Protect Your Privacy

encryptedLast month I shared my concern about our diminishing privacy. Now I hope to share some ideas about how you can protect yourself. The key is encryption. Below I’ll give practical steps that you can take. I’ll cover a lot of different areas, I recommend doing as much of this as you’re comfortable with. The strategy is to encrypt everything. Most of these are easy to implement, so regardless of your background or technical ability you’ll be able to make a difference. The goal here is to become more secure in your daily life.

Your connection to the web should always be secure, which means enabling WPA2 encryption on your router at home and avoiding public networks. If you do need to surf on public wifi (coffee shops, airports, etc) then I strongly recommend that you take precautions to protect yourself. Disable sharing, turn on your firewall and use a VPN. I’ve used OpenVPN while traveling and I loved it. There are plenty of VPN services available. Protip, the Premium version of Disconnect blocks malware and is a VPN as well.

The best option here would be to avoid the companies known to have leaked to the NSA, but I’ll concede that isn’t realistic. Fortunately you have options. First, get the HTTPS Everywhere plugin for your browser and turn it on. Second, try DuckDuckGo or StartPage instead of Google, Bing or Yahoo.

Block ads & tracking scripts
Start with the simple, enable do not track within your browsers. Next, get the Disconnect browser plugin and configure it to block your browser from responding to requests. Finally, get Ad Block Plus and turn it on.

Encrypt your computer
This one used to be a challenge, but recently operating systems have appropriately taken over and now its a pretty straight forward task. For Windows you’ll enable BitLocker. For OS X you’ll turn on FileVault. Both of these are robust, well supported and easy to turn on. Just don’t forget your password. There are options for Linux as well, but my guess is that if you’re using Linux you don’t need my help.

Encrypt your data in the cloud
If you use a cloud storage service like Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud or Box, your connection may be secure but if your files are unencrypted than anyone that gains access to those services has your pictures & files. These services have become a target for precisely this reason. There are a couple of options. If you already have files stored in one of the above services, you can use Boxcryptor or Viivo to encrypt what’s already there. These are freemium services so there’s a free option that will work for most, and a subscription option for more advanced features. They support most storage providers and most platforms, which makes them a great option. The next level would be choosing SpiderOak or Tresorit, which are zero-knowledge, secure cloud storage services. They both offer a free plan and modest fees for increased storage.

Encrypt your phone
Your phone goes everywhere with you. If it is lost or stolen, all of your data is ripe for the picking. Passwords aren’t enough to keep people out, you need to encrypt it so that the data is hidden. The good news is that it’s simple. Android, iPhone & Windows Phone each have native tools to easily enable this feature. In fact, for these devices phone encryption is just a setting.

Secure Email
This is the trickiest one of all. Until recently encrypted email has been challenging enough that for most people it wasn’t worth the effort. It’s also, in my opinion, the most important. Your email tells just about everything there is to know about you in one spot. Your friends, your interests, your calendar updates, where you bank, and more. This really could be its own series of blog posts, but my goal here is to keep things simple. For Gmail, Yahoo & Hotmail, you want Mailvelope, which is a browser plugin for Firefox or Chrome that simplifies the steps involved in PGP encryption. A better option would be to switch to a free secure email provider like ProtonMail or Tutanota. These services handle end-to-end encryption for you.

If you take these steps, you’ll both protect yourself from being a target for hacking, and protect your identity while online. Without the keys to decrypt it, it just looks like static or junk data. In fact, it IS junk data.

I’ve covered these topics pretty quickly. If you’d like to know more, I’d encourage you to do some investigating and educate yourself.


Privacy is not a crime

Image by Jürgen Telkmann via Flickr

A couple of recent events have gotten me thinking about privacy. More specifically, it’s the lack of privacy that has captured my attention. The web has now been ubiquitous for the better part of a decade. Companies earn staggering sums of money making the web an awesome experience for us. And they have, most adults I know have at least 3 devices with constant internet access. The nasty down side is that everything we do online is traceable. You would be surprised by how little data is required to uniquely identify a person, but that’s no problem because our devices betray quite a bit about us.

None of this is new, the fact that companies and the NSA track our activities has been known for 10 years or more. The two things that have struck me recently are that more companies are joining this bandwagon, and there is no way to opt out.

This summer the news lit up with stories about Windows 10 spying on you, then slipped user tracking tools into Windows 7 & 8 as well. Spotify raised quite a ruckus with an updated privacy policy enabling them to collect just about everything on your phone, pictures, location (GPS data), Facebook friends, etc. And in June Uber revealed that their mobile app could continue to monitor your location even after you exit the app.

It’s impossible to opt out of this tracking. None of us are immune from this privacy invasion. If you surf the web, if you have a cell phone, then you are sharing data about your habits and interests with companies and the government. Google & Facebook know you individually, whether or not you have an account with those services. Google’s free analytics service is used on half of the top million domains, and Facebook’s like or share buttons are present on more than 13 million websites. If you do have an account with those companies, they know a lot more about you, but don’t be fooled, they know your habits either way. The only way to avoid them is to not use the phone or surf the web.

We also have no control over what happens with this data about us. Major cell phone carriers are sharing the content, not just meta data but the actual conversations, with the NSA. There are reports from reputable journalists indicating that up to 50 companies are willingly supplying customer data to government agencies. The net effect is that the NSA collects nearly everything you do online, without user consent or a warrant.

Those are examples of the companies complying, but something this valuable is definitely a target for theft. Consider the Ashley Madison breach, last month hackers stole then released the full Ashley Madison database, including personal details. Whether or not you like the site or agree with its business model, enough data was shared about its customers that all of them are now susceptible to identity fraud. Think about that. Names, email addresses, credit card info, transaction data. These breaches aren’t limited to anonymous criminals though, the NSA is all to happy to steal data as well. They’ve stolen data in bulk from Google, Yahoo, Facebook and AT&T that we know of. Again, this is without the consent of the companies or a warrant.

Apart from the personal intrusion, though, how can you have a true democracy when everyone is being watched? We need to be free to explore and express ideas, to argue and debate, without concern for third party misinterpretation or intervention. Privacy is a means to democracy. We currently do not have this freedom, at least not via phone, email or social network. I know of at least two websites that have been forcibly shut down, secure email provider Lavabit and the social legal site Groklaw. I don’t know anything about why these sites shut down other than what’s in the news, but I somehow doubt that the owners of either website feel very free. I do know that Groklaw was a community where open source software advocates and attorneys collaborated to help one another. These heavy handed tactics discourage civic participation and sharing of ideas.

The American public deserves to know what its leaders and government are up to, both at home and abroad. Citizens cannot consent to the importance or effectiveness of any program they don’t know about. There is inherent value in citizens knowing their government’s activities and being able to form judgments about public policy. I do understand that in global politics governments need to spy on one another. That the government do this to its own people and then try to cover it up damages the relationship between citizens and their government.

I find it absolutely chilling that companies and governments have colluded to eradicate our privacy. The private sector figured out how profitable it is to offer free services and sell data about us, and the government figured out how to capture that data and use it for their own purposes. The result is that a lot of people I’ve never met and have no reason to trust know my interests, habits, background, and what I look like. They know these things about you, too. And none of us have any voice in what they choose to do with that information. It’s horrifying.

I don’t know that its possible to fully protect ourselves from this, but there are some things we can do to protect ourselves. I’ll share those ideas in a separate post.

Smoked Chicken

I got a smoker as a gift recently, so this summer has been fun with trying new recipes. Over the next few months I’ll post recipes that we’ve enjoyed. This one is for smoked chicken.

Dry Rub
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup sweet paprika
3 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp ground pepper
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp cayenne pepper

This makes a lot of rub, so either save it for later (trust me, you’re going to want to make this again) or cut these amounts in half. Also, don’t worry about the chili & cayenne, the flavor wasn’t hot.

The Smoking
The night before you cook the chicken, trim the fat as desired and put the rub on. When ready to cook, place the bird breast-side-down (looks upside down to me) in your smoker. Set the oven to 230 °F (110 °C), and you’ll cook until the internal temperature is 165 °F (74 °C). When done, wrap the chicken in foil and rest for 30 minutes breast-side-up.

This makes meat that is moist, tender and full of flavor. I used hickory for smoke, and it was just fantastic. Next I think I’ll try mesquite.

Famous Musicians I’ve Met

This came up a while back in a Reddit thread. It was fun to think through people I’ve met so I thought I’d share it here.

Eamon McLoughlin (fiddle player for The Greencards): I met him at a party. He had just moved to Austin to start something here. We talked for about 20 minutes, he was friendly & interesting. I approached him after a show about 5 years later, of course he didn’t remember me but he was still nice.

Sufjan Stevens: One year a friend of a friend called and asked if a songwriter could stay at our place during SXSW. We said sure. He was awesome. We chatted over coffee one morning, really nice guy. 2 years later I realized that I love his music. Sigh…

Shawn Colvin: I got to go to a private concert. Apart from her performance she was pretty quiet, but she struck me as genuine.

Southern Culture on the Skids (all of them). I approached them after a show. They were amazing. Super fun.

Johnny Goudie: I sat next to him in a coffee shop late one night. We talked for maybe an hour. He encouraged me to quit my job and become a professional musician.

Alex Griffin (bassist for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin): Approached him after a show. We talked about basses & touring. He was awesome.

Emilio Navaira: A long time ago I worked at the Majestic Theater in San Antonio. I worked back stage during the tejano music awards. He & I didn’t really hit it off.

These are all fun memories.

Data Conversions

dataConversionThe data that I work usually doesn’t arrive in the format that I need for cleaning or analyzing. After writing individual scripts each time I needed to do this conversion, I decided to take the time to create scripts that I can use repeatedly.

Initially I created these data conversion scripts in PowerShell since that’s what I was working with at the time, and later switched to Python so I can use them in any environment. They generally work the same, so use whichever is easiest for you.

My scripts accept csv, json or tsv as inputs, and can output to csv, sqlite or xml. The format to use them is filename.csv, which converts your data and outputs filename.db (filename & format dependent, of course).

Here’s a list of the conversions available:

  • csv to json
  • csv to sqlite
  • json to csv
  • json to sqlite
  • json to xml
  • tsv to csv

One quick note on converting from json to x. My scripts are only designed to work with flat json files (no nested objects or arrays). If your input json isn’t flat, my script will produce columns of nested json. If that doesn’t work for your needs, there are a couple of options. You can flatten it via a script like so (found on stackoverflow):

def flatten(structure, key="", path="", flattened=None):
    if flattened is None:
        flattened = {}
    if type(structure) not in(dict, list):
        flattened[((path + ".") if path else "") + key] = structure
    elif isinstance(structure, list):
        for i, item in enumerate(structure):
            flatten(item, "%d" % i, ".".join(filter(None,[path,key])), flattened)
        for new_key, value in structure.items():
            flatten(value, new_key, ".".join(filter(None,[path,key])), flattened)
    return flattened

Or you can hard code the conversion yourself. Here’s an example (also from stackoverflow):

for item in data:

Use, share or modify these conversion scripts as you care to.

14 Free (as in beer) Data Mining Books

I was doing some research on an algorithm this morning and came across a new book that I wasn’t aware of. That prompted me to look for more. The list of what I came up with is below.

Each of these is free-as-in-beer, which means you can download the complete version without expectation for anything in return. I think most of them are available for purchase as well, if you prefer a hard copy. Some of them include code samples in R, Python or MATLAB.

Regardless of your background, skills or goals, there’s something for you in this list. Here they are, in no particular order.

Continue reading


I recently blogged about the possibility of forgiveness as an event. As it happens, I’ve also come across notes that I wrote on this subject a couple of years ago. Here they are with only minor edits for readability.

Forgiveness is something that I’ve struggled with quite a bit as an adult. I’m generally an easy going guy, so many offenses roll off of me. It takes a lot to get me angry, but when I get really get angry it can take years to push through. If I were to run into a particular former boss, or an ex-girlfriend I probably wouldn’t come across as easy going. There are a couple of things that are helpful for me to keep in mind though. I do have to remind myself of these things.

First, I’m the one that’s negatively affected by my holding on to the offense. Lack of forgiveness is how people end up becoming bitter & hard hearted. That boss I mentioned laid me off 12 years ago, even if he still remembers there’s no way he’s as upset by it today as I am. I’m the loser here, by holding on to something in the past I’m limiting what I can see right now. Put another way, I’m the greatest benefactor when I forgive.

Second, forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness is for my own benefit, to free myself from the animosity of harboring anger towards another. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the other person. I can choose to remain friends with the other person or not, independently of the choice to forgive. If I choose to break the relationship, it doesn’t mean I haven’t forgiven them. I have forgiven the ex-girlfriend, but I will not give her another opportunity to hurt me. A really powerful example of this for me is punishment for crimes. Forgiving someone for committing a crime doesn’t mean that they don’t get punishment. If everyone involved, victim, attorneys, judge & jury each forgave them, it would still be appropriate and just for them to receive and serve out a sentence. We don’t forget the crime, but forgiveness releases us from it controlling our thoughts.

Third, forgiveness isn’t an event, it’s more of a process that may need to be repeated. I forgive, gain a sense of peace, then days or weeks later (sometimes years later) I’m somehow reminded of it and my temper flares like it just happened… I have to forgive again, from start to finish all over again. I’ve forgiven both the boss and the girlfriend dozens of times, and yet writing this I’m reminded of the injustice and need to do it again.

My first three points are anecdotal. My fourth & final point is that its part of God’s plan. In Matt 6:14-15 Jesus says that we’ll be forgiven as much as we forgive others, and if we don’t forgive then we won’t be forgiven. Paul exhorts the Colossians to “bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances…” in 3:13. Knowing this, its reasonable to believe that God will help us with forgiveness. In fact I think this is part of His plan, for us to work together in community and learn forgiveness against one another while leaning on Him. I see this as somewhat like exercise, the more we forgive the easier it gets to let go of offenses.

The notable exception to all of this is forgiving God Himself. That’s a category unto its own and I’m probably no help there. I do believe that its appropriate to pray through your relationship with God at all times, even in anger. Forgiving God for perceived offenses is pretty tough. I’ve only dealt with it once and honestly don’t know how I got through it.

If you’re interested in reading about this, try The Art of Forgiving by Lewis B. Smedes. This is his 2nd book on the subject and it really helped me during the summer after a particularly difficult layoff. Pay attention to which book you get though, Smedes first book on forgiveness (called Forgive and Forget) was terrible. I didn’t connect with it at all.

I think my third point above (repeatedly forgiving the same offense) needs more exploration. Sometime soon I’ll tie this together with my previous note and reach a conclusion. This is something that I’ve considered for years, so hopefully I’ll be able to do that soon.

Turn Around

Last week I read something that has challenged my thinking. I have had a pamphlet called How to be Free From Bitterness for at least 15 years. A friend called me last week, we were talking about forgiveness so I decided to review this to see if it would be worth sharing. The entire pamphlet is awesome. It covers general forgiveness, relationships with parents, controlling your tongue, and more. I definitely recommend it if you’re struggling with forgiveness. One aspect of it has stuck with me.

Several times through the material, the author (Jim Wilson) encourages the reader to confess their behavior and/or attitude, then forsake the pattern. He paints this as an event. You have confessed and forsaken that, now you’re done with it.

My life is so much more complicated than that. Which strikes me as very lame.

I wouldn’t characterize myself as a bitter person (but, really, who would say that about himself?). I do gripe about day in & day out annoyances. I do get frustrated with the people that I’m close to. I don’t carry grudges and I do strive to keep short accounts with people. Having said that, there are a couple of long standing grievances that I haven’t shaken in years. I don’t mean that I haven’t forgiven (I have). Quite the opposite. I forgive. Something reminds me of the injustice, so I forgive again. Years later they repeat the behavior, so I forgive again.

I have spoken to the parties involved. I have prayed. I have read books. I have forgiven. Then something will trigger this and I start the process over. This has been going on for years. Now, sometimes I bring it up and sometimes I don’t. This has definitely had an impact on those specific relationships. It’s probably fair to say that this has colored my view of relationships in general.

Wilson invites the reader to a clean slate. Confess then forsake and be free. Turn around and take a new path. I want that.

So the question that I’m wrestling with is, have I allowed my life to become too complicated to recognize freedom that’s available to me?


My wife & I are having our first child, our little girl is due soon. We’re both pretty excited. I feel pretty fortunate to be a parent after a few years in adulthood. I’ve been around long enough to learn a few things that make life easier or more enjoyable. For the past few weeks I’ve been journaling what I’d like to teach her, and I look forward to passing these nuggets along. By the way, these are as much reminders for myself as they are things to pass on. Here they are, in no particular order.

  • Choose Your Path – You don’t have to settle for where life takes you, you can pick where you want to go and make that happen. That certainly applies to large things like career path and where you live and social circles, but its also true in the day to day. You can choose things that make your life easier, like living within a budget, or that make your life more difficult, like dating a psycho. And the great thing is that if you don’t like the path you’re on, you can change it.
  • You Can Do It – We all struggle with things that are new to us. Its not always fun to be challenged, but the only way to get better is to do it. There’s no shortcut here, confidence and skill only come through practice. The good part is that majority of the time you can do it. Even if you think you can’t. Even if you’re scared.
  • Life is Not Fair – This one is tough, but I think its universally true and as soon as you accept it life becomes easier. The good guy doesn’t always win. We don’t always get our way. Sometimes we get less than the other guy, or even less than we deserve. I don’t want to be harsh, at all, but I also don’t want to pass on rose colored glasses.
  • Freedom Comes Through Discipline – Its always so tempting to believe that raw talent is all we need. When we see success we’re quick to say that skill or talent is the reason. The truth is that skill or talent need to be cultivated through practice and dedication. If you want the freedom to run a marathon, you need the discipline of regular exercise. If you want financial freedom you need the discipline of managing your money. And if you want the freedom of a successful career you need the discipline of marketable skills.
  • Character will Take You Farther than Skill – This is another universal truth. There are so many examples of people with don’t have the integrity or probity to keep up with their skill. Sports, academia, business, politics, I could come up with a list for each. The bottom line is that skill without character leads to downfall.
  • Debt is Slavery – This last one is a bit different than the others, its the only negative on my list. Equally important though. Debt is not analogous to slavery, I don’t see this as a metaphor or allegory or hyperbole. If you’re in debt to another then you are not free. I don’t mean to say that debt is bad, there are appropriate uses for debt. This one took me a long time to learn (but I DID learn it!). I hope to spare my children from the hazards of irresponsible debt.

I wrote all of the above about a month ago. Since then I’ve been thinking about how to convey these axioms. The thing I keep coming back to is that in order to succeed I’ll need to be truly living these things out. When I started this process my goal was to think through the type of parent that I’d like to be, somehow I’ve ended up writing a credo or mission statement for my own life. I do believe that these are truths and that my daughter’s life will be better if she understands them,

Parents, what are you trying to teach your children? And have you had any success?

I Hate Google

I have a love-hate relationship with Google. This is a continuation of a blog thread that I started a few years ago. The first part was I Love Google. While some of the products have changed, I still stand by those notes. These notes are true as well. I’ll finish this series with a part 3 on my takaways from these viewpoints within the next few months.

The Google-Plex

The Google-Plex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My issue with Google comes down to data collection. Most of Google’s services are free, which means that the product being sold is you. They collect everything that they can about you, and use that information to put together effective marketing campaigns. My issue is that they know a TON about all of us. All of their clever services are designed to keep us using their products so that they can market to us. But, actually, you don’t have to use their services in order to be known by them.

We all know about search, Gmail, maps, drive (aka documents), and their other popular servers. But even if you never used any of those, they have a whole slew of services that they can use to track you. Lets take a look at a few of them. I’ll give a brief description of each, because my point is not to introduce to you new products. I plan to tell you how these collect data about you.

Analytics – Tracks visitors to any website.

Fonts – Quick & easy way for you to include stylish fonts on any web page.

AdSense – Contextual advertising on your website.

Maps – Mapping tool.

DNS – Public DNS servers.

There are literally dozens of others, but this is enough to make my point. Each of these services makes it possible for Google to track you without you ever having to visit their website. Millions of website owners use Google Analytics. If you visit one of those sites, Google sees your visit. They don’t literally know its YOU, but the fact that someone on your computer, from your city, at this time gets recorded. Google Fonts and AdSense are the same, if you visit a site using one of those tools, Google tracks your visit.

So why should you care?

A public company, accountable to shareholders, is collecting data about you, building a profile on you and your habits. If you ever create a Google account (Gmail, Google+, AdWords, etc.) they tie your search history and surfing patterns together in your profile. They can connect all of the sites you’ve visited with all of the searches you’ve made. How do we know? In the spring of 2012 they updated their privacy policy and terms of service to make this possible. From their blog:

…if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services…

Let that sink in for a moment. Think about all of the sites you’ve visited over the past six or eight years. This profile, combining your search history and all of the sites you’ve visited, definitely is uniquely identifiable. This idea actually came from Steve Jobs, while he was an adviser to Google executives. My source article is no longer available, but Jobs is reported to have said something along the lines of:

You have so many products spanning several services: Search, GMail, YouTube, Maps etc. – why not unite them all under a fluid user experience to both you and your users benefit?

With this much data in a single profile, it is absolutely possible to distinguish you from your neighbor. Think about all of the searches that you’ve made. What story does that tell about you?

Your profile says a lot about you, which makes it pretty valuable. And it can be used in all sorts of ways that you never intended. First, your profile is a target for the Government. This is not new at all. In fact, Google has fought this fight long enough that they have a well defined process for handling government subpoenas. This actually came up again this week, Google is one of several internet companies being mined for data by the NSA and FBI.

The government isn’t the only party interested in your profile though. In 2010 a Google engineer used his permissions to access user accounts and spy on teens. Talk about creepy! Google even issued a statement acknowledging this. And what was the outcome? He was fired.

Google has also been hacked. In December of 2009 a Chinese group hacked into Google to gain access to the Gmail accounts of human activists, as well as companies in the technology, financial and defense sectors. I can’t tell what the outcome of this attack was, but the investigation is apparently ongoing.

To be fair, Google isn’t the only company collecting data about us. Indeed, that would be a long list. Facebook, Yahoo!, Bing and Twitter come to mind instantly. Those are all big companies, there are certainly dozens (if not hundreds) of small companies doing the same thing. Google stands out.