Thursday, December 29, 2011

Decentralization and Censorship

The older readers will probably remember Napster back in the early days when it was one of those "pirate services."  It was a place you could go to share music with other users and get music for free.

But it was shut down in 2001 by a court order during a legal battle with the infamous RIAA.  In spite of the legal uses of Napster, such as small bands purposefully sharing their music on Napster to gain notoriety, the court issued an injunction preventing Napster from continuing its service.

The thing which made this "shut down" possible was the fact that Napster was run in a top-down manner.  All of the workings involved in the process of sharing were housed, funded, and maintained centrally.

As we all know, users found other ways of sharing files.  The first such method of note was several p2p services such as Kazaa.  Then came the revolutionary BitTorrent protocol.  These have the advantage that the workings are not under centralized management.  The way these pieces of software work, everybody distributes, so to shut it down, everybody has to be dragged into court, and that's just not practical.

Today, there is another centralized system in danger of being curtailed which has a much greater impact on Internet users' freedoms.

The Internet began in the United States and the United States continues to exert draconian control over it.  Many of you probably know that the United States congress currently threatens to put through SOPA, a bill which would allow unprecedented curtailing of the DNS system for corporate interests.

But, there are efforts underway to make a decentralized systems for communication not so susceptible to censorship.  Here are a couple.

The B.A.T.M.A.N. Protocol

The B.A.T.M.A.N. (Better Approach To Mobile Ad-hoc Networking) protocol, aside from having an awesome acronym, is a p2p network protocol not (necessarily) dependent on lower-level network protocols suitable for large, self-organizing networks.  It may be used on most devices which support the Wifi protocol and could one day replace the internet.

The general use case for this protocol is to install custom firmware (such as DD-Wrt or OpenWrt) on wireless routers and make these wireless routers act as B.A.T.M.A.N. nodes which may automatically connect to each other, creating a large-scale, self-organizing, wireless network which end-user devices (such as computers) may connect to in order to communicate with each other.  The B.A.T.M.A.N. protocol may also be tunneled, allowing for communications over the Internet or over other network protocols for situations where it is not feasible to communicate via the normal low-power radio frequencies used by normal wireless cards.

One day, each city may have its own city-wide B.A.T.M.A.N. network.  These networks might be connected to other city B.A.T.M.A.N. networks via ham radio band communications, phone networks, cables, or any number of other methods.

Project Meshnet

Project meshnet is an active grassroots attempt to engineer a way to create a mesh network with the ability to replace the Internet.  Much of their planning is done on Reddit.  They're still in the early planning stages, but they appear to be very serious about the effort and have a lot of expertise among them.

They may eventually decide to use the B.A.T.M.A.N. protocol or not, depending on what decisions are made about the needs of the user.  B.A.T.M.A.N. is definitely a good contender, however.

If you'd like to help out the project, go to and sign up to their forums. Being active on their subreddit is also recommended.

The less we have to depend on service providers, the less governments and corporations may interfere with our rights to free speech.

Happy hacking.

My Personal Computer Setup

Just in case this is interesting to somebody, I figured I'd post information on my computer's software environment.  As mentioned in a previous post, I'm big into applications which radically apply the Unix Philosophy.  Such apps are incredibly minimal and have a very tight focus.

My operating system of choice is Gentoo, a distribution of GNU/Linux.  I find it gives ridiculous control over one's own system.  It makes it easy to keep your system slim and streamlined by eliminating unneeded dependencies and options.

I don't use a "desktop environment" such as KDE, Gnome, or XFCE.  I opt for a simple window manager known as "dwm." The folks at produce and maintain some of the best software available and dwm is no exception. Like much of the software, dwm is configured in C and recompiled to apply the configuration (a process which Gentoo makes simple.)

I currently use the text editor Vim.  I don't use GVim, however.  I find it's just extra cruft.  Vim is even a bit heavy for me, and I'm looking for better alternatives.  The inclusion of features such as tabbing, syntax highlighting, and spell checking hooks makes it less in line with the Unix Philosophy than I'd like.  I've looked into nvi and elvis, but both lack the ability to add new features such as syntax highlighting. I did recently hear about sandy, however, and am interested in giving it a trial run sometime soon.

My email client is mutt.  Again, it's a bit hefty for my taste.  I intend to switch to something else sometime soon.  Perhaps nmh.

My browser is surf.  I recently switched from uzbl.  Both are excellent browsers.  Uzbl is probably a bit more configurable, but surf is definitely more minimal and arguably more unixy.  Surf doesn't have any ability to do tabbing.  For that, I use tabbed.

My terminal emulator is st.  It's maintained by the good folks over at (you guessed it)  It's extremely simple, but more than sufficient for every day use.  The next release is slated to support xembed, making it possible to use it in tabbed and other such programs.

For my terminal multiplexer, instead of screen or tmux, I use dvtm.  It doesn't include detaching functionality as screen or tmux does.  For that, I use dtach.  Dvtm has a considerably cleaner scripting interface than the others, among other things.

My irc client is currently Irssi.  It's also a bit less in line with the Unix Philosophy than I'd like.  A better alternative that I'm looking into is combining ii, pcw, srw, and dvtm.  It's proved so far to be rather difficult, actually.  (The difficulty may end up being the subject of a later post.)  I may instead go with ii, pcw, srw, st, and tabbed sometime in the future.

Of the software that I use, those are certainly the most important.  Hopefully this will point somebody toward some useful software.

Good day, and happy hacking!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Technology to Empower the Users

Technology can assist governments and corporations in their ends, often to detrimental and oppressive ends.  Some countries monitor and censor communications using firewalls and deep packet inspection.  Some companies produce software laced with DRM and antifeatures for their own benefit.

But there is another side to technology.  More individuals are using technology to put power back into their own hands.

These efforts are overwhelmingly grassroots and community driven projects.  In fact, it's questionable whether a technology imposed in a top down manner can give power to the users in any meaningful way.

This blog post is meant to give a quick introduction to just a few of the specific projects and technologies out there for giving power to individuals previously retained by those with power.

The RepRap Project

The RepRap Project is an active and so far extremely successful effort to bring the ability to manufacture consumer goods to individuals everywhere.  "RepRap" is short for "Replicating Rapid Prototyper."  At this point, the project is less than seven years old and has already designed from scratch four official RepRap devices.  With the proper software (all of which is free and open source), users can design a 3D model on a computer and "print" the three dimensional object using the RepRap in various types of plastic in only a few hours.

The 3D models that one person designs may be easily shared via the Internet.  At this point, the most popular place for sharing these 3D model files seems to be Thingaverse.  Not all of the models on that site may be printed using a RepRap, but the majority are, and all are able to be rapid prototyped in some manner.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the RepRap is that it is designed to be able to print many of its own parts.  3D model files of these parts are freely available on the RepRap project's wiki.  This has some amazing benefits.  The user has the ability to print backup parts for themselves, print the parts for a friend to ease the process of getting into desktop manufacturing, and modify the 3D model files and print the new parts so that s/he may improve and/or customize the device.

An assembled, functional RepRap may be purchased for under $1,400 at Botmill, among many other places.

GNU Radio

GNU Radio is a project to allow users to detect and analyze radio signals in their current area.  Almost any radio signal may be analyzed from ham radio bands to Wifi and television bands.  The project allows users even to decode digital television signals for audio/visual playback.

Whereas other means of detecting signals require a crystal to be tuned to each frequency individually in order to get a signal, GNU Radio allows for "listening on all channels at once."  This does require some specialized hardware which can be a bit expensive, but the payoffs are great.


Tor (The Onion Router) is a project for protecting users' anonymity online.  One of the greatest benefits the Internet has given us is the ability to speak and be heard without experiencing negative repercussions.  This anonymity allows Internet citizens to be truly honest about their opinions, which they may not be willing to express in "real life."

Tor is software which establishes peer-to-peer connections between computers, allowing them to use each other as proxies.  This allows users to engage in internet communication without a significant risk that somebody (such as and ISP, government, or other third party) will be able to trace the communication back to them.  This can be done both for clients and servers, allowing for freer expression than should be conducted without such protections.

Tor can be and has been used by political dissidents attempting to spread their messages as well as those attempting to publish and view unpopular information.

These projects should be the subject of several later posts.  They have the ability to change the world in positive ways by giving more power to accomplish useful things to individuals interested in making a difference.

The Unix Philosophy

I'm a software engineer by trade.  One thing I've learned is that college is not enough to make you a good software engineer (or programmer, for that matter).  You have to make a lot of mistakes yourself to get good at it.

One viewpoint which leads to a lot of such mistakes, and one which must be discarded in order to be a good programmer, is the idea that "more features is better."  The result of such a misnomer is bloated software which tries to do everything and doesn't do anything very well.  Not only that, but the resulting software has limited configurability and uses more resources than necessary.

The "Unix Philosophy" is a perspective on software development which is aimed at addressing this problem.  It consists of a list of rules of thumb that programmers and software engineers should apply to their work.  There is a bit of disagreement about some of the wording, but the spirit of the Unix Philosophy is well agreed upon.

From Wikipedia, Mike Gancarz's version of the unix philosophy:
  1. Small is beautiful.
  2. Make each program do one thing well.
  3. Build a prototype as soon as possible.
  4. Choose portability over efficiency.
  5. Store data in flat text files.
  6. Use software leverage to your advantage.
  7. Use shell scripts to increase leverage and portability.
  8. Avoid captive user interfaces.
  9. Make every program a filter.
Let's take these one at a time, shall we?

1. Small is Beautiful

A large program has many potential points of failure.  If there's a bug, it's easy to find because there's not as much program to look through as if it's a big program.  Also, if it's small enough, it's easy to keep the entire inner workings of it in your head at once.  It's easier to grasp.  And it takes less work for somebody unfamiliar with the program to become familiar (or even an expert) with the software.

But how small is small?  Let's take an example of a class of software applications generally considered to be required to be "large" -- web browsers.  Sloccount (a tool for counting how many lines of source code a program consists of) reports that Firefox 8.0 (a fairly recent release) consists of 3,291,364 lines of code.  Surf is a minimalistic browser which follows the Unix Philosophy.  Sloccount indicates that the recent 0.4.1 release of Surf consists of 753 lines of code.  That's an incredible difference.

2. Make Each Program do One Thing Well

In other words, each program should have exactly one feature.  No more.  No less.  A program which does two things is unnecessarily complex.  If you need two features, use two programs.  Simple.

3. Build a Prototype as Soon as Possible

Often, this is phrased as "release early and release often."  If you release a prototype, you can get feedback early, which allows you to fix problems early on.

4. Choose Portability Over Efficiency

Portability gives you more options.  It allows you (and others) to test on faster hardware and slower hardware which allows you to ferret out issues nicely.  Also, it will pay off later when the niche technology you decided not to use becomes abandonware.

5. Store Data in Flat Text Files

Flat text files give a lot of power to the users as opposed to binary formats.  Binary formats, even if the code for parsing them is open source, just take a lot more work to work with.  Flat text formats can be edited in text editors.  It can't get much easier than that.

This one in particular is the subject of some controversy.  Many object that databases are often times the right tool for the job of storing data, even if they do have some drawbacks such as making it more difficult to port the data to other means of storage.

6. Use Software Leverage to Your Advantage

Code has some interesting properties.  One is that a useful function or library may be written once and used in multiple places.  Many mistakes may be made in the process of writing software which makes it difficult to reuse useful bits of software, however.  "Using Software Leverage" means making your software easy to reuse so that you don't have to rewrite it later.

7. Use Shell Scripts to Increase Leverage Portability

Shell scripts are wonderful things.  They're written to run in the shell, which means they are written in the same language as the commands you type directly on the shell.  A single line in a shell script can actually do a surprisingly powerful operation.  Also, shell scripts can be made very portable very easily.

8. Avoid Captive User Interfaces

A "captive user interface" is one which requires (or virtually requires) a human to operate.  Just about any interface which requires a mouse is a captive interface.  These are not always a bad thing, but are almost always a bad thing.  They restrict the ways in which the program may be used.

9. Make Every Program a Filter

A "filter" is a program which takes input and produces output without any other effects.  A good example of a filter is the Unix command "sort" which takes a bunch of text (one word per line) sorts the lines lexographically, and prints out the sorted version.  It does nothing but sort the input and print out the sorted version.

This is just an overview of the Unix Philosophy.  There is much more to be said.  There are in fact books on the topic.

But don't worry.  You'll be hearing a lot more about the Unix Philosophy and applications which employ it.

Happy hacking.

Brand New Blog

So, I finally decided to start a blog.  It's been on my bucket list for a while.  Many topics interest me, and I finally have a forum to put them all out there for people to see.

Not only that, but people seem to be reading.  Well, not as I write this, they aren't, but if you're seeing this, it means you are.

At the moment, I intend for this blog to be mostly about specific technologies which have an impact on society and how it operates, though I don't intend to stay strictly on-topic all of the time.

Hopefully, this will be of interest to some people out there.  Thanks for reading, and I hope I've captivated you enough to continue doing so.  :)