A Sanguine Neurastheniac

Entries categorized as ‘Geekery’

Changing Modalities of Work Is The New Work; or, Linux Mint Talked Me Down Off A Ledge

July 22, 2014 · Leave a Comment

“It became work just to refresh and relearn my tools enough to work.”

Amarok 1.4

This is Amarok 1.4, a music application that turns me into Archie Bunker.

Huh, it’s been a while since I marked this bloggy territory. Oh well.

Anywho, those who have seen my computer desktops, or even had the misfortune to inquire about them, have been treated to an earful about how “they’re gonna have to pry Natty Narwhal out of my cold, dead hands!”

(Translation: “I run a particular version of a Linux desktop that was released in two-thousand-freakin’-eleven and refuse to give it up for you kids and your fancy tablet-style touchy-feely huge icon crap, dagnabbit!”)

Listen, I know I’m quickly becoming a greybeard, but now that I’m old and cynical, I can at least explain how it happens.

But first, the TL;DR, which is that I finally dumped Linux Mint onto a laptop. You know what? I’m not miserable. I’m not even annoyed. So for those of you who pine for the days of Pine and, erm, nom(?) for the days of pre-Unity Gnome, I’m here to tell you that the Cinnamon window manager, out of the box, feels just fine. Give it a spin.

And now, on to the long-form rant.

There was a time, oh those halcyon days, when Target sold womens’ pants with dignified and usable pockets, and I had tweaked my Gnome desktop to perfection. In my younger years, I had hours to lavish on deeply-buried config files and 2-character flags. Computing-wise, I grew up with Gnome. Heck, I grew up with Linux. I come from a time when you had to install Red Hat from a stack of floppies and the whole operation was an act of faith and bravado. In the words of Grandpa Simpson, “I used to be with it, but then they changed what *it* was. Now what I’m with isn’t *it*, and what’s *it* seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you.” So Gnome was fancy like a freakin’ geodesic dome! So many things to right-click! So many files to delve into! So many annoyances to banish and productivity enhancements to enjoy.

Those days are gone. I’ve become the owner/operator of a toddler and a couple of houses. Right now, as I write this, I’m trading, like, a shower for the time required to type. What really harshed my mellow is that whenever I updated a tool–not just a desktop computer, but a phone app, or the phone itself, or even my stupid refrigerator which nannies me such that I can’t dispense water if I open the door–I was forced also to update the way I worked with the tool. It become work just to refresh and relearn my tools enough to work.

Folks, this doesn’t happen with hammers. Nor paper books, 12″ vinyl. Nor circular saws, drill presses, vintage sewing machines. Even new sewing machines mostly work like the old ones, they just give you the option to press buttons for fancy stuff. Is it any wonder I retreated into the world of handcraft and the analog side of life for the better part of year?

(Oh right, I forgot to mention, I kind of went on sabbatical for a year. I made furniture and clothes and even a bare-bones Etsy store whose listings are expiring. It was cool.)

As well as being a grumpy Unity-hating greybeard, I’m also an Amarok 1.4 apologist, meaning I LOVE LOVE LOVE an ancient version of a music-playback application. This GUI was just perfect. Compact, intuitive, powerful. Then they wrecked it by making it chunky and clever. And you know what, developers? I get it. You want to make your programs run beautifully, and you want a new version to make a visual impact so that users will at least notice the shiny GUI even if they don’t notice that you busted your backside to overhaul the database design and improve performance in subtle but significant ways. But listen, from now on, can you skip the whole tablet-style graphical makeover that makes me feel like my computer is a toy, and instead, like, make the whole thing purple or something?

Natty Narwhal was the last version of Ubuntu that easily allowed me to run both a Gnome desktop the way I liked it, and Amarok 1.4. So I clung to it. Flash updates came and went. I tried to keep up and eventually just abandoned videos on that machine. Slowly, it became difficult or impossible to get and use tools that I needed. Finally, when I recently started some contract work, I was unable to install a current version of some critical tool. So I decided it was time to give up.

This time, I got lucky. Enough people share my work habits that the open source community enabled the release of Linux Mint, and this has loosened my death grip on the unicorn of the sea. It’s supposed to be another one of these easy-peasy desktops, and it is, but it’s also completely not annoying to a grumpy curmudgeon like me. I did opt to use Cinnamon, but it was so painless and unobtrusive, that I can’t even remember how I set it and what I did to make it work the way I like.

My needs are not exotic. Specifically, I like two app panels, one at the top and one at the bottom, I like to dock a bunch of app icons in the top panel for easy access, I like to maximize them from the bottom panel, and I like to have 4 workspaces. So now I have modern software repos, my Flash video works again (when I allow it), and I’m annoyed with the state of pockets in womens’ fast fashion, but not the placement of icons on my desktop.

Now the Amarok 1.4 issue? That might take some more work…

Categories: Geekery
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Overclocking, wire tripping, and further adventures with Tor

February 27, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Yesterday I was at the OTI offices again for a workday. For a chunk of the day I worked with Dan Staples on reviewing some things I’d learned about network settings in Commotion, and testing a Tor-enabled Commotion build. (More on that in a separate post.)

A couple of funny things happened on the way to the Internet. First, running Tor on a Ubiquiti PicoStation wireless node caused the little machine to overheat and reboot within 30 seconds of the process starting! Ha! We niced the process and managed to get it to stay up long enough to properly start up. I’ll do some more troubleshooting to figure out why it’s running so hard and see if there’s a way to (literally) cool it down. But I thought that was a pretty awesome problem.

At the same time, I successfully connected to the Internet through a Buffalo Air Station router that was elegantly modified by Access Labs to be a Tor transparent proxy. A couple of funny things happened as a result. First, since I had Thunderbird open and set to check my email every 5 minutes or so, my Gmail accounts freaked out. I got notices of suspicious activity for 3 different accounts because all my network traffic was running over Tor, meaning that my mail requests were hitting the Gmail servers from several different Tor exit nodes around the world. This caused Gmail to assume that malicious users were trying to access my account from a bunch of different places. It was a minor hassle to convince Gmail to stop panicking, but it was kind of neat to trip that wire.

Most adorable of all, however, came from your favorite activist tech collective and mine, Riseup Labs. One of the IPs in the suspicious activity notices was listed this way:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 9:04:31 PM UTC
IP Address: (load-me-in-a-browser-if-this-tor-node-is-causing-you-grief.riseup.net.)
Location: Cham, Switzerland

So that’s a little message from the Riseup operators of that Tor exit node. If you do indeed load it in a browser, you’ll see that it’s a very wry RTFM.

Categories: Geekery
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Tor basics in plain English

January 28, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Here’s a cheat sheet that I wrote up for myself about two weeks ago after I’d gotten my bearings with the basics of Tor.  I actually wrote it as an informal status update to my mentor and realized that if it was helpful to me, it might be helpful to someone else.  If you see any errors, don’t be shy about setting me back on the right path!

First, though, please bask in the glory of this super awesome clickable graphic that demonstrates what network traffic is and isn’t obscured by Tor and HTTPS (encrypted HTTP).  This snippet below is just a teaser.  Click it to go to a page where you can click buttons for Tor and HTTPS and see how they work.

Tor and HTTP

Tor and HTTPS

After a visit to the OTI offices and an overview of Commotion with my project mentor Will Hawkins, I felt like the fog had parted a bit on the Commotion side so I moved over to get the same level of clarity with Tor.  That’s most of what I did that week.  The Tor IRC channel has been unexpectedly not-unpleasant and I have a basic grasp of the vocabulary and principles.I learned that all Tor-enabled machines use the same code, and they are differentiated by changes to the config file.  All Tor network participants (machines running Tor) are either clients or relays. Clients just connect to a stable entry, or “guard” node, and get on their merry way.

As for the rest, all relays are entry relays; some entry relays are guards (once they are proven to be stable via analysis of a descriptor that is pushed from the node once an hour); some entry relays are unlisted (therefore not publicly known) and they are called bridges; and finally only a relative few Tor nodes are configured as exit nodes.  Exits have specific policies that allow and disallow traffic to various places, allowing exit node operators to be choosy about what kind of activity they allow on their node.  Relevant ports on *nix machines include 9001 (data) and 9030 (directory).

        /   \ 
  Client     Relay (Entry)
            /      |      \
        Guard    Bridge    Exit
   (if stable)  (unlisted)  (configurable rules)

I learned about verifying that your Tor relay is working correctly.  The easy way is to go to check.torproject.org and see if it says that you are routing through the Tor network.  But all it does is check whether you arrived at that page from one of the published exit nodes.  You can find the code in SVN here, and the code for a newer TorCheck utility is on Github.  Digging a little deeper, you should see Tor running if you do a ps -ef, and your Tor log file should have something to say about whether it is running properly or not.  More on logging and *nix behavior in a later post.

I looked at a list of ISPs that are Tor-friendly and Tor-unfriendly.  I found that mine probably is friendly, i.e., it was before it was acquired (twice).  But in talking to folks on IRC I was reasonably well assured that for the purposes of testing, especially if I’m running a bridge, I should be fine.

Before I came to that conclusion I kind of spun off into a swirl of what-ifs, wondering how safe it was to test Tor on my home IP.  I thought through scenarios where I might test on a hosted server, on a new and separate Internet connection to my house, and internally on a fake network of physical or virtual machines in my house.  I may revisit those options once I’m really moving with testing, depending on how informative I think my testbed seems to be, and for what use cases.

Categories: Geekery
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Week three is the new Tuesday

January 28, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Last week I was chatting with one of the GNOME internship program mentors who asked how the internship was going for me. I said that I felt pretty good, but that I was in a little bit of a lull. I’d learned about all I needed to know to get my feet wet with the technical end of my project, and now I needed to get better clarity on the question I am asking/problem I am solving to be able to really dig my heels in. I was floundering a little, but also having open-ended conversations with people who might be interested in the work. I didn’t know at that moment that those conversations would lead to a significant breakthrough the next day, resulting in a much clearer goal for my internship term.

It was nice to hear, then, that apparently a bunch of the interns in my cohort were at just about the same point. And so, if this internship were a week, last week would have been Tuesday!

Categories: Geekery

OPW Internship: Organizing My Thoughts

January 11, 2013 · Leave a Comment

As I wrote previously, I started a work-from-home internship with the Open Technology Institute last Wednesday. The project I was placed with has me working on boosting privacy and anonymity in wireless mesh networks. I spent some time orienting myself with the task and organizing my thoughts.

The stated goal of the project is to integrate Tor with Commotion. More specifically:

Tor Integration:

Commotion mesh nodes are capable of being configured to enter directly into the Tor network. We need an intern to configure, package, and document the process of making a tor-entry node. If the intern completes this task within the time frame they will have the opportunity to tackle custom configurations that will allow for Tor exit nodes on the mesh that allow small bandwidth Tor traffic from elsewhere to be run over the network to further obfuscate it.

Great! So….what does that mean? This was a good exercise in self-management and breaking a project apart into achievable bits. I started with some clarifying questions.

  • What is Commotion and what does it do? For whom?
  • What is Tor and what does it do? For whom?
  • What is the advantage of combining them and who would be interested in using such a tool?


Categories: Appropriate Tech · Geekery
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In Which Chaos Computer Club Makes Me Feel Warm And Fuzzy

November 2, 2011 · Leave a Comment


Add another C to CCC, this one for Classy.

Loyal readers will remember that I popped over to Berlin this summer to speak at Chaos Communication Camp.  It was a blast, kind of like a really clever camping rave for geeks.  Laser light shows every night, roaming art projects on trucks, invigorating conversation about internet freedom, and incredibly tight organization and comfortable infrastructure to support about 3000 smart, curious, mischievous people in the woods for 5 days.  I was incredibly impressed by how well the event ran, how creature comforts were taken into consideration, and how nice the organizers were.

I also noticed that every single time I looked around, I saw women.  I didn’t feel gendered, and I never felt like my credentials were in question.  As Bl00 has said, it felt like people assumed that if you were there, it was for a good reason.  C-Base, their headquarters in Berlin, was just as wacked out and cool-looking as I’d hoped.

So, super good stuff.  But this morning they outdid themselves with uber-classiness.  I got an email saying that as a thank you for speaking this summer, I have a token waiting for me for a free ticket to the 28th Chaos Communication Congress (28C3) this December.  Free tickets are always nice, but this comes with an extra premium.  Tickets are hard to get a hold of and are released in carefully timed batches.  If you don’t get your ticket before you travel, you run a very real risk of showing up at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, 2 days after Christmas, to find a sold-out event.  And then, well, good luck.  Enjoy your winter vacation.

So this gesture is that much more clever and lovely.  Someone has done their customer relations homework, and the result is that I feel appreciated, welcomed, and motivated to participate in their events.  Everyone wins, and they look like they consummate professionals.  It’s even getting me thinking about what talks I might propose next…

Categories: Geekery

Chaos Communication Camp reportback Friday, 7-8:30pm

September 19, 2011 · 4 Comments

Salutations to Comrade Disco Lenin

This Friday evening, BernieS, Far McKon and I will be at The Hacktory at 1524 Brandywine St. to share pictures, short videos, and stories from the absolutely awesome Chaos Communication Camp in Berlin last month.  Come join us!  It’s BYOB, The Hacktory will provide popcorn.

Announcement on The Hacktory blog

Write-up in Technically Philly

Previously on this here blog

E-waste slides, e-waste video

Open data slides, open data video

Thanks to my favorite Shiva for reminding me to include links to the slides and videos.  :-)


Categories: Geekery
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Maker Faire Redux, or I Love Meeting Philadelphians in NYC

September 19, 2011 · 2 Comments

This weekend, Maker Faire touched down in New York.  Sponsored by O’Reilly publishing’s Make and Craft magazines, Maker Faire is a craft and tech expo that happens in several cities throughout the year.  Exhibitioners included robot makers, tee shirt makers, garden makers, radio makers…seeing the trend?

Sculpture by John Belardo made from laser cut perforated metal, inspired by Bucky Fuller's geodesic domes. Got me thinking about the potential for decorative solar concentrators.

It happened at the New York Hall of Science in Queens.  It was definitely a welcome recharge, and by the end of the bus ride back to Philly I discovered that I’d filled nine pages of a notebook with new sketches and notes.  Here are some of my favorite participants that are making me re-think my stance on working alone.

Reboot clothing

Green lace hoodie from Reboot

I had a blast talking to Brie and Michael about their Philadelphia area slow-fashion clothing company, Reboot.  They make simple, beautiful sweaters and jackets from the ends of industrial bolts of wool that would otherwise be discarded by large clothing manufacturers.  They are clearly very thoughtful about their work, describing their hesitance to use the word “sustainable” because it’s impossible to know what’s truly sustainable.  But their garment construction is unambiguously solid and well thought-out.  I walked away with a gorgeous hooded sweatshirt and plans to collaborate on a wool-based workshop sometime soon.  We had a great conversation that flitted from the ups and downs of small-scale manufacturing, to technology education for girls.  I can’t wait to watch them grow.

Crystal Radios


Categories: Geekery
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Keeping you busy this weekend

June 17, 2011 · Leave a Comment

If you didn’t have plans this Saturday, now you do. The Hacktory and the Prometheus Radio Project are offering a bilingual (English/Spanish) workshop to build your own radio transmitter, and Azavea is hosting an intro to Python for women and their friends.

At The Hacktory, staff and volunteers from the Prometheus Radio Project will be teaching a workshop on how to build a small radio transmitter that can reach across a room.  It’s an easy way to get music or speech across a short expanse wirelessly and it’s a great intro to basic electronics and soldering.  Here’s an interview that Tek Lado did with the instructors.

If that’s not your bag, you might like to try your hand at basic coding in Python, described as “incredibly intuitive.”  Python tends to be known as a simple but very accurate language that’s great for prototyping because you can build things quickly, though plenty of projects are written only in Python.  This is organized by Dana Bauer, a GIS analyst at Azavea which makes some incredibly cool software.  Spang, a coder, cyclist and friend from Boston is coming down to help teach!  There are a couple slots left for learners and teachers, so sign up soon.  Free pizza!

Categories: Geekery · Tech Ed
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Sex Toy Hacking at The Hacktory this Sunday

March 17, 2011 · 2 Comments

DIY flogger, courtesy of QuixoticGoat

DIY flogger, courtesy of QuixoticGoat


Ever wanted to make a pair of undies that light up when the wearer hits a certain body temperature? How about a flogger made of old bike tubes? Ever wondered about reprogamming the vibration pattern in your favorite silicone friend for lots of fun and zero profit? On Sunday, Hacktory friend and instructor Maggie is leading a free-form workshop on hacking sex toys at The Hacktory and you’re invited! Registrations are filling up for this fun, respectful and creative workshop that requires no tech expertise, so head over and register for the workshop. You can also forward it around on teh schmacebook.

For some wildly creative ideas linking sex, electronics, galvanic skin response sensors, gender politics, and art, check out Elle Mehrmand and Micha Cardenas’ Bang Lab at UCSD. They do amazing things like monitor their heart rate and temperature and sending the info to audio and Second Life, so that during performances you can “hear” their body temperatures change and see their Second Life characters imitating what they do in real life on a big projection screen behind them.

Update:  Warmest welcome to commenter Micha Cardenas, and let’s include another link to her site at TransReal.org!

Categories: Geekery
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