one reason why I decided to forego working on cryptography during my years at Google – the primary purpose for cryptography at Google is to secure their business model based on surveillance.

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Another Alexa failure

Today I was speaking to my wife about a listing in a book “Weird California”. I read a section that said it was “near 405 and LAX”, which caused alexa to think we were talking to it. The weird part is that it responded with “it sounds like you are interested in flatulence”. I can guarantee that at no point did we say “flatulence” that day.

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A previous version of twitter

I think license plate frames were the predecessor to twitter; short witticisms that are designed to make you smile. Over time I’ve come to appreciate this line from a Joe Walsh song. The title of the song (and the next line in the chorus) is “Life’s been good to me so far.”

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California election idiocy

If you are a registered voter in California, then you have probably already received your voter pamphlet containing arguments for and against the propositions, as well as statements from candidates for statewide offices. This year’s book is particularly ridiculous, with clear cut nut cases running for office. Not just people whose views are out of the mainstream – but people who are somehow emboldened enough to embarrass themselves in an election. Some of them may have been inspired by the fact that the US recently elected a minor TV celebrity as President. Here are some samples:

John “Jack” Crew | REPUBLICAN.

This guy’s complete statement is “Atrocity of abortion-on-demand must end”. I could sort of understand someone being against abortion, but is that really the only thing that makes you want to be a senator from the state of California? What are you going to do there – just mouth the same words over and over again?


No shit. No party would want this wingnut in their party.

His platform says:Run for God’s Heart and America’s Freedom, Challenge 2016 U.S. Presidential Election results: 2016 U.S. Presidential Election should be nullifed by the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. should re-hold 45th U.S. Presidential Election; Challenge 10 giant chaos in U.S. Economy and Economy-Related sectors.

Kevin Mottus |REPUBLICAN

This guy’s candidate statement focuses almost exclusively on “the new 5G wireless technology and Internet of Things”. His big concern seems to be that there will be too many towers emitting wireless microwave signals. Does he even have a clue what it means to be a senator???

And then there are the candidates for Governor, starting with:


His total candidate statement is a hashtag: #cesp5. I am not making this up. Here is his candidate photo: 

I’m guessing that he just graduated from High School on the basis of this photo.

Christopher N. Carlson |GREEN

His candidate statement is:
“Teach your children calculus And keep the planet safe Or feathered stones and empty bowls Will also be their fate”


Finally, we have:

Johnny Wattenburg |NO PARTY PREFERENCE

His complete candidate statement is: “Why not!”. Not a question mark, but an exclamation point. Why the fuck not indeed?

You can’t make this shit up. It’s on the California voter guide site. Some people will chalk this up to California being the land of fruits and nuts. That’s undoubtedly part of it. There are some credible candidates in the mix, but there are also some nutcases who manage to get through the system. I’m glad that parties don’t control everything, but I’m hoping that Californians aren’t as stupid as the US at large to elect some nut case to higher office.

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Privacy is hard if you hunger for data

After I left Google I started looking into Mycroft, which is an open source alternative to Amazon Alexa or Google Home but promises to provide better privacy. Unfortunately, that concept of privacy seems to be elusive to the company behind Mycroft. Not only did they send out a survey using a third party with a poor privacy reputation, but the apology for that survey was posted on the Mycroft blog, which has multiple tracking technologies that are blocked by ghostery, including ones from Google, Pinterest, and Facebook.

The usual response to such things is “but but but … so convenient for users!” or “but but but how can we track our users?” This is apparently the world we live in – even companies that apparently want to provide a better privacy story are unable or unwilling to confront what that means. The reputation of your company is only as good as the reputation of your partners.

Coincidentally, Google today sent out a reminder that sites using Google Analytics must review their data retention settings to comply with GDPR by May 25th. They attempt to make a distinction between a User-ID and an Android Advertising ID (which is unique to each phone).  In case you are unaware, the latter is a random ID that may be reset by the user, but it’s sufficiently well hidden that 99.9% of users will never find it. It is readable by all apps on an Android phone. This kind of skullduggery is a big part of the reason why I decided to leave Google.

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Screw you Embassy Suites

Now I know never to stay in an Embassy Suites again.

I regularly use a different email address for every company that asks for one. At some point in the past I used a specialized email address for embassy suites, and sure enough this week I received an email to that address from a company called travelpass group. This is proof that Embassy Suites has given them my email address, which puts Embassy Suites solidly in the camp of companies that use spam to try and sell things. If you search for this company with your favorite search engine, it turns up a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission against them (and their aliases).

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RSA conference: not clear on the concept

I’ve been amused by the fact that the RSA conference uses a badge that has NFC in it, so that when you visit a vendor booth, they can scan the badge and read information on it. When I read the badge with the NFC on my phone, it showed an opaque blob that was evidently encrypted (or encoded obscurely). I guess that means that RSA doesn’t want YOU to know what is on your badge, but wants their vendors to know. Last year I started a tradition to repeatedly bend the badge and break the RFID tag inside the badge so it is no longer readable (it seemed to be tougher to crack this year). Then I put an NFC tag behind the badge that contains only the URL to Of course the vendors are all expecting to see an encrypted blob on it, so they don’t get the joke. I do it for my own amusement.

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On cloud APIs

Cloud APIs are like fair-weather friends. They work as long as it is convenient to do so, and they get to set the terms of the friendship. Today I received a notice from Google that the “free” maps API would no longer be free, but would instead require you to provide a credit card, in return for which they would give you a “free” tier of usage. I guess if you go over your limit, then you will pay for the usage. Fair enough, but it requires you to do your own rate limiting. As an alternative they could stop serving your clients and send a warning when you go over your limit, but that might allow you to escape the first month of over-charges.

I find it easier to just reduce my dependencies, so I removed the maps from They weren’t necessary anyway.

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