I do not fear

November 20th, 2015

I am so saddened by the news this week. The attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Mali. The reaction of fear, anger, and hate. Governors racing to claim they will keep out refugees, even though they lack the power to do so. Congress voting to keep out refugees.

Emotions are a powerful thing. They can cause people to rise up and accomplish stunning things that move humanity forward. And they can move us back. Fear, and the manipulation of it, is one of those.

What have I to fear?

Even if the United States accepted half a million Syrian refugees tomorrow, I would be far more likely to die in a car accident than at the hands of a Syrian terrorist. I am a careful and cautious person, but I understand that life is not lived unless risk is balanced. I know there is a risk of being in a car crash every time I drive somewhere — but if that kept me at home, I would never see my kids’ violin concert, the beautiful “painted” canyon of Texas, or the Flint Hills of Kansas. So I drive smart and carefully, but I still drive without fear. I accept this level of risk as necessary to have a life worth living in this area (where there are no public transit options and the nearest town is miles away).

I have had pain in my life. I’ve seen grandparents pass away, I’ve seen others with health scares. These things are hard to think about, but they happen to us all at some point.

What have I to fear?

I do not fear giving food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, comfort to those that have spent the last years being shot at. I do not fear helping someone that is different than me. If I fail to do these things for someone because of where they come from or what their holy book is, then I have become less human. I have become consumed by fear. I have let the terrorists have control over my life. And I refuse to do that.

If governors really wanted to save lives, they would support meaningful mass transit alternatives that would prevent tens of thousands of road deaths a year. They would support guaranteed health care for all. They would support good education, science-based climate change action, clean water and air, mental health services for all, and above all, compassion for everyone.

By supporting Muslim registries, we look like Hitler to them. By discriminating against refugees based on where they’re from or their religion, we support the terrorists, making it easy for them to win hearts and minds. By ignoring the fact that entering the country as a refugee takes years, as opposed to entering as a tourist taking only minutes, we willfully ignore the truth about where dangers lie.

So what do I have to fear?

Only, as the saying goes, fear. Fear is making this country turn its backs on the needy. Fear is making not just the US but much of Europe turn its backs on civil liberties and due process. Fear gives the terrorists control, and that helps them win.

I refuse. I simply refuse to play along. No terrorist, no politician, no bigot gets to steal MY humanity.

Ultimately, however, I know that the long game is not one of fear. The arc of the universe bends towards justice, and ultimately, love wins. It takes agonizingly long sometimes, but in the end, love wins.

So I do not fear.

Categories: War & Peace


Memories of a printer

November 13th, 2015

I have a friend who hates printers. I’ll call him “Mark”, because that, incidentally, is his name. His hatred for printers is partly my fault, but that is, ahem, a story for another time that involves him returning from a battle with a printer with a combination of weld dust, toner, and a deep scowl on his face.

I also tend to hate printers. Driver issues, crinkled paper, toner spilling all over the place…. everybody hates printers.

But there is exactly one printer that I have never hated. It’s almost 20 years old, and has some stories to tell.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was about to move out of my parents’ house, and I needed a printer. I bought a LaserJet 6MP. This printer ought to have been made by Nokia. It’s still running fine, 18 years later. It turned out to be one of the best investments in computing equipment I’ve ever made. Its operating costs, by now, are cheaper than just about any printer you can buy today — less than one cent per page. It has been supported by every major operating system for years.

PostScript was important, because back then running Ghostscript to convert to PCL was both slow and a little error-prone. PostScript meant I didn’t need a finicky lpr/lprng driver on my Linux workstation to print. It just… printed. (Hat tip to anyone else that remembers the trial and error of constructing an /etc/printcap that would print both ASCII and PostScript files correctly!)

Out of this printer have come plane and train tickets, taking me across the country to visit family and across the world to visit friends. It’s printed resumes and recipes, music and university papers. I even printed wedding invitations and envelopes on them two years ago, painstakingly typeset in LaTeX and TeXmacs. I remember standing at the printer in the basement one evening, feeding envelope after envelope into the manual feed slot. (OK, so it did choke on a couple of envelopes, but overall it all worked great.)

The problem, though, is that it needs a parallel port. I haven’t had a PC with one of those in a long while. A few years ago, in a moment of foresight, I bought a little converter box that has an Ethernet port and a parallel port, with the idea that it would be pay for itself by letting me not maintain some old PC just to print. Well, it did, but now the converter box is dying! And they don’t make them anymore. So I finally threw in the towel and bought a new LaserJet.

It cost a third of what the 6MP did, has a copier, scanner, prints in color, does duplexing, has wifi… and, yes, still supports PostScript — strangely enough, a deciding factor in going with HP over Brother once again. (The other was image quality)

We shall see if I am still using it when I’m 50.

Categories: Technology

Tags: 11 Comments

Wow. I did that!

November 10th, 2015

It’s now official: I’m a pilot. This has been one of the most challenging, and also most rewarding, journeys I’ve been on. It had its moments of struggle, moments of joy, moments of poetry. I wrote about the poetry of flying at night recently. Here is the story of my first landing on a grass runway, a few months ago.


Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range
For all of the cities so bright.

– John A. Lomax

We are used to seeing planes in these massive palaces of infrastructure we call airports. We have huge parking garages, giant terminals, security lines hundreds of people deep, baggage carts, jetways, video screens, restaurants, and miles and miles of concrete.

But most of the world’s airports are not like that. A pilot of a small plane gets to see the big airports, sure, but we also get to use the smaller airports — hidden in plain sight to most.

Have you ever taken off from a strip of grass? As I told my flight instructor when I tried it for the first time, “I know this will work, but somehow I will still be amazed if it actually does.”

I took off from a strip of grass not long ago. The airport there had one paved runway, and the rest were grass. Short runways, narrow runways, grass runways. No lights. No paint. No signs. No trucks, no jetways, nothing massive. In fact, no people. Just a mowed path and a couple of yellow or white markers.

I taxied down the grass runway, being careful to never let the plane’s wheels stop moving lest the nose gear get stuck in a pothole. I felt all the bumps in the ground as we moved.

End of runway. Turn the plane around. A little bit of flap for more lift, full throttle, mind the centerline — imaginary centerline, this time. It starts picking up speed, slower than usual, bump bump bump. Those buildings at the end of the runway are staring me down. More speed, and suddenly the runway feels smooth; it has enough lift to keep from falling into every bump. Then we lift off just a touch; I carefully keep the plane down until we pick up enough speed to ascend farther, then up we go. I keep a watchful eye on those buildings straight ahead and that water tower just slightly off to the one side. We climb over a lake as I watch that water tower pass safely below and to the side of the plane. It had worked, and I had a smile of amazement.

With a half mile of grass, you really can go anywhere.

Many times I had driven within half a mile of that runway, but never seen it. Never wondered where people go after using it. Never realizing that, although it’s a 45-minute drive from my house, it’s really pretty close. Never understanding that “where people go” after taking off from that runway is “everywhere”.

Categories: Aviation


The Train to Galesburg

October 27th, 2015

Sometimes, children are so excited you just can’t resist. Jacob and Oliver have been begging for a train trip for awhile now, so Laura and I took advantage of a day off school to take them to the little town of Galesburg, IL for a couple days.

Galesburg is a special memory for me; nearly 5 years ago, it was the first time Jacob and I took an Amtrak trip somewhere, just the two of us. And, separately, Laura’s first-ever train trip had been to Galesburg to visit friends.

There was excitement in the air. I was asked to supply a bedtime story about trains — I did. On the way to the train station — in the middle of the night — there was excited jabbering about trains. Even when I woke them up, they lept out of bed and raced downstairs, saying, “Dad, why aren’t you ready yet?”

As the train was passing through here at around 4:45AM, and we left home with some time to spare, we did our usual train trip thing of stopping at the one place open at such a time: Druber’s Donuts.


Much as Laura and I might have enjoyed some sleep once we got on the train, Jacob and Oliver weren’t having it. Way too much excitement was in the air. Jacob had his face pressed against the window much of the time, while Oliver was busy making “snake trains” from colored clay — complete with eyes.


The boys were dressed up in their train hats and engineer overalls, and Jacob kept musing about what would happen if somebody got confused and thought that he was the real engineer. When an Amtrak employee played along with that later, he was quite thrilled!

We were late enough into Galesburg that we ate lunch in the dining car. A second meal there — what fun! Here they are anxiously awaiting the announcement that the noon reservations could make their way to the dining car. Oh, and jockeying for position to see who would be first and get to do the all-important job of pushing the button to open the doors between train cars.


Even waiting for your food can be fun.


Upon arriving, we certainly couldn’t leave the train station until our train did, even though it was raining.


Right next to the train station is the Discovery Depot Children’s Museum. It was a perfect way to spend a few hours. Jacob really enjoyed the building wall, where you can assemble systems that use gravity (really a kinetic/potential energy experiment wall) to funnel rubber balls all over the place. He sticks out his tongue when he’s really thinking. Fun to watch.


Meanwhile, Oliver had a great time with the air-powered tube system, complete with several valves that can launch things through a complicated maze of transparent tubes.



They both enjoyed pretending I was injured and giving me rides in the ambulance. I was diagnosed with all sorts of maladies — a broken leg, broken nose. One time Jacob held up the pretend stethoscope to me, and I said “ribbit.” He said, “Dad, you’ve got a bad case of frog! You will be in the hospital 190 days!” Later I would make up things like “I think my gezotnix is all froibled” and I was ordered to never leave the ambulance again. He told the story of this several times.

After the museum closed, we ate supper. Keep in mind the boys had been up since the middle of the night without sleeping and were still doing quite well! They did start to look a bit drowsy — I thought Oliver was about to fall asleep, but then their food came. And at the hotel, they were perfectly happy to invent games involving jumping off the bed.

Saturday, we rode over to Peck Park. We had heard about this park from members of our church in Kansas, but oddly even the taxi drivers hadn’t ever heard of it. It’s well known as a good place to watch trains, as it has two active lines that cross each other at a rail bridge. And sure enough, in only a little while, we took in several trains.



The rest of that morning, we explored Galesburg. We visited an antique mall and museum, saw the square downtown, and checked out a few of the shops — my favorite was the Stray Cat, featuring sort of a storefront version of Etsy with people selling art from recycled objects. But that wasn’t really the boys’ thing, so we drifted out of there on our way to lunch at Baked, where we had some delicious deep-dish pizza.

After that, we still had some time to kill before getting back on the train. We discussed our options. And what do you know — we ended up back at the children’s museum. We stopped at a bakery to get the fixins for a light supper on the train, and ate a nice meal in the dining car once we got on. Then, this time, they actually slept.

Before long, it was 3AM again and time to get back off the train. Oliver was zonked out sleepy. Somehow I managed to get his coat and backpack on him despite him being totally limp, and carried him downstairs to get off the train. Pretty soon we walked to our car and drove home.

We tucked them in, and then finally tucked ourselves in. Sometimes being really tired is well worth it.

Categories: Family, Travel

1 Comment

Objects On Earth Are Closer Than They Appear

October 6th, 2015

“We all live beneath the great Big Dipper.”

So goes a line in a song I once heard the great Tony Brown sing. As I near the completion of my private pilot’s training, I’ve had more and more opportunities to literally see the wisdom in those words. Here’s a story of one of them.


“A shining beacon in space — all alone in the night.”

– Babylon 5

A night cross-country flight, my first, taking off from a country airport. The plane lifts into the dark sky. The bright white lights of the runway get smaller, and disappear as I pass the edge of the airport. Directly below me, it looks like a dark sky; pitch black except for little pinpoints of light at farmhouses and the occasional car. But seconds later, an expanse of light unfolds, from a city it takes nearly an hour to reach by car. Already it is in sight, and as I look off to other directions, other cities even farther away are visible, too. The ground shows a square grid, the streets of the city visible for miles.

There are no highway signs in the sky. There are no wheels to keep my plane pointed straight. Even if I point the plane due south, if there is an east wind, I will actually be flying southwest. I use my eyes, enhanced by technology like a compass, GPS, and VHF radio beacons, to find my way. Before ever getting into the airplane, I have carefully planned my route, selecting both visual and technological waypoints along the way to provide many ways to ensure I am on course and make sure I don’t get lost.

Soon I see a flash repeating every few seconds in the distance — an airport beacon. Then another, and another. Little pinpoints of light nestled in the square orange grid. Wichita has many airports, each with its beacon, and one of them will be my first visual checkpoint of the night. I make a few clicks in the cockpit, and soon the radio-controlled lights at one of the airports spring to life, illuminating my first checkpoint. More than a mile of white lights there to welcome any plane that lands, and to show a point on the path of any plane that passes.

I continue my flight, sometimes turning on lights at airports, other times pointing my plane at lights from antenna towers (that are thousands of feet below me), sometimes keeping a tiny needle on my panel centered on a radio beacon. I land at a tiny, deserted airport, and then a few minutes later at a large commercial airport.

On my way back home, I fly solely by reference to the ground — directly over a freeway. I have other tools at my disposal, but don’t need them; the steady stream of red and white lights beneath me are all I need.

From my plane, there is just red and white. One after another, passing beneath me as I fly over them at 115 MPH. There is no citizen or undocumented immigrant, no rich or poor, no atheist or Christian or Muslim, no Democrat or Replubican, no American or Mexican, no adult or child, no rich or poor, no Porsche or Kia. Just red and white points of light, each one the same as the one before and the one after, stretching as far as I can see into the distance. All alike in the night.

You only need to get a hundred feet off the ground before you realize how little state lines, national borders, and the machinery of politics and exclusion really mean. From the sky, the difference between a field of corn and a field of wheat is far more significant than the difference between Kansas and Missouri.

This should be a comforting reminder to us. We are all unique, and beautiful in our uniqueness, but we are all human, each as valuable as the next.

Up in the sky, even though my instructor was with me, during quiet times it is easy to feel all alone in the night. But I know it is not the case. Only a few thousand feet separate my plane from those cars. My plane, too, has red and white lights.

How often at night, when the heavens were bright,
With the light of the twinkling stars
Have I stood here amazed, and asked as I gazed,
If their glory exceed that of ours.

– John A. Lomax

Categories: Aviation

1 Comment

There’s still a chance to save WiFi

September 3rd, 2015

You may not know it, but wifi is under assault in the USA due to proposed FCC regulations about modifications to devices with modular radios. In short, it would make it illegal for vendors to sell devices with firmware that users can replace. This is of concern to everyone, because Wifi routers are notoriously buggy and insecure. It is also of special concern to amateur radio hobbyists, due to the use of these devices in the Amateur Radio Service (FCC Part 97).

I submitted a comment to the FCC about this, which I am pasting in here. This provides a background and summary of the issues for those that are interested. Here it is:

My comment has two parts: one, the impact on the Amateur Radio service; and two, the impact on security. Both pertain primarily to the 802.11 (“Wifi”) services typically operating under Part 15.

The Amateur Radio Service (FCC part 97) has long been recognized by the FCC and Congress as important to the nation. Through it, amateurs contribute to scientific knowledge, learn skills that bolster the technological competitiveness of the United States, and save lives through their extensive involvement in disaster response.

Certain segments of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wifi bands authorized under FCC Part 15 also fall under the frequencies available to licensed amateurs under FCC Part 97 [1].

By scrupulously following the Part 97 regulations, many amateur radio operators are taking devices originally designed for Part 15 use and modifying them for legal use under the Part 97 Amateur Radio Service. Although the uses are varied, much effort is being devoted to fault-tolerant mesh networks that provide high-speed multimedia communications in response to a disaster, even without the presence of any traditional infrastructure or Internet backbone. One such effort [2] causes users to replace the firmware on off-the-shelf Part 15 Wifi devices, reconfiguring them for proper authorized use under Part 97. This project has many vital properties, particularly the self-discovery of routes between nodes and self-healing nature of the mesh network. These features are not typically available in the firmware of normal Part 15 devices.

It should also be noted that there is presently no vendor of Wifi devices that operate under Part 97 out of the box. The only route available to amateurs is to take Part 15 devices and modify them for Part 97 use.

Amateur radio users of these services have been working for years to make sure they do not cause interference to Part 15 users [3]. One such effort takes advantage of the modular radio features of consumer Wifi gear to enable communication on frequencies that are within the Part 97 allocation, but outside (though adjacent) to the Part 15 allocation. For instance, the chart at [1] identifies frequencies such as 2.397GHz or 5.660GHz that will never cause interference to Part 15 users because they lie entirely outside the Part 15 Wifi allocation.

If the FCC prevents the ability of consumers to modify the firmware of these devices, the following negative consequences will necessarily follow:

1) The use of high-speed multimedia or mesh networks in the Amateur Radio service will be sharply curtailed, relegated to only outdated hardware.

2) Interference between the Amateur Radio service — which may use higher power or antennas with higher gain — and Part 15 users will be expanded, because Amateur Radio service users will no longer be able to intentionally select frequencies that avoid Part 15.

3) The culture of inventiveness surrounding wireless communication will be curtailed in an important way.

Besides the impact on the Part 97 Amateur Radio Service, I also wish to comment on the impact to end-user security. There have been a terrible slew of high-profile situations where very popular consumer Wifi devices have had incredible security holes. Vendors have often been unwilling to address these issues [4].

Michael Horowitz maintains a website tracking security bugs in consumer wifi routers [5]. Sadly these bugs are both severe and commonplace. Within just the last month, various popular routers have been found vulnerable to remote hacking [6] and platforms for launching Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks [7]. These impacted multiple models from multiple vendors. To make matters worse, most of these issues should have never happened in the first place, and were largely the result of carelessness or cluelessness on the part of manufacturers.

Consumers should not be at the mercy of vendors to fix their own networks, nor should they be required to trust unauditable systems. There are many well-regarded efforts to provide better firmware for Wifi devices, which still keep them operating under Part 15 restrictions. One is OpenWRT [8], which supports a wide variety of devices with a system built upon a solid Linux base.

Please keep control of our devices in the hands of consumers and amateurs, for the benefit of all.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_multimedia_radio

[2] http://www.broadband-hamnet.org/just-starting-read-this.html

[3] http://www.qsl.net/kb9mwr/projects/wireless/modify.html

[4] http://www.tomsitpro.com/articles/netgear-routers-security-hole,1-2461.html

[5] http://routersecurity.org/bugs.php

[6] https://www.kb.cert.org/vuls/id/950576

[7] https://www.stateoftheinternet.com/resources-cloud-security-2015-q2-web-security-report.html

[8] https://openwrt.org/

Categories: Law & Government


First steps: Debian on an Asus t100, and some negative experience with Gnome

August 16th, 2015

The Asus t100 tablet is this amazing and odd little thing: it sells for under $200, yet has a full-featured Atom 64-bit CPU, 2GB RAM, 32 or 64GB SSD, etc. By default, it ships with Windows 8.1. It has a detachable keyboard, so it can be used as a tablet or a very small 10″ laptop.

I have never been a fan of Windows on it. It does the trick for web browsing and email, but I’d like to ssh into my machines sometimes, and I just can’t bring myself to type sensitive passwords into Windows.

I decided to try installing Debian on it. After a lot of abortive starts due to the UEFI-only firmware, I got jessie installed. (The installer was fine; it was Debian Live that wouldn’t boot.) I got wifi and battery status working via an upgrade to the 4.1 kernel. A little $10 Edimax USB adapter was handy to spare a bunch of copying via USB disks.

I have been using XFCE with XMonad for so many years that I am somewhat a stranger to other desktop environments. XMonad isn’t really suitable for a tablet, however, so I thought I’d try Gnome, especially after a fairly glowing review about its use on a tablet.

I am already disappointed after just a few minutes. There is no suspend button on the menu. Some Googling showed that holding Alt while hovering over the power off button will change it to a suspend button. And indeed it does. But… uh, what? That is so common and so non-obvious. And pushing the power button does… nothing. That’s right, nothing. Apparently the way to enable some action when you push the power button is to type in a settings command in a terminal. There’s no setting in the settings panel.

I initially ditched Gnome some years ago due to its penchant for removing features. I had hoped that this much time later, it would have passed that stage, but I’m already disappointed. I was hoping for some really nice integration with the system. But my XFCE setup has a very clear “When power button is pressed” setting. I have no idea why Gnome doesn’t.

Also, the touch screen works fine and it registers my touches, but whenever I touch anywhere, the cursor disappears. Weird, eh?

There are some things to fix yet on the tablet (sound, brightness adjustment, and making suspend reliable) but others have solved these in Ubuntu so I don’t think it’ll be too hard.

In the meantime, any suggestions regarding Gnome? Is it just going to annoy me? Maybe I should try KDE also. I’ve heard good things about Plasma Active, but don’t see it in Debian though.

Categories: Uncategorized


Detailed Smart Card Cryptographic Token Security Guide

August 6th, 2015

After my first post about smartcards under Linux, I thought I would share some information I’ve been gathering.

This post is already huge, so I am not going to dive into — much — specific commands, but I am linking to many sources with detailed instructions.

I’ve reviewed several types of cards. For this review, I will focus on the OpenPGP card and the Yubikey NEO, since the Cardomatic Smartcard-HSM is not supported by the gpg version in Jessie.

Both cards are produced by people with strong support for the Free Software ecosystem and have strong cross-platform support with source code.

OpenPGP card: Basics with GnuPG

The OpenPGP card is well-known as one of the first smart cards to work well on Linux. It is a single-application card focused on use with GPG. Generally speaking, by the way, you want GPG2 for use with smartcards.

Basically, this card contains three slots: decryption, signing, and authentication slots. The concept is that the private key portions of the keys used for these items are stored only on the card, can never be extracted from the card, and the cryptographic operations are performed on the card. There is more information in my original post. In a fairly rare move for smartcards, this card supports 4096-byte RSA keys; most are restricted to 2048-byte keys.

The FSF Europe hands these out to people and has a lot of good information about them online, including some HOWTOs. The official GnuPG smart card howto is 10 years old, and although it has some good background, I’d suggest using the FSFE instructions instead.

As you’ll see in a bit, most of this information also pertains to the OpenPGP mode of the Yubikey Neo.

OpenPGP card: Other uses

Of course, this is already pretty great to enhance your GPG security, but there’s a lot more that you can do with this card to add two-factor authentication (2FA) to a lot of other areas. Here are some pointers:

OpenPGP card: remote authentication with ssh

You can store the private part of your ssh key on the card. Traditionally, this was only done by using the ssh agent emulation mode of gnupg-agent. This is still possible, of course.

Now, however, the OpenSC project now supports the OpenPGP card as a PKCS#11 and PKCS#15 card, which means it works natively with ssh-agent as well. Try just ssh-add -s /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/pkcs11/opensc-pkcs11.so if you’ve put a key in the auth slot with GPG. ssh-add -L will list its fingerprint for insertion into authorized_keys. Very simple!

As an aside: Comments that you need scute for PKCS#11 support are now outdated. I do not recommend scute. It is quite buggy.

OpenPGP card: local authentication with PAM

You can authenticate logins to a local machine by using the card with libpam-poldi — here are some instructions.

Between the use with ssh and the use with PAM, we have now covered 2FA for both local and remote use in Unix environments.

OpenPGP card: use on Windows

Let’s move on to Windows environments. The standard suggestion here seems to be the mysmartlogon OpenPGP mini-driver. It works with some sort of Windows CA system, or the local accounts using EIDAuthenticate. I have not yet tried this.

OpenPGP card: Use with X.509 or Windows Active Directory

You can use the card in X.509 mode via these gpgsm instructions, which apparently also work with Windows Active Directory in some fashion.

You can also use it with web browsers to present a certificate from a client for client authentication. For example, here are OpenSC instructions for Firefox.

OpenPGP card: Use with OpenVPN

Via the PKCS#11 mode, this card should be usable to authenticate a client to OpenVPN. See the official OpenVPN HOWTO or these other instructions for more.

OpenPGP card: a note on PKCS#11 and PKCS#15 support

You’ll want to install the opensc-pkcs11 package, and then give the path /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/pkcs11/opensc-pkcs11.so whenever something needs the PKCS#11 library. There seem to be some locking/contention issues between GPG2 and OpenSC, however. Usually killing pcscd and scdaemon will resolve this.

I would recommend doing manipulation operations (setting PINs, generating or uploading keys, etc.) via GPG2 only. Use the PKCS#11 tools only to access.

OpenPGP card: further reading

Kernel Concepts also has some nice readers; you can get this card in a small USB form-factor by getting the mini-card and the Gemalto reader.

Yubikey Neo Introduction

The Yubikey Neo is a fascinating device. It is a small USB and NFC device, a little smaller than your average USB drive. It is a multi-application device that actually has six distinct modes:

  • OpenPGP JavaCard Applet (pc/sc-compatible)
  • Personal Identity Verification [PIV] (pc/sc-compatible, PKCS#11-compatible in Windows and OpenSC)
  • Yubico HOTP, via your own auth server or Yubico’s
  • OATH, with its two sub-modes:
    • OATH TOTP, with a mobile or desktop helper app (drop-in for Google Authenticator
  • Challenge-response mode
  • U2F (Universal 2nd Factor) with Chrome

There is a ton to digest with this device.

Yubikey Neo Basics

By default, the Yubikey Neo is locked to only a subset of its features. Using the yubikey-personalization tool (you’ll need the version in stretch; jessie is too old), you can use ykpersonalize -m86 to unlock the full possibilities of the card. Run that command, then unplug and replug the device.

It will present itself as a USB keyboard as well as a PC/SC-compatible card reader. It has a capacitive button, which is used to have it generate keystrokes to input validation information for HOTP or HMAC validation. It has two “slots” that can be configured with HMAC and HOTP; a short button press selects the default slot #1 and a long press selects slot #2.

But before we get into that, let’s step back at some basics.

opensc-tool –list-algorithms claims this card supports RSA with 1024, 2048, and 3072 sizes, and EC with 256 and 384-bit sizes. I haven’t personally verified anything other than RSA-2048 though.

Yubikey Neo: OpenPGP support

In this mode, the card is mostly compatible with the physical OpenPGP card. I say “mostly” because there are a few protocol differences I’ll get into later. It is also limited to 2048-byte keys.

Support for this is built into GnuPG and the GnuPG features described above all work fine.

In this mode, it uses firmware from the Yubico fork of the JavaCard OpenPGP Card applet. There are Yubico-specific tutorials available, but again, most of the general GPG stuff applies.

You can use gnupg-agent to use the card with SSH as before. However, due to some incompatibilities, the OpenPGP applet on this card cannot be used as a PKCS#11 card with either scute or OpenSC. That is not exactly a huge problem, however, as the card has another applet (PIV) that is compatible with OpenSC and so this still provides an avenue for SSH, OpenVPN, Mozilla, etc.

It should be noted that the OpenPGP applet on this card can also be used with NFC on Android with the OpenKeychain app. Together with pass (or its Windows, Mac, or phone ports), this makes a nicely secure system for storing passwords.

Yubikey Neo: PKCS#11 with the PIV applet

There is also support for the PIV standard on the Yubikey Neo. This is supported by default on Linux (via OpenSC) and Windows and provides a PKCS#11-compabible store. It should, therefore, be compatible with ssh-agent, OpenVPN, Active Directory, and all the other OpenPGP card features described above. The only difference is that it uses storage separate from the OpenPGP applet.

You will need one of the Yubico PIV tools to configure the key for it; in Debian, the yubico-piv-tool from stretch does this.

Here are some instructions on using the Yubikey Neo in PIV mode:

A final note: for security, it’s important to change the management key and PINs before deploying the PIV mode.

I couldn’t get this to work with Firefox, but it worked pretty much everywhere else.

Yubikey Neo: HOTP authentication

This is the default mode for your Yubikey; all other modes require enabling with ykpersonalize. In this mode, a 128-bit AES key stored on the Yubikey is used to generate one-time passwords (OTP). (This key was shared in advance with the authentication server.) A typical pattern would be for three prompts: username, password, and Yubikey HOTP. The user clicks in the Yubikey HOTP field, touches the Yubikey, and their one-time token is pasted in.

In the background, the service being authenticated to contacts an authentication server. This authentication server can be either your own (there are several open source implementations in Debian) or the free Yubicloud.

Either way, the server decrypts the encrypted part of the OTP, performs validity checks (making sure that the counter is larger than any counter it’s seen before, etc) and returns success or failure back to the service demanding authentication.

The first few characters of the posted auth contain the unencrypted key ID, and thus it can also be used to provide username if desired.

Yubico has provided quite a few integrations and libraries for this mode. A few highlights:

You can also find some details on the OTP mode. Here’s another writeup.

This mode is simple to implement, but it has a few downsides. One is that it is specific to the Yubico line of products, and thus has a vendor lock-in factor. Another is the dependence on the authentication server; this creates a potential single point of failure and can be undesireable in some circumtances.

Yubikey Neo: OATH and HOTP and TOTP

First, a quick note: OATH and OAuth are not the same. OATH is an authentication protocol, and OAuth is an authorization protocol. Now then…

Like Yubikey HOTP, OATH (both HOTP and TOTP) modes rely on a pre-shared key. (See details in the Yubico article.) Let’s talk about TOTP first. With TOTP, there is a pre-shared secret with each service. Each time you authenticate to that service, your TOTP generator combines the timestamp with the shared secret using a HMAC algorithm and produces a OTP that changes every 30 seconds. Google Authenticator is a common example of this protocol, and this is a drop-in replacement for it. Gandi has a nice description of it that includes links to software-only solutions on various platforms as well.

With the Yubikey, the shared secrets are stored on the card and processed within it. You cannot extract the shared secret from the Yubikey. Of course, if someone obtains physical access to your Yubikey they could use the shared secret stored on it, but there is no way they can steal the shared secret via software, even by compromising your PC or phone.

Since the Yubikey does not have a built-in clock, TOTP operations cannot be completed solely on the card. You can use a PC-based app or the Android application (Play store link) with NFC to store secrets on the device and generate your TOTP codes. Command-line users can also use the yubikey-totp tool in the python-yubico package.

OATH can also use HOTP. With HOTP, an authentication counter is used instead of a clock. This means that HOTP passwords can be generated entirely within the Yubikey. You can use ykpersonalize to configure either slot 1 or 2 for this mode, but one downside is that it can really only be used with one service per slot.

OATH support is all over the place; for instance, there’s libpam-oath from the OATH toolkit for Linux platforms. (Some more instructions on this exist.)

Note: There is another tool from Yubico (not in Debian) that can apparently store multiple TOTP and HOTP codes in the Yubikey, although ykpersonalize and other documentation cannot. It is therefore unclear to me if multiple HOTP codes are supported, and how..

Yubikey Neo: Challenge-Response Mode

This can be useful for doing offline authentication, and is similar to OATH-HOTP in a sense. There is a shared secret to start with, and the service trying to authenticate sends a challenge to the token, which must supply an appropriate response. This makes it only suitable for local authentication, but means it can be done fairly automatically and optionally does not even require a button press.

To muddy the waters a bit, it supports both “Yubikey OTP” and HMAC-SHA1 challenge-response modes. I do not really know the difference. However, it is worth noting that libpam-yubico works with HMAC-SHA1 mode. This makes it suitable, for instance, for logon passwords.

Yubikey Neo: U2F

U2F is a new protocol for web-based apps. Yubico has some information, but since it is only supported in Chrome, it is not of interest to me right now.

Yubikey Neo: Further resources

Yubico has a lot of documentation, and in particular a technical manual that is actually fairly detailed.

Closing comments

Do not think a hardware security token is a panacea. It is best used as part of a multi-factor authentication system; you don’t want a lost token itself to lead to a breach, just as you don’t want a compromised password due to a keylogger to lead to a breach.

These things won’t prevent someone that has compromised your PC from abusing your existing ssh session (or even from establishing new ssh sessions from your PC, once you’ve unlocked the token with the passphrase). What it will do is prevent them from stealing your ssh private key and using it on a different PC. It won’t prevent someone from obtaining a copy of things you decrypt on a PC using the Yubikey, but it will prevent them from decrypting other things that used that private key. Hopefully that makes sense.

One also has to consider the security of the hardware. On that point, I am pretty well satisfied with the Yubikey; large parts of it are open source, and they have put a lot of effort into hardening the hardware. It seems pretty much impervious to non-government actors, which is about the best guarantee a person can get about anything these days.

I hope this guide has been helpful.

Categories: Debian, Hardware, Linux, Technology

Tags: , 4 Comments

The Time Machine of Durango

August 2nd, 2015

“The airplane may be the closest thing we have to a time machine.”

– Brian J. Terwilliger


There is something about that moment. Hiking in the mountains near Durango, Colorado, with Laura and the boys, we found a beautiful spot with a view of the valley. We paused to admire, and then –

The sound of a steam locomotive whistle from down below, sounding loud all the way up there, then echoing back and forth through the valley. Then the quieter, seemingly more distant sound of the steam engine heading across the valley, chugging and clacking as it goes. More whistles, the sight of smoke and then of the train full of people, looking like a beautiful model train from our vantage point.


I’ve heard that sound on a few rare recordings, but never experienced it. I’ve been on steam trains a few times, but never spent time in a town where they still run all day, every day. It is a different sort of feeling to spend a week in a place where Jacob and Oliver would jump up several times a day and rush to the nearest window in an attempt to catch sight of the train.


Airplanes really can be a time machine in a sense — what a wondrous time to be alive, when things so ancient are within the reach of so many. I have been transported to Lübeck and felt the uneven 700-year-old stones of the Marienkirche underneath my feet, feeling a connection to the people that walked those floors for centuries. I felt the same in Prague, in St. George’s Basilica, built in 1142, and at the Acropolis of Lindos, with its ancient Greek temple ruins. In Kansas, I feel that when in the middle of the Flint Hills — rolling green hills underneath the pure blue sky with billowing white clouds, the sounds of crickets, frogs, and cicadas in my ears; the sights and sounds are pretty much as they’ve been for tens of thousands of years. And, of course, in Durango, arriving on a plane but seeing the steam train a few minutes later.


It was fitting that we were in Durango with Laura’s parents to celebrate their 50th anniversary. As we looked forward to riding the train, we heard their stories of visits to Durango years ago, of their memories of days when steam trains were common. We enjoyed thinking about what our lives would be like should we live long enough to celebrate 50 years of marriage. Perhaps we would still be in good enough health to be able to ride a steam train in Durango, telling about that time when we rode the train, which by then will have been pretty much the same for 183 years. Or perhaps we would take them to our creek, enjoying a meal at the campfire like I’ve done since I was a child.

Each time has its unique character. I am grateful for the cameras and airplanes and air conditioning we have today. But I am also thankful for those things that connect us with each other trough time, those rocks that are the same every year, those places that remind us how close we really are to those that came before.

Categories: Aviation, Family, Travel

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True Things About Learning to Fly

July 17th, 2015

I’ve been pretty quiet for the last few months because I’m learning to fly. I want to start with a few quotes about aviation. I have heard things like these from many people and can vouch for their accuracy:

Anyone can learn to fly.

Learning to fly is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.

It is totally worth it. Being a pilot will give you a new outlook on life.

You’ll be amazed at what radios do a 3000ft. Have you ever had an 3000-foot antenna tower?

The world is glorious at 1000ft up.

Share your enthusiasm with those around you. You have a perspective very few ever see, except for a few seconds on the way to 35,000ft.

Earlier this month, I flew solo for the first time — the biggest milestone on the way to getting the pilot’s license. Here’s a photo my flight instructor took as I was coming in to land that day.


Today I took my first flight to another airport. It wasn’t far — about 20 miles away — but it was still a thrill. I flew about 1500ft above the ground, roughly above a freeway that happened to be my route. From that height, things still look three-dimensional. The grain elevator that marked out the one small town, the manufacturing plant at another, the college at the third. Bales of hay dotting the fields, the occasional tractor creeping along a road, churches sticking up above the trees. These are places I’ve known for decades, and now, suddenly, they are all new.

What a time to be alive! I am glad that our world is still so full of wonder and beauty.

Categories: Aviation



http://changelog.complete.org /