10 techies I'm truly thankful for

The people, organizations, and phenomena that have made the tech world a better place in 2013.

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I know, I spend an awful lot of time raging about the tech world and its discontents. But for a change, I'd like to focus on the things I am most thankful for this year. It turns out most of them are people. Here are 10 that have made the world a better, more interesting place over the past 11 months.

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1. John McAfee

If all ex-software entrepreneurs had half the personality of John McAfee -- or even a quarter of his rap sheet -- it would be a far more interesting world. At age 68, McAfee has managed to become the l'enfant terrible of high tech, from posting hilarious NSFW videos on YouTube to consulting with the Republicans on the Obamacare website fiasco to developing software to thwart NSA spying. What's next? Will he take over Steve Ballmer's chair at Microsoft? How about a run for the White House in 2016? We've had worse options.

2. The Electronic Frontier Foundation

Digital advocacy groups come and go, but over the past 20 years, no one has had our backs like the EFF. Whether it's taking on the copyright cartel, battling brain-dead legislation like SOPA or PIPA, agitating for patent reform, parsing the true implications of a surveillance society, or gauging how well big companies protect the data they voraciously consume, the EFF fights the good fight -- and sometimes it even wins.

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3. Marissa Mayer

It's not because she's smart, talented, driven, and gorgeous (though she is). It's not because she's a desperately needed role model for female geeks, whose numbers have been in steady decline. It's not even because she's replacing Steve Ballmer as keynote speaker at CES (praise Jesus). It's because, win or lose, succeed or fail, Marissa has made Yahoo worth watching again -- and offered a lively alternative to the increasingly stodgy Google.

4. Viral videography

2013 marks the year YouTube and its ilk finally moved beyond silly home movies, adorable kittens, and overproduced music videos to morph into a an art form all its own. Case in point: Bob Dylan's hypnotic interactive version of “Like a Rolling Stone” (pictured), in which viewers channel surf a virtual TV where everyone on every station – game-show hosts, sports announcers, DJs, cartoon cats, tennis players, the dudes from “Pawn Stars” -- is lip-syncing the iconic song. Or check out Bad Lip Reading. Top that, Numa Numa Guy.

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5. Ladar Levison

The founder of Lavabit "secure" email service was unknown to most of the world until Edward Snowden made him semi-famous. But he was already famous to the spooks inside the NSA. After fighting a losing battle to protect Lavabit's encyption keys, potentially exposing the confidential communications  of 400,000 customers, Levison did the only honorable thing left, shutting down his service and going public with his story. Now the Feds want to fine him $10,000. Who are the real turkeys in this Thanksgiving play? 

Credit: Reuters / Sergio Moraes
6. Journalism 2.0

This year we've seen a major resurgence of my chosen profession. Call it the Ed Snowden effect. Or maybe after years of cutbacks and closures, the time was just ripe for a comeback. There has been more valuable investigative journalism on display this year than at any time post Woodward and Bernstein. Digital-age news-gathering organizations like the nonprofit Pro Publica and Pierre Omidyar's as yet unnamed $250 million venture featuring Glenn Greenwald aim to make sure it stays that way.

Credit: Reuters / Todd Korol
7. Chris Hadfield

He had us at “Space Oddity.” The planet's most down-to-earth astronaut had already garnered a sizable following on Twitter and YouTube before recording the David Bowie classic inside the International Space Station, “sitting in a tin can far above the world.” Sadly, the widely shared story that he was thrown out of a movie theater for heckling Sandra Bullock in Gravity is just a myth. Still, when we retire and sign up for that space cruise to Mars, we want him as our pilot.

8. The cloud

I know; being thankful for the Internet is a little like being thankful for oxygen (which, by the way, I am). But the profusion of cloud services that have emerged over the past couple of years have changed my life more profoundly than anything in recent memory. Every file I need, every song or photograph I want, every service I use, is available on every device I own. Hardware is now virtually irrelevant. As long as I remember to leave the house with at least my phone and my keys, I'm good. Are cloud services totally secure and reliable? Hardly. But what else is?

Credit: Reuters / Danny Moloshok
9. George Takei

Who knew Sulu could be so funny? The 76-year-old actor's sage use of social media spawned a second shot at fame, not unlike his former Captain did via those goofy Priceline commercials in the 1990s. Takei's Facebook page boasts more than 5 million Likes; news that some of his posts are ghostwritten for $10 a pop failed to dent its popularity. Takei he has used his second shot at fame to become a prominent and funny activist for gay rights and to preserve the history of Japanese Americans interned during World War II. He also has an asteroid named after him. Not bad for a guy whose most memorable line used to be “Aye aye, captain.”

Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter
10. Edward Snowden

You saw this one coming. Whether you think Snowden is a hero or a traitor, you can't argue with the profound effect he's had on the world. We're no longer in the dark about how the surveillance industrial complex is prying into the lives of innocent people. Personal privacy and security are now on everyone's radar. A Harris Interactive poll released this month shows that young people care more about privacy than they ever have before. As InfoWorld's Roger Grimes notes, the NSA revelations may be the jolt the private companies needed to get their own security houses in order -- and even push Net standards bodies toward taking long overdue security measures. That's a pretty impressive legacy. Thanks, Ed.