30 November 2008

My New Hero

Bruce Schneier is my new hero. The November 2008 issue of The Atlantic has a terrific article by Jeffrey Goldberg [an honorary hero] called “The Things He Carried,” about Goldberg (and Schneier) testing the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) work to “protect” air travel. For anyone who travels periodically, or who has been frustrated or amused at the absurd and arbitrary nature of TSA “enforcement,” this article is a must-read.

It reminded me of two related things, the first of which was a recent series of trips, one week apart. Trip #1 was to Boston for the day, and at the airport I presented my then-current driver’s license, which was set to expire on the 29th of this month. The agent looked quickly at the license, looked at me, looked at the date on the license, and reminded me that while it was “good” for a year after expiration I should probably get a new one. [Side note: it might be “good” for the TSA for a year, but it would hardly be legal for driving. Maybe the TSA should take over policy making for state departments of motor vehicles, too.]

A week later, I was off on trip #2, to Minneapolis … with my newly minted license in hand, fresh from the New York State DMV. Unlike the old license, this one has all sorts of security and holographic anti-forgery features built into it. At the checkpoint, the TSA agent looked at my license, looked at me, then picked up his loupe and looked at the license to confirm it was authentic.

That’s when it hit me: the previous week, the agent had a loupe, but he didn’t use it—because the old license didn’t need it, didn’t have much in it to look at through a loupe. In other words: if one wanted to fake one’s way past security, use an identity document that is “old” enough that no one would expect many of the obvious, modern anti-forgery tools to be included. Because apparently, old documents receive less scrutiny since there is less to scrutinize quickly.

[Two minutes later, something else happened: as my mind was pondering the implications of the above scenario, I absentmindedly passed my luggage through the x-ray scanner and walked myself through the metal scanner to the other side. As I was putting my shoes back on, I realized I had forgotten to take my Ziploc bag of liquid toiletries out and send them through separately. No one had said anything. So much for consistency, and yet more reinforcement for Schneier’s “security theater” argument. And on my return flight from Minneapolis, the agent at the x-ray machine was so busy bossing around her neighbors that she was paying scant attention to the scanned images on the screen in front of her.]

All of this reminded me of John Gilmore’s lawsuit over identity-and-security issues, as tracked by Reason Magazine in a series of articles in 2003 and 2004. As author Brian Doherty wrote in 2003,

"Real security, he [Gilmore] believes, comes from making sure travelers don't have weapons or explosives on them and having people on planes ready to fight would-be hijackers. Thus, the ID demand -- apparently the result of the still-secret government mandate -- serves no necessary state purpose and violates his right to travel, his rights to peaceably assemble and to petition his government for redress of grievances, and his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches."

To which I can only say: Amen. My trips to Boston and Minneapolis are perfect examples of this issue, where my identity should not have mattered much—but the security inspection of my luggage might have been more preventative and, thus, more effective. Or vice-versa.
Oh, and for the record—other heroes include Phil Zimmerman, Muhammad Ali, and John Lennon. There are more, but that’s enough for now. Long live eclecticism.

23 November 2008

Slow Blogging

According to an article in today's New York Times, "Haste, Scorned: Blogging at a Snail’s Pace," it's OK to have a blog and not post something on it every hour, or even every day. Apparently there's even a "slow blogging" movement.


I've been doing this in one form or another for about eight years now, and somehow I managed to survive this whole time - posting about once a week! - without ever having to self-identify as part of a "movement" to write more slowly and thoughtfully. But then, I was never much for identity politics.

16 November 2008

19 Years

The deed, as they say, is finally done—my Dell XPS of Sh*t has died. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to back everything up recently—and the technical know-how to yank the hard drive out of the old Dell box once the failure was complete, so I can still get to my files.

I did the math: it was 19 years ago that I left Macintosh computers, long enough ago that that's what people still called them. At the time, no longer living at home and suddenly realizing I needed a computer of my own, I had a decision to make, and I chose a PC. It was an economic decision as much as anything else: then, as now, Mac’s are more expensive.

Meanwhile, my beloved little Fujitsu Lifebook P5020, which has served me well and (mostly) faithfully for about five rugged years … is also dying. It has a tiny hard drive at 30GB, and enough processing power for basic tasks, but multiple open programs really slows it down. Plus, it has taken to showing its inner blue screen a few times too often to be counted on in a pinch.

So: I’ve done it. I have bought a new MacBook, and a day later it’s already easy to see why people have remained so passionate about these computers for so long. It’s visually bright and crisp, and it’s easy to use and set-up so far—and it isn’t Windows Vista, which I have used and which is unappealing, with its built-in nuisances and nags.
I did not arrive here easily. Some of the hurdles from 19 years ago remain, like the higher cost of a Mac. And the migration issues are not perfect (if minimal). I have been a Windows user for so long that I also worry about how quickly my brain will adapt to the changes—and how well I will be able to adapt to switching between a Mac at home and a PC at work on a daily basis.

Frankly, I feel bad for Fujitsu. I did my research, and there is a lovely looking replacement model for my current laptop. But Fujitsu does not offer computers with Windows XP pre-installed any more; neither does Sony, which has an equally nice Vaio, or a few other companies with machines I might also have considered. If some PC maker offered a nice-looking machine with Windows XP pre-installed, I might not have gone down this route. At the least, I might have delayed it for another purchase cycle, though of course XP is itself an 8-year-old technology.

I do not feel bad for Dell. I think the promise of cheap computing is, or at least was, amazing. But I am now also convinced that you get what you pay for. In my case, that was two computers with two consecutive motherboard failures—and a support network that was responsive only when I took extreme action. I don’t have the energy for that again.

And if Fujitsu and Dell have complaints? Both companies should blame Microsoft. I have seen Windows Vista, I have used Windows Vista, and the sooner I never have to see or use it again ... the better.
So, here I am. Migrating my data. Working on finding the right mix-n-match programs for the Mac to meet my needs. Slowly figuring how to set the preferences as I want them, and organizing my information as I’ll need it. And looking forward to a learning challenge that I expect will only be positive. The consumer confidence issues are real, but I’m considering this computer an investment in my future, and hoping it’s a more satisfying experience than Michael Kinsley’s coffee maker confusion, or than my past history with Dell.

02 November 2008

XPS of Sh*t

I feel like I’m watching something crash in slow motion: my three year old Dell XPS 400 is apparently dying. And lucky me, I get to watch.

If you are thinking about buying a Dell computer any time soon, you should read this.

A few days ago, I came home and turned on my computer. (I no longer use the “Suspend” feature, since doing so disables my peripherals. And I am still having trouble with my WiFi connection.) It went through a series of beeps and whirs, and then turned off. Then it turned back on, beeped and whirred again ... and then turned off. It kept running through this cycle. Eventually, I interrupted the process and, having seen this bad behavior before, I did what the Dell technicians told me to do the last time: I unplugged all the cables, opened up the box, and looked inside to make sure there was no massive dustball causing a static electric short. (Answer: no.)

I re-started the machine—and got a message telling me that the PCI Express Card is running in X1 mode. If you can actually figure out what that means, you’re in better shape than I. Yes, I can Google it, too. Yes, the most common answer is that the card isn’t firmly in place. And no, that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Practically, it seems to mean that my USB mouse and keyboard work, as does my wireless network adapter, but not my USB printer or camera connection. Go figure.

Moreover: I am now afraid to turn the machine off. The last time I did—after first getting the PCI card message, in order to check the problem—the computer entered the same non-boot-up “static electricity” routine. It’s working now, but for how long?


If you are planning to buy a Dell computer, I urge caution. And unfortunately, you should probably pay for the extended service warranty. Based on my own history, I can tell you: you may need it; there’s just no telling.

My history with Dell is mixed. On the one hand, my firm bought me a new computer in October 2001 It was a top-of-the-line Dell desktop unit, with a great processor, dual optical drives, lots of RAM ... it was an expensive machine, but I use my computer a lot, and it seemed worth it. It just died (pure hard drive failure) four weeks ago, almost seven years to the day from its purchase.

On the other hand, in 2003 I purchased a Dell desktop unit for my home-office. Like the company computer, this was a top-of-the-line machine, with a great processor, dual optical drives, lots of RAM ... it was expensive, but just as at work, I use my computer a lot, and it seemed worth it. It was cheaper than the equivalent machine from other PC makers, and certainly cheaper than an Apple of the same power. Two years later, it died: from one day to the next, it simply wouldn’t turn on. Extensive time with Dell customer support led only to increased frustration. Over the course of several weeks, Dell screwed up each effort to fix the machine, sending the wrong part or a technician who spoke no English, and like phone company visits of yesteryear required me to stay home all day waiting. Unwilling to settle for such treatment, I eventually resorted to the only weapon I had left: a human sense of shame. Fortunately, I had saved the online chat sessions from my various “conversations” with Dell support. I FedExed these, along with a sharp letter, to a list of top Dell executives, and copied both some well-known technology journalists and stock analysts who cover the tech industry.

Dell replaced the machine entirely. That replacement machine is the XPS 400 that is currently dying, a mere three years later.


I also have a small Fujitsu laptop, a machine that is almost five years old and has survived trips to South Africa and around Europe, Mexico and Canada, and to at least 15 different states here in America. It has been left running endlessly, and been shut down on the fly; been through endless airport x-ray scanners, shoved in bags and tossed in the trunks of cars; and endured a lot of abuse of its processing power and hard drive in the name of on-the-go expediency. And it still works.

Yet two Dell desktops that have sat un-assaulted and unabused in my home-office—with a stable climate and a good surge protector—have had endless problems; both software problems (mostly stemming from Microsoft Windows; not really Dell’s fault) and hardware problems (definitely Dell’s fault). It does not even matter what kind of problems they are. It’s the fact that there are problems that is, itself, the problem.

SO, I might have to replace this computer soon, and I do not think I will be buying another Dell. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I might even switch (back) to a Mac. Maybe I will change my mind, or maybe it will turn out that I’m wrong about the state of the current computer. What I know is that I don’t have the patience for this crap any more: I just want them damn thing to work, and seven years sounds a whole lot better than three for an average life-span.