Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bitcoin and Anarchism

Was reading an article about Bitcoin and came across a wonderful, wonderful quote:

Cypherpunks assume privacy is a good thing and wish there were more of it. Cypherpunks acknowledge that those who want privacy must create it for themselves and not expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant them privacy out of beneficence.

--Eric Hughes

Reminds me a bit of that Malcolm X quote about how "nobody can give you freedom or equality or justice or anything."  How Bitcoins are worth money still sort of baffles me, but it's a good kind of baffled.  While this article (I believe mistakenly) suggests that anonymous transactions are good only for tipping the stripper, I think the anarchism brought about in the discussion can actually be a positive and liberating thing.  To me, at least, it's not about destroying the system.  It's about revealing our true freedom in the most creative ways possible.

Which makes me go back to my go-to woman, Emma Goldman.  (Go-to woman for anarchist writings.  Don't worry, LOVE OF MY LIFE.)  In her 1911 essay "Marriage and Love," Ms. Goldman has the following to say about that most free of feelings:

Free love? As if love is anything but free! Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love. High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate, if love passes him by. And if it stays, the poorest hovel is radiant with warmth, with life and color. Thus love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king. Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely. All the laws on the statutes, all the courts in the universe, cannot tear it from the soil, once love has taken root.

She goes on to continue to bash marriage, but that's not my point here.  (I mean it, LOVE OF MY LIFE.) This freedom is just a natural base state upon which regulation is built.  So neither Bitcoin nor the Folk Sneakernet operate outside the law so much as they operate in a space in which the law cannot intervene.

Of course, to the hegemons, that is an even more daunting prospect, more akin to heresy than crime.  But that's a story for another time.  Probably next time, actually.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Happy Towel Day!

From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Meet the Real Boss

Just saw a very well-written (and long-as-hell) article go up on Slashdot by Cracker guitarist David Lowery entitled "Meet the New Boss, Worse than the Old Boss."  In the article, he points out that while the recording industry was looking for talent to boost up and then take advantage of monetarily, they assumed a lot of the risk in promoting new acts.  The "new boss," companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, etc., cares very little for who it is that is making the trends at the moment-- they skim their built-in percentage off the top and go on regardless.  As he says in his abstract,

I’m not advocating going back to the old record label model,  to an industry dominated by the big three multi-national  labels. This is a bit of hyperbole intended to make us all think about this question:  Is the new digital model better for the artist?

Later on, he answers that question with a pretty definitive NO:

Artists have seen their most important assets collectivized by file-sharing.  They no long control the distribution and exploitation of these assets. If this were happening to practically any other group of Americans there would be mass outrage and civil unrest.  Other than Ted Nugent and John Popper most musicians are not heavily armed. Hence the lack of armed standoffs.

And later still (seriously, this is a long article.  like, for serious.) he makes his key point:

The crucial difference between the old boss and the new boss is that the old boss-- the record labels-- saw that it was in their interest to invest in the creation of music.  Further they knew success in the music business was highly unpredictable.  Therefore they spread their investment around.  They didn’t do this out of the kindness of their own hearts,  they did this cause it was a in their long term interest. And it was the surest way to make money.  So up until the early 2000s record companies essentially overpaid the 9 “losing” artists and underpaid the one “winning” or hit artist through their system of advances for each album.  It was a semi-socialist system.  A system in which the superstars revenue subsidized all those new and developing artists.  The destruction of this revenue and risk sharing system is another important reason why artists are poorer now.

So if we are going to "steal" each other's music, why let the "New Boss" in on the game at all?  Why not do so on our own network?  Why not show them who the real boss is?

Black and Grey and White

Terrorism and kiddie porn.  There, I said it.

In looking over some of the black/grey/white uses of an off-the-Net network, I'm going to start with the big scary ones that people are going to raise red flags about and say, "Why are you doing this?  This is SCARY!"

So terrorism and kiddie porn.  One of the most common stories you'll see if you research Sneakernet on Google is Osama bin Laden's use of the tactic to avoid detection for years, even when he was living in a pretty nice neighborhood and his front-men (posing as brothers) were handing kids payoffs rather than returning their stray baseballs that came in over the compound walls.  Couriers would take bin Laden's e-mail drafts via Sneakernet to another location and send them from outside, obfuscating the trail.  In fact, the lack of telephone and Internet connection to the compound was one of the tip-offs that something was up.

I mention kiddie porn because it's the other great bogeyman of our age.  Any time you talk about any sort of sharing that isn't wide open for everyone to see, people bring up the idea that "wait, couldn't a CHILD PORNOGRAPHER be using this?  Where are all the PEDOPHILES?"  Well, let's get real.  I'm sure terrorists and child pornographers are way ahead of indie and folk musicians when it comes to setting up their own networks.

But it's the CONTENT that is black, not the network setup.

A person-to-person Sneakernet is also going to be useful for swapping around a lot of grey content.  By this, I mean pirated media.  Some people would rate this as the blackest of the black (i.e. the RIAA and MPAA), and some people would say there's absolutely no problem with it.  I'm more in the lightish-grey realm as a low-grade content provider and a medium-grade content viewer.  I'd like to eventually get paid for something I create, yes, but I also know that most people I want to share things with a) don't have the money to buy an album from me if they don't know it's a quality production (it isn't), and b) would be more likely to pay to get into a place to see me play the guitar live.

So let's acknowledge that both black and grey content can be shared on ANY network, and then put that behind us.

Why would we want a Folk Sneakernet?

More and more often, educational institutions and Internet service providers are being pressured into throttling traffic that could be involved in piracy.  In the "six strikes" plan, those who repeatedly are pointed out by the RIAA/MPAA for suspicious activities will  have their download privileges cut off in stages as part of a collusion with major ISPs.  This is not government censorship, mind you-- this is all under the aegis of copyright protection.

But what if these copyright magnates find your torrenting of your own new hit album suspicious?  Well, the burden of proof is on you, according to these policies, and for a $35 processing fee, they might consider letting you go back to sharing what you've created.  It's white content, but the entire file-sharing network is labeled as black because it's competition.  (By the way, did you know those pirates could be terrorists sharing kiddie porn?)

In another time, I hope we're able to see this through the appropriate anti-trust lens.  But until then, let's use the Internet for everything it's good for-- e-mail, Web browsing, all that good stuff.  And when our audience is within sneaker-distance, let's use the Sneakernet.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Network Topologies

Okay, I'll start off with the boring stuff (i.e. the stuff I've been geeking out to the past few days).


According to the Wikipedia article, there are a total of eight recognized topologies for a network:

  • Point-to-point
  • Bus
  • Star
  • Ring or circular
  • Mesh
  • Tree
  • Hybrid
  • Daisy chain

I can't say that I totally understand all of them, but I recognize a few of them as less-than-great for a community effort.  Point-to-point networking occurs between two people and happens every time a USB drive gets passed from one person to another.  But there's not much else to say about that.  Line- and Tree-style networks remind me far too much of obnoxious chain letters where you have to pass on the information to a certain number of people or else your Aunt Myrtle is going to die.  In reverse, they have a hierarchy that makes me uncomfortable.  I don't want to have to report my activities to a direct supervisor when I'm not at work!

Full connection is an ideal, but not likely in a hectic everyday schedule.  So I want to center in on three possible topologies for a Folk Sneakernet: bus, ring, and star.

"Are you on the bus, or off the bus?"

The bus topology reminds me the most of the fifth floor of Rhoads Hall at ISU.  If one of us found content we really liked, such as an entire season of Invader Zim, we all piled into that person's room and watched the show.  All of us received the content at the same time.  While that's not totally possible with just one USB drive, a single drive can be passed around to multiple people in a single sitting, each of them downloading the content off the "bus."  Then other people issue their packets (i.e. share their content) to everyone else all at the same time, and we all go home happier and Zim-mier.

PROS: It's a party!  A wild content-downloading nerd party!

CONS: Everybody has to show up all at the same time.  If you miss the bus, you're out of luck.

"If you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it."

The ring topology is much more like passing a magazine around with friends.  (For some of you it might have been Penthouse or Guitar World, but for me it was Dragon Magazine.  *cough*)

I find content I like, and then I pass a packet of it to a friend (i.e. hand them a USB drive).  That person passes it on to another friend, who adds or removes information, and the USB packet goes all the way back around the circle until I get it again.

PROS: We can pass the packet around when we've got the time to do so.  No all-night nerd parties here.  (Though the lack of all-night nerd parties could also be considered a con.)

CONS: Latency, especially if Broseph takes the USB drive and then leaves it at home when he goes to Australia for the month.  One break in the connection breaks the entire ring.

"You could be my lucky star..."

The star topology reminds me, oddly enough, of the rack of shoes in the bowling alley.  You take one down when you need it, and then return it to the central storing facility when you're finished.  It's also much more like a library than the other systems.

This configuration could be executed as easily as keeping a coffee mug full of USB drives at your favorite bar or coffee shop, or even as a centerpiece on your kitchen table.  People upload media when they find it, and then return that media to the central facility once they're done.  People can then browse through and find what they like.  (This is also a lot like an FTP server.)

PROS: A central hub where everyone knows they can go to access resources.

CONS: A central hub where EVERYONE knows people can go to access resources.

These are just some musings on the subject, and I'm sure some network analysts could rip me a new one on my use of the terminology.  But this is a working set of definitions for the project.

Why Sneakernet?

Why Sneakernet?

You're asking a good question.  As the trend is to move more and more data into THE CLOUD for safekeeping and easy access, THE SNEAKERNET is not only dying off but also is being damned to the fiery pits of digital hell.

And the Cloud has a lot of benefits.  It's less prone to catastrophic failure than your hard disk is (or so you hope), and it floats out there for you to tap into at any time.  Personally, I really like the Cloud a lot.

But I don't own the Cloud.

And not only do I not own the Cloud, there has been off-and-on discussion as to whether or not the Cloud owns the data I upload to it.  Take, for example, the legitimate data-holders caught up in the fall of Megaupload.  I'm guessing a SWAT team was not the sort of catastrophic data retrieval failure they were considering when they signed up.

SWAT Team raid in progress <Abort, Retry, Fail?>
SWAT Team raid in progress <Abort, Retry, Fail?>
SWAT Team raid complete <Abort, Retry, Fail?>

The Internet, and through it the Cloud, is a wonderful thing.  But I believe there's a folk version of the Internet we can put together in our own communities.  Check out how rural villages in Cambodia get access to a wider network by men on motorcycles coming around to pick up their data.

I propose we accomplish the same thing, only by ferrying USB drives back and forth between each other in an organized and interpersonal network, a "folk sneakernet" of sorts, with greater possible interconnectivity and person-to-person contact than the Internet allows us.  In the coming posts, I'll elucidate some thoughts on the political, technological, and practical reasons behind this project.

Happy file-sharing!