Decentralisation. A Concept.

OK, the tag is probably the biggest in the list so far.

I wrote another post about this, and then binned it.  It got way too ranty for a simple blog.  It began to take in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the Manchurian Candidate, and if my boss read it she’d think I was mad.  (If she doesn’t already).

It boils down to a few bullet points.

  1. If you aren’t paying for it, someone else is.  If you are using a website for nothing, it will be paying for it with Adverts, and your information.  And by your information, I mean your likes, dislikes, opinions, prejudices and personal thoughts.
  2. All the big data systems you hook into are probably affected by laws which, while good intentioned, will more than likely be abused for someone else’s good.  Whether that’s a government trying to stay in power by appealing to the lowest common denominator, or an interested third party willing to corrupt someone so they pass that same information on.
  3. To an extent, all the systems you connect up to are trying to make you use them more and more, and sometimes quite blatantly trying to manipulate your opinions or feelings.
  4. 140 characters has been described as being more efficient, and resulting in people using words more effectively.  Fuck that shit.  It means more people T8lking 2 u lyk a D1v.

So that’s my argument.  And it is an argument, I don’t expect everyone to agree with it, it’s merely an opinion, but one expressed in more words than you generally see in a Facebook post, and in far more than a Twitter post allows for.  One day I may publish the other, more ranty post, but only if I feel safer in everyone thinking I’ve gone over to the dark side of conspiracy theory.

So Decentralisation is a possible answer.  Using other systems instead of the big logos.  Try systems with no central control (Diaspora), or ones which are completely under your own control (WordPress, ArkOS) and use simple tools like RSS readers to pull together data streams which you are interested in.

And try and question what your opinions, likes and dislikes, are worth to the right people in the long term, and whether you want them to be in control of what, and how, you think.

If This, Then That

Oh, the irony.

suggested to me by my sister, this post may well have come to your darling eyeballs by way of facebook, and if it did, then it’s almost certainly http://ifttt.com/ wot did it.

Using “recipes”, IFTTT basically polls various Channels, (which in this case, includes this privately hosted WordPress Blog), and if it finds something new, it performs an action, again, in this case, posting for myself on Facebook.

Given my views on decentralisation, if i was principled enough, i’d kill my FB account, but for now, there’s not enough accurate personal information on there for Mr Zuckerberg to monetise me that much, so i’ll leave it for now.  IFTTT may end up making it easier to make the leap though.

it’s worth noting that while this particular recipe is pretty simple, “If new post on WordPress Blog, post on Facebook”, but there are GPS channels available, and recipes have come to my attention regarding turning on/off ringtones when going to church, or copying new iphone photos to one’s Evernote account, so the Channels are worth investigating a little as it’s not just social media that can be drive by IFTTT.  about the only thing that slightly disturbs me about the whole thing is that you do have to give IFTTT your passwords for stuff.  which may or may not be a risk in the very long term, but if the profile of IFTTT is anything to go by, that would be catastrophic for them.

If you take this recipe as an example, you can pretty much just make your WordPress post, and then let IFTTT post it to Twitter, Facebook, and then every other Social networking system you’re tied to.  And then, to wrap it up, take a photo on Instacrapgram and then have it reloaded to evernote, dropbox, flickr, tumblr, Google Drive and onedrive automagically.

so, If This, Then That.

Mobile web server – the PirateBox

OK, so what’s this?

TP-Link MR3040
TP-Link MR3040

On the face of it, a TP-Link MR3040 3/4G router.  These are cheap mini routers which are designed to take a standard USB broadband dongle, wired up to your cellular provider, and allow more than just 1 device to utilise them.  This particular model has a rechargeable battery built in, giving it a few hours of use without being hooked up using standard mini-usb.

However, this device utilises Open-WRT, a flavour of Linux embedded into a variety of devices.  I first came across Open-WRT hacking about 6-7 years ago, when a colleague at the time told me how he’d hacked a little network print-server and re-purposed it as a web server by hacking the Open-WRT he had installed.  “Neat” I thought, not realising the potential at the time.  More recently I picked up a cheap PogoPlug to use as a personal home-based cloud device, and learnt that similarly, it can be hacked and re-purposed.

So, with my limited knowledge of Linux, and barely competent command line usage, I trolled over to http://piratebox.cc/ and saw what devices would be worth a try.

The piratebox is not just a standalone webserver, it also acts as an access point, so you don’t need a traditional wifi router attached using normal networking, to a server box.  The piratebox wraps the 2 together.

There are 4 primary versions of Piratebox; one for the Raspberry Pi (the Pi(rate) box), one for laptops (those preferably running Debian Linux), one for Android (which by the sounds of things is not particularly stable, and suffers from the same problem as all android software, and that’s device specificity), and one for OpenWRT.  the OpenWRT version supports the TP-Link MR3020 and MR3040 routers.

The MR3020 requires a power source running across mini-usb to run, and there are examples on the Piratebox site of these running from USB powerpacks, which are becoming more popular as people want to charge their smartphones on the run.  I preferred the look and feel of the MR3040 because it’s a little sleeker, and has it’s own rechargeable battery, which would make it slightly more appropriate for running while on the move.

nicked from http://piratebox.cc/photos
nicked from http://piratebox.cc/photos

I do like this picture though of an MR3020 duct-taped to a skateboard.  Nice.

TP-Link MR3040 Piratebox
TP-Link MR3040 Piratebox

This is a dismantled MR3040 piratebox.  All that’s actually required apart from the router itself and a USB memory stick for the Piratebox software and storage, is any windows or linux machine which can:

1. drop the installer onto the USB stick (and in the pic is  a SanDisk Cruzer Fit 32GB, which I got simply because it keeps the overall size of the unit down to the minimum) and
2. connect via a network cable to the MR3040 prior to setting it running, to log in via SSH and kick start some services (download PuTTY for that).

Even with my rudimentary linux command line knowledge, I had it up and running within about 15 minutes, and most of that was waiting for the installer to crank up.

So what do you get?

Well, out of the box (ahem), you get a simple fileserver, (which is more than happy to run a mini DLNA server, which means any videos you stick on it will play direct onto smartphones with no effort), a chat server, and a functional forum system.  The bonus is, because the guys who put it together thought about it, it also runs a responsive design, so it comfortably runs on smartphones, tablets and laptops.  (I do admit to it being a little flaky format-wise though on my ipad 2).  In the spirit of its purpose, there is no wireless security on it, you just get redirected to the homepage when you connect and attempt to open any web page.  Again, this was somewhat flaky on my ipad 2, but fine on my iphone.

It’s an effective and covert tool for use in urban/public spaces to transfer files, communicate using the chat page, and leave messages.   Off the top of my head, I can imagine using it at festivals, during protest gatherings, or as a dead drop in Malls, City Centres, community areas, and so on.  the only limitation is the power supply, and the size of the USB stick installed into it.  (It looks like a USB/SSD affair might be too much of a power draw, so normal sticks would apply).  I’ll be trying it out with a 20000mah USB power pack to see what the up-time is like, although that’ll be under almost zero load.

The MR3020 comes out about 20 quid on ebay, but bear in mind it does need a power source to go with it.  the MR3040 varies wildly on ebay surprisingly, I got lucky and paid only around £15 for mine, but they get up to £40 in general.  I used an aging Samsung NC10 netbook on windows XP to do the setup, and the TP-Link comes with a short ethernet cable anyway.

My next trick will be to install on Raspberry Pi, with one of the power rigs I’ve sourced for it, including a Solar panel set up.

This is only the first of several decentralisation toys I’ll be looking at in the coming posts.  While it’s strictly a temporary tool, it’s still a fine weapon in your armoury.

Walled City….why the name?

For me, even before I read William Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy”, which is made up of “Virtual Light”, “Idoru” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, all of which I would recommend, the Walled City I thought of was Kowloon’s.

Wikipedia has  a page on it, which gives you the gist, and there are some extraordinarily expensive books* on the place if you go to Amazon.

Kowloon's Walled City
Kowloon’s Walled City

What’s really always fascinated me is how it was allowed to exist and function for all those years until they tore it down.

My point, I suppose, is that once it had established itself, it was more or less autonomous, in that the police didn’t go in, and it managed itself to a degree. It was an enclave within an enclave, answerable to no-one but itself. At least until they tore it down.

That all said, once I’d read “Idoru”, it did begin to crystallise for me.

If you’re interested, check out the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones, it’s a tad hipsterish, “Burning Man” gets mentioned in this context, and in the end, Kowloon’s Walled City ended up more of a Permanent or Semi Permanent Autonomous Zone, but it does represent pockets of the universe which manage to sneak out from under the control of normal law and government, and this fits in with my views on decentralisation and privacy.

I would like to think that some of the material I post on here will, in a grand combination of all the odds and sods, come together as some sort of Cyberpunk style thoughts.  Cyberpunk extols anti-control concepts and principles, and for many, ubiquitous and all-powerful technological presence in life.  Expect to see more of that here.

Although, there’s an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote which I’ve always loved,

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

And I’ve always had a nasty penchant for thinking about both sides of the Control coin.  On the one hand, control is bad.  It restricts our ability to function, to be “free” however you measure that particular metric, but on the other hand, we need an amount of control for safety and so on.  I look for interesting ways in which people are fighting control, but I spend time imagining ways in which the systems involved could work better, and tie into each other better.  I guess so long as I don’t actively participate in those, maybe I’ll be ok?

I can’t imagine myself only thinking of one side of the coin.  I’ll always have to look at both sides.  Of course, there’s always the chance that both sides are “Heads”.

So, I’ll chalk this one up as a success, 2 posts in as many days.

* see “City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon’s Walled City”

Kicking things off.

OK, time to christen the damn thing.

This isn’t going to be a general tech blog looking at anything, no.  I’m not interested in all the tech out there, Google Glass doesn’t interest me, except for the social problems it highlights regarding things like privacy and so on.

At the moment I’ve got an interest in ubiquitous computing, smart cities, privacy and decentralisation.  so that’s probably what I’ll concentrate on.

I may also end up trying to jam some of my fiction on a sister blog which I’ll fire up when the time’s right, or when I’ve got nothing better to do.

When I get a chance I’ll almost certainly post links to some of the more interesting stuff that I notice on the web, and I’ll try not to make it the same stuff as you see everywhere else.

Be warned, a lot of my prose will be rambling and incoherent in nature, and tangentalise at the drop of a furry kitten.