Category Archives: internet

Moglen vs History

King Canute famously failed to prevent the tide coming in.  I can’t help wondering if Eben Moglen is setting himself on a similarly futile course, when he calls for decentralisation of our information infrastructure.

The subject of Moglen’s opening keynote at FOSDEM was liberty, and how technology can work for or against it.  He spoke of current and recent topical events, from Wikileaks to the role of the ‘net in Egypt’s (so-far) peaceful revolution.  And of how technology can serve those who might threaten freedom: how much sensitive information could a heavy-handed government pick up from something as simple as a legal action on Facebook.  How Data Protection in Europe has merely served to outsource handling of personal data to countries like the US with no such protection of privacy.

His call to developers was to build decentralised networks, where we can publish, communicate, interact as we do on the ‘net without submitting all our data to any centralised database that might become the focus of malign attention.   Examples of tasks he spoke of ranged from Facebook-style networking to building a citizens cellphone network from $20 base stations in people’s homes.  Tasks which are at least technically feasible to prototype and develop.

Listening to this, my reaction was that he’s battling against history here.  History on the ‘net has shown different media and channels becoming more, not less, centralised.  The once-popular Usenet medium for public discussion has given way to web-based fora: a wholly inferior medium for the task, and one for which I must admit my small measure of guilt (though it seemed like an interesting thing to implement in 1995).  IRC discussion remains popular amongst geeks, but elsewhere there came chatrooms, and now we even have Twitter making a grab for that space.  Every time, the geek medium gives way to an inferior one because the latter gets the mindshare.  Non-technical journalists will routinely invite us to ‘tweet’ them, or mention a web forum relevant to a topic under discussion, so the public learn of these media.  Meanwhile the old, decentralised, shared, and in both these cases altogether superior, media are relegated to enclaves of geekdom (or, in the case of much of usenet, to wastelands of spam and other abuse).  My suggestion to him was, you need to concentrate your efforts not so much on legislators, but on communicators.  Journalists in mainstream media!

OK, ‘net history is short.  Why should a campaigner for freedom not call for trends to be reversed?

A wider perspective tells us that the online centralisation trends of which I have written are merely examples of similar trends backed by far more history.  The most striking parallel in English history is the Enclosure of the Commons.  The absurd valuations given to some websites (headed by Facebook) tell us a new aristocracy is profiting from enclosing an online commons, albeit an ephemeral and transient one.

And I plead guilty to hosting my blog at another aristocrat of web-land, WordPress.  Yep, my rantings are centralised as a matter of simple convenience.

Rural Broadband

I’ve been invited to offer my thoughts on rural broadband, and its effect on business[1].  On the grounds that I’m both a techie and a user, and might therefore have something more to contribute than those who are one but not the other.  The audience for this exercise might even include some of our elected politicians!

So here are some thoughts.

Policy Confusion

Politicians have spoken of a new generation of high-speed broadband based on optical fiber.  An admirable goal subject to cost constraints, but a completely separate issue to basic, always-on ADSL-grade connectivity.  The latter is what really matters, and we want it now, not ‘eventually’.

Politicians have tended to confuse the basic essential with the more ambitious goal.  They need to be clear.  Rural areas don’t need motorways, but we do need basic access, and we don’t want to be kept waiting while the new motorways are rolled out!

Anecdotal

My own experience is that ADSL arrived in about January 2004.  2004 is the year my circumstances moved away from poverty, before completing a turnaround and generating good money in 2005.  Since then it has helped me to work for clients and later an employer on distant continents, and to work with a US publisher on my book.  ADSL has made all the difference between poverty and prosperity!

The Sword of Damocles

The biggest issue facing rural business is the risk of moving to a new home or premises and finding there is a problem with broadband.  We desperately need to be able to get a reliable indication of whether broadband will be available at a prospective address.  This has improved since the days of no guarantees anywhere, but that leaves large no-go areas where BT’s checker is ambiguous.

Alternative Solutions

For areas where ADSL (or other terrestrial solutions) are irredeemably uneconomic, might a better solution be satellite broadband?  Not to be confused, of course, with the one-way-only data used by satellite TV and optionally supplemented by other means (usually ‘phone lines).  Promoting satellite broadband more widely could help bring costs down (economies of scale), and policymakers could perhaps encourage it – e.g. with tax breaks or even rural development funds.  Could be particularly useful for a rural hamlet too small for a telephone exchange, where a satellite connection could serve as a shared hub.  This is something where we (locally) could seek to ally ourselves with other rural areas more widely: at EU-wide level (for instance) it could have real weight.

[1] My definition of business here includes self-employed and employees working from home or from a small rural office, as well as more traditional business premises.  The arguments apply to everyone short of bigger-biz with the resources to provide their own broadband connection privately.

Filesharing is the new porn

We all know that the old-meeja go on at length about filesharing, copyright theft, internet piracy, call it what you will.  So it was no surprise to hear it rehashed on the beeb yesterday evening.  Usual format: an interviewer, and two people with opposing views to debate it.

I only caught bits of it: I was cooking my supper and not really listening.  But one thing struck me: one of the debaters said that everyone fileshares.  This was quite an emphatic everyone, and he clearly intended to distinguish the sense from a typical apologist’s appropriation of everyone to a manifest falsehood like “everyone supports the olympics”.  Nor was it an Orwellian with-menaces everyone, as in you’re misogynist racist pedophile terrorist scum and beneath contempt if you dare to question us.

Since it clearly is an apologist’s everyone, that must be a bit of willy-waving (“my everyone is bigger than your everyone”).  But more striking is that neither the interviewer nor the opposing debater made any attempt to challenge it: indeed, they seemed to agree with it.  Perhaps it really is true in meeja-luvvie circles?

Then it struck me: this is exactly like the meeja discussion of online porn was ten years ago.  We’ve got used to the Beeb being our (UK’s) self-proclaimed leading website.  But for a few years after they first noticed the ‘net, you’d never hear it discussed without someone blathering about online porn.  If you didn’t know better, you’d have thought that the ‘net revolved around porn and everyone was into it.

As someone with an altogether different vision of the ‘net, I found the association rather distasteful, and some aspects downright offensive[1].   Like, ratings for websites having an implicit assumption that every site might need them, without even a default category for “no sex or violence not because we’ve toned it down and pitched it at children, but because this website is all about coffee, computers, or astronomy”.  Should I declare my websites as having mild/inoffensive sex and violence (the lowest PICS category) just to avoid the risk of being blocked by family-safe services that block unrated sites to protect children?  Absurd and offensive!

Worse, the association with porn put barriers in the way of those of us who wanted to promote the ‘net for altogether good, constructive purposes.

So if filesharing is the new porn, what lessons can we draw?  The optimistic view is ignore the hot-air and it’ll go away, just as the meeja’s porn-fixation went away when the BBC decided it was going to be top-website itself.

But maybe it’s not the same: the porn message was rooted in the ‘net being a “new frontier” for the meeja and their mass audience, while the filesharing one is driven by powerful commercial interests, some of whom are the world’s biggest unauthorised profiteers from other people’s efforts (“thieves” or “pirates”, in their own language).  And I don’t just mean things like Disney famously copyrighting everything from common cultural heritage (fairytales) to african music in the lion king: people better-informed than I describe altogether more sinister practices like identity theft.

On the other hand, Big Pirates never succeeded in getting the photocopier or the cassette tape banned.  I expect those who persist in fighting technology will continue to fight a losing battle, and the meeja attention will indeed blow over.  Just as it did with porn on the ‘net.

[1] Nothing against pornographers.  Just so long as I’m free to steer clear of their work, it’s live-and-let-live.  Same principle as when I was doing research in a department right in the red light district: we (geeks) didn’t bother the ladies of the night, and they didn’t bother us.  But I’d have been mildly pissed off if the world assumed that the reason I worked there was because of them, and seriously so if my work was belittled or dismissed on that basis.

Hurdles to discussion

+1 to Ortwin Glück!

The greatest virtue of blogs is their support for discussion.  Putting silly barriers in the way of comments is counterproductive.

But Ortwin overlooks the worst case.  Sure, jumping through hoops is annoying.  But what’s altogether worse is sites that appear to accept comments, but when you’ve put the effort in require you to jump through hoops by stealth.  Worst: those whose hoops are insurmountable: one of those eye tests (aka captchas) which my client may not even display, or which I may be unable to solve.  Or blogs using blogger that expect you to send OpenID credentials, then throw up an error message when you do so.

For the record, no, this is not finger-pointing.  I made no attempt to comment on Ortwin’s blog.  Had I done so, I’m sure it would’ve been published with no problems.

Broadband availability

Dear Lazyweb (UK), can anyone tell me how near I can come to relying on a provisional yes from BT’s broadband availability checker?

I’ve just seen a very nice cottage I’m interested in taking.  But it’s in a small and rather remote (by UK standards) village.  The current occupier has no broadband, and the agent is clearly ignorant (thought Sky – which the current occupier does have – was broadband).  BT’s checker returns a noncommittal:

Your exchange is ADSL enabled, and our initial check on your postcode indicates that your line should be able to have an ADSL broadband service that provides a fixed line rate up to 512Kbps. However, due to the length of your line, an engineer visit may be required, who will, where possible, supply the broadband service.

Our check also indicates that your line currently supports a potential ADSL Max broadband line rate of 1Mbps or greater.

If you decide to place an order, a further test will be performed to confirm if your line is suitable for the service you wish to purchase.

Thank you for your interest.

That’s fine if I can rely on it!  But obviously, losing broadband loses me my ability to perform my job, or do other business for which I’m qualified effectively.  BT won’t give me anything more definite until the ‘phone line is mine and I’ve ordered ADSL, and this is not a risk I can even insure against!  To cap it all, the village is in a valley and has no mobile signal, so mobile broadband isn’t an option either.

Much ado about … what?

Heard on the wireless this morning, some latter-day Mary Whitehouse calling itself the Internet Watch Foundation has decreed that a Wikipedia page should be banned.  It seems the page in question includes a picture of a (child) girl in a state of undress, bringing it into witch-hunt territory.  It’s about what turns out to be some old (1976 ferchrissake) pop record, and the picture is of the album cover and is on sale perfectly legally in the shops.  But I didn’t know any of that until I found the wikipedia page in question via MJR’s blog.

What matters here is not some tacky picture (and I can’t see how anyone could consider it erotic – she’s pretty thoroughly unsexed in it).  But the IWF is claiming that they’ve persuaded UK ISPs to block the page, in a coup Mrs Whitehouse could only have dreamed of.  Trying it for myself, I could see the page (good).  But later in response to another comment I clicked on the image, only to find that had indeed been blocked (ouch).  Routing round the block, there’s another page with just a slightly larger version of the picture, again having no merit other than that of having provoked Big Brother.

That’s disturbing.  I couldn’t give a damn about some pop group or tasteless picture, but if this is allowed to stand it’s the not-so-thin end of a wedge to things that matter a lot.  And when I go to a page that does matter, I want to read that page.  In other words, I want to choose Shakespeare over Bowdler, let alone some anonymous nobody without even the latter’s modest talents.

First they came for the trash, and …
… I got p***ed off enough to rant about it, because I have read Niemöller, Miller and Orwell.

Dear Lazyweb, can anyone tell me what UK ISPs will stand up to vain and stupid censorship?

(Lots of Wikipedia links in honour of their role in this story.  One more link: a transcript posted by the author of this wikipedia entry of this morning’s piece).

Downtime!

A comment on this blog today alerted me that my webserver had gone down, for the first time since moving to slicehost. The system had rebooted, and instead of my webserver there was an unconfigured system default installation – so my link to it from the blog had failed. Some other services were also down, though email (both postfix and dovecot) were running correctly – so my suspicions weren’t immediately aroused.  Maybe I should de-automate dovecot startup so I get a visible error pushed on me.

My fault – fixing up the init scripts should’ve been done when I first set the server up. But no great damage done. I’ve now replaced the apache init script with a symlink to the proper apachectl, which should work fine for startup purposes. Hopefully the next slicehost reboot will be incident-free.

Virtualised!

My slice is up-and-running, and all major services appear to work, though there’ll doubtless be glitches.  Yesterday I updated DNS to point to it, after Richard contacted me to say they’re clearing out the old datacentre over the weekend.  This morning, DNS has propagated to my ISP and no doubt much of the ‘net, so next time you contact anything I run, it’ll be on the new slice.

There were a couple of minor panics in setting it up, when things didn’t compile first time.  libhtnorm (the backend for AccessValet) was an unexpected scare when it showed a bunch of unresolved C++ symbols.  But it turned out to be just the linker that was different, so it worked fine when I explicitly loaded libstdc++.so.  Other Site Valet tools required some very minor troubleshooting, but only at a sysop level (no programming).  My main fear proved unfounded as mod_validator required nothing more exciting than the latest Xerces package and an OpenSP build with the right options.  ApacheTutor also needed some trivial work, to compile mod_xmlns against the expat version installed on the new slice.

I’m still thinking about how best to add a note to pages served, and invite users to report anything that’s broken in the move.  Of course I can use mod_publisher to insert a notice, and the stumbling block is to work out the page design with the notice in for each site affected.  All my sites need an overhaul anyway.

Anyway, it’s farewell to Openia, who have done a great job hosting the server over several years.  A special thanks to them for sponsoring it when WebThing was struggling with no money.

slicehost

Following the way DrBacchus and pctony have led, I’ve subscribed to slicehost.  All being well, I’ll migrate all my online presence there by the end of the week (except what’s already “outsourced”, like this blog running @wordpress.com).  That’s DNS, Mail, Web and SVN.  I’ve already fully configured infrastructure (ssh keys and firewall) and DNS, and I hope to finish mail tonight.

Slicehost looks like the ideal deal now for people like me, offering a full virtual machine at less than the price of a highly-restricted virtual host when I first got an online presence independent of my then-employer in 1995.  There’s no longer any good reason to keep on my old 1997 server in a data centre, and by retiring it I free myself from “what if” worries concerning things like hardware failure.  And finally, the economies of scale should reduce the carbon footprint.

Not sure where I’ll put the retired server, but it’ll be b***** useful to have a box with space for lots of old rarely-used-but-sometimes-wanted hardware.

What’s so great about the Goog?

As we all know, Google is the best search engine and the most useful single site on the ‘net.  Not that it’s perfect, and outside of its core web-search function, it has some manure-grade junk out there too.

Now there seems to be a bit of a meeja fuss over some goog-killer-wannabe called cuil.  I can only attribute this to cuil having an effective bullshitPR department, to get so much attention.  The report on El Reg (NSFW) shows a snapshot of results, that leave me no wish to see more: for the first time in over 20 years on the ‘net, I’ve been exposed to … ahem … dirty pics (I won’t say porno, because I don’t see how two men masturbating is supposed to titillate).  Ahem, not what I want in my search results.

And don’t forget, El Reg is a regular Goog-basher who you’d expect to welcome – albeit not uncritically – a real alternative.

But what’s really so good about the Goog?

It is indeed a million times better than the other media darling, but then Yahoo’s indexing always was a sick joke, and I really can’t see how anything other than mindshare in the mainstream meeja ever sustained it.  But the same cannot be said for all the alternatives.  When Google was launched, Altavista was out there doing a great job – albeit with less hype than the big Y – and the Goog was no more than a comparably competent alternative.

I think the comparison to Altavista at a time when the Goog had yet to develop its pagerank (automated peer review) to give it a real lead in terms of results quality, can reveal what’s really so much better about the Goog.  It’s not that Google gave us what we wanted (which Altavista also did): it’s that Goog spared us what we didn’t want! No deezyner page with pretty graphics.  No crap.  Just the information we were looking for.  And – later – text-based ads that still don’t seriously detract from the useful results.

And that’s comparing Goog to the best of the pre-goog bunch: a good site with a logo that was at least pretty (wikipedia has it still), and incomparably less obnoxious crap than Yahoo inflicts on you.  Ironic that it now seems to have been swallowed by Yahoo and gone minimalist – a decade on from the opportunity it lost and Google won.