Google Data Liberation Front

Wednesday, Sep 16, 2009 8:00 am
William Barnes
dataliberation

Natalie Portman once said: “So this is how democracy dies: to thunderous applause.” It’s how I feel about Google. They are so obviously trying to take over the world, but they do it with such style you just want to cheer them on. The key, I think, is just how easy it would be (theoretically) to do away with them.

Yesterday, Google announced the Data Liberation Front. The goal of this site is to provide easy access to instructions to move your data out of every Google service. You can, for a few examples, download all your email, export your calendars to Yahoo or iCal or Outlook, and move your contact list to another mail or chat client. Data portability has always been a huge concern for me. I switch operating systems, browsers and email clients at the drop of a hat so I always like to know that I’m not locked in. The export capabilities are not new (or unique, it’s all possible with Yahoo and Microsoft as well) but to present it all in one place has an undeniable flair. It’s kind of the internet service equivalent of playing chicken: “Leave the service. I dare you. I’ll even help.”

Google is the least threatening monopoly possible and somehow that just secures their position. Although I will admit I’ve switched to Bing on all my computers. And Yahoo Calendar. And I’m hosting my email on my home server again. And I don’t use Google Docs, iGoogle or Maps anymore. Hmmm… So much for that theory. Luckily for Google, it’s just as easy to get my data back in as it was to leave. Good job.

Annoying Domain Dispute

Sunday, Aug 2, 2009 4:10 pm
William Barnes

I really don’t like the outcome of this (old) case: Freddy Adu v. Frank Fushille. The complainant is some kind of soccer player or something. The respondent is a fan. The respondent registered a domain with the intent of starting a fan site. At some point, he contacted the soccer player’s manager and said he was making a fan site and was wondering if it could be the official site (presumably, the soccer player didn’t have an official site at that time). The manager sent back an offer to buy the domain. The guy didn’t want to just sell the domain though, he wanted to run the site. So they got into a discussion over that. Apparently, the respondent got carried away during negotiations and they fell through. The manager then files to have the domain transferred, using the negotiations as evidence of bad faith registration.

That’s just wrong.

Everybody has a price. If I were running an unofficial fansite for a celebrity and the celebrity offered me a million dollars for the domain I would probably take it. The celebrity should not be able to then turn around and say: ‘Aha! Bad faith!’. Negotiations initiated by the complainant shouldn’t be evidence of registration for the purpose of sale.

Project management

Friday, Jul 10, 2009 7:00 am
William Barnes

I always have trouble keeping organized when I’m doing a research project. Particularly if that project requires me to consult many sources and particularly if those sources are in different media. So I figured that the research it would take to write an article on research would help me. This article will cover different methods of keeping track of all your sources while researching and writing. This might be the first of a few articles.

Low-tech

I have always wanted a large whiteboard on the wall that I could just scribble notes on. It would be like an HUD such that I can always just glance at my outline without having to shift focus on the computer. Given the layout of my office at the moment, I would have to take down my weaponry display to do it. There are a few options. You could always buy a ready-made whiteboard somewhere, but that is potentially expensive. For a wall mounted whiteboard, a better option would probably be to build your own. There are instructions online for building a nice looking whiteboard for under $50 using the waterproof melamine boards that line some showers. There are also whispered rumours of a paint that can be directly applied to your wall. But if you read the comments on that article, there is one very negative review of the inexpensive dry-erase paint. Might not be worth the risk. It could also be done using plastic: paint a section of your wall white and stretch plastic over it. I’ve heard that vapour barrier (the plastic that goes between pink insulation and drywall) works well and is cheap. The plastic will eventually get stained by the markers, but it’s cheap enough that you can just pull it down and replace it. I found a list of different materials that can be used to create your own whiteboard; including different types of plastic. Finally, this is really not low-tech but it’s just so cool: use a Wii-remote and a projector to make an interactive whiteboard.

The whiteboard is great for outlining and keeping track of a to-do list, but it doesn’t actually organize anything. I always put all my loose print material in a three-ring binder with tabs marking different items and post-its to mark important sections. You could use file folders, but then you’d also have to remember to put things back which is much harder than it sounds. The binder is probably ideal because it’s neat, easily portable, and simple to put away if you need to store it for a while.

Firefox

logo-only-preview

It’s bad for the trees to print everything and I like trees ’cause they make oxygen, so I’m guessing we need electronic solutions. I like opening a lot of tabs. I wrote a bookmarklet to rename tabs to make it easier to find a specific tab when you have many open. It’s a start but it could be improved. I like the thumbnail idea above, but it’s no good when you have a lot of pages open from the same site. I was thinking that a tab browser that shows an excerpt from the page might be more useful. While reading a tab, you could select text to add to the excerpt. Then you just press a button and a formatted list of all your tabs is shown with the excerpts of text. It would allow you more space per tab and show more information than the tab bar does at present. It could perhaps integrate into the bookmark database to store your excerpts for later. Definitely, you need a solution for storing the things you find for later.

You could just bookmark everything. Bookmarks don’t really work though. The titles are generally non-descriptive (though you can edit the title when adding the bookmark). The bookmark menu is awkward. You only have one line of text to describe a site. Bookmark Previews is an extension that adds thumbnail previews to the bookmark organizer. This has potential as you often recognize a site faster by its design than by the title (titles are often pretty similar). Still, I need a better way to store information that is more than just a link to a page.

Evernote

evernote

Evernote is a really neat service that lets you store notes online. You can submit notes by email (from your cellphone), Firefox extensions or using one of their applications. You can even email photos and they will run text recognition software on the image so you can search for text in your picture notes. For example, you can send a photo of a business card from your mobile phone and later search for that person’s name and their business card will show up. It is also good for online research. There is a Firefox extension that allows you to clip sections of a webpage and add them to your online notebook. Later on you can search for phrases or quotes in these clips.

They provide a web app that you can access from anywhere and very nice applications for MacOS, Windows, iPhone, Blackberry, etc. I keep forgetting I have it, but one day I will attempt to use it for an article and write a real review. The free version lets you upload 40MB of notes per month (a few hundred camera phone photos, thousands of web clips) and for $5 you can get 400MB/mo and a few other extra features.

Backpack

logo_backpack-full

Backpack is another online service for collecting notes. You can create a page for your project and add todo lists and notes. There are bookmarklets that allow you to post clips from websites. It’s much lighter weight than Evernote but it’s also lighter featured. There’s no text recognition. But maybe that isn’t a problem for you. I think the free account is too limited to be really useful but it’s free so there’s no harm in trying it out and seeing if you like it. $7 per month.

Snipd

snipd

Better than Backpack is Snipd. Snipd let’s you copy (unlimited) web clips for free. You can copy text and images (but there’s no text recognition). You could easily clip and store entire cases. You would then be able to easily search your collection for a specific word or phrase. It does not, however, offer any way to organize your clips. It could potentially get pretty crowded. But if you find Evernote too heavy, Snipd may be a decent alternative.

Other stuff

These are just the things I was aware of before I started writing this. I really need to find a system that works well for me, so I’ll probably be trying out more services and adding more to this list throughout the summer.

Citizen Journalism

Thursday, Jun 25, 2009 7:00 am
William Barnes

I know I’m over a week late, but I was away. There appear to have recently been some protests in Iran. I first found out when I turned on FoxNews on the airplane but apparently some people first found out on Twitter. As it turns out, people in Iran were tweeting about the protests and violence while CNN/MSNBC/FoxNews/etc were all showing reruns. And, of course, when I listened to last week’s This Week In Tech, they were all a-twitter (see what I did there?) about the future of social media and citizen journalism.

Citizen journalism is the idea that regular people will bypass the news outlets and report on breaking stories themselves using social media (blogs/Twitter/YouTube/etc). Now, this isn’t a new topic for the TWiTs. There are plenty of journalists and former journalists and media experts on the show and others like it. And all of them are all excited about the idea (though upset at the prospect of losing great investigative journalism). They say the conventional news outlets will be replaced by aggregators who are skilled in finding the best citizen journalism. And many people will just go straight to the source, reading eyewitness accounts on Twitter (or whatever replaces Twitter). People apparently want news in real time and don’t want to wait for newspapers or even TV.

And they’re probably right about some of it. I understand the appeal of live, breaking news. It’s much more exciting to be watching live video of riots or a hostage situation than to read about it in the paper the next day. Of course, the paper will probably have better information, but do people really care about that? I doubt it. The 24-hour news channels attract many people who wouldn’t have the patience to regularly read dailies and weeklies. It’s about connection with the events. Live footage is more emotionally compelling than next-day analysis. I think Twitter will have a hard time competing with video news, but combined with YouTube and USTREAM citizen journalism can probably better provide that connection.

It is cool that nowadays people have immediate access to all sorts of eyewitness accounts, but I worry about the affect that it would have on the reliability of information. Theoretically, in the case of professional journalism there is integrity and accountability (though that goes out the window when you want to scoop the other stations). But what do you have on Twitter? The TWiTs were very impressed about how they knew that the police were beating people in the streets before CNN did, but how can they be sure? I remember when they arrested the 18 alleged (not-so-alleged right now, I think) terrorists in Mississauga a few years ago. I went to my shift at the student council office the day after and it was full of people discussing it. One in particular was telling about how the RCMP busted into one family’s house, threw a baby on the floor, and threatened to shoot it unless the mother told them where her son was. Of course, I found this story completely unbelievable and no doubt most professional news outlets would too. But everybody else in the room seemed to be buying it (they were the type to believe such a thing). Twitter didn’t exist then but if it had I can imagine that story would sweep across Twitter like wildfire. There is absolutely no way to know if an “eyewitness account” on Twitter is true. Twitter only works if people can refrain from forming opinions immediately. Yet there is this mentality of rejecting the conventional news as biased and blindly accepting alternative sources. That can’t work. We badly need day- and week-after reporting and we badly need that people have the patience to read it.

Dropbox: Best backup program ever

Friday, Mar 27, 2009 9:30 pm
William Barnes
drop-box-icon

I love Dropbox (referral link*). I’ve been using it since September to back up my school notes and yesterday I suddenly noticed how much easier it has made things.

Dropbox is a program that runs in the background on your computer and monitors a folder (e.g., “Documents\My Dropbox”). Everytime you make a change to a file in that folder it immediately backs it up over the Internet. The free account gives you 2GB of space. There are paid accounts that give you more, but 2GB is plenty for my purposes. So you get the peace of mind that even if your laptop gets stolen on the way home from school, or if the hard drive suddenly dies, you have a backup already. It even keeps copies of old versions of all your files so if you accidentally break or delete a file, you can recover an older version from minutes or months earlier.

Even better, though, is that you can run it on multiple computers at the same time. I like my laptop most of the time. But my home computer has a much larger screen and a better keyboard. Before Dropbox, I used to do everything bent over my laptop even when I was at home. It was just too much trouble to copy files back and forth or to try to work on an essay at school and realize that the latest version is on my computer at home. Dropbox fixed that. Now when I press save at school, within seconds the file is updated on my computer at home. And within a few seconds of starting my laptop, any changes I made on my home computer are synchronized to the laptop. This is what hit me yesterday. I sat down at my computer to continue working on an essay I had been working on at school half an hour earlier and realized how I just take it for granted that whatever computer I sit down at has all my notes and essays already there. No network transfers, emailing, or USB keys. It’s so great.

Anyway, I cannot recommend this enough. Even if you only have one computer, the instant backup is still worthwhile. And it’s free anyway, so there’s no harm. Runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux so you can even synchronize the files if you own both a Mac and a PC.

In the interests of journalistic integrity or something, I should also mention Syncplicity. It does more or less the same thing but does not support Linux and the free trial limits you to two computers (I have Dropbox installed in three operating systems including Linux on each of two computers, Syncplicity won’t let me do that for free). Choose Dropbox instead.

* You get extra space if you refer somebody, if you don’t want to use the referral link go to http://www.getdropbox.com.

DNS Spoofing

Saturday, Aug 16, 2008 8:29 pm
William Barnes

I have been thinking about the big deal in security at the moment: DNS spoofing. Everybody, it seems, is all caught up in trying to figure out how to add more bits. They want to make DNS replies harder to spoof.

It seems to me that they are missing the problem. The problem is the way DNS servers handle in-bailiwick additional records. If I request an NXDOMAIN from an ISP, I can be reasonable assured that a request will be made by the ISP to Google’s nameservers (which are probably already cached). I can then spam the ISP DNS server with fake replies hoping I stumble on the right combination of port and transaction ID. My replies will include a record for my NXDOMAIN and also an additional record giving new IP address for Google’s nameservers. From then on, the ISP will turn to my provided IP rather than Google. Eventually I can provide it with fake records for www.google.com and other useful subdomains.

My question: why should the ISP overwrite the information it has already cached? Additional records should be ignored unless they are needed for the current query (as in the case of glue).

I know this doesn’t prevent DNS spoofing, but it does significantly lower the value of the attack. You may be able to plant a record for as7230hf.google.com, but you won’t be able to overwrite their nameservers.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there really is a critical reason to allow a nameserver to tell you that it isn’t where it is. But I don’t think so.

Why a bandwidth cap won't work

Sunday, Jun 29, 2008 1:41 pm
William Barnes

Background

ISPs pay for capacity. They pay to have the ability to deliver a certain amount of data per second. They do not pay for the amount of data transferred. If an ISP is capable of transferring 1Tbps (terabit per second, to pick a number) over its network, then its costs are the same whether it transfers 324,000TB (terabyte, as data is measured in bytes whereas transfer is measured in bits for marketing reasons) or 1MB. So an ISP is not primarily limited by the amount of data it can transfer, but by how fast it can transfer that data.

The problem comes in when ISPs oversell their bandwidth. They have made the bet that not everybody will want to download at full speed at the exact same time. So while our hypothetical ISP has a capacity of 1Tbps, it may actually sell 10Mbps to one million customers for a total of 10Tbps. Now, this works out. Most people use the internet in short bursts. They download a web page, or they download a file which takes just a few minutes. But then you have the people that ISPs call bandwidth hogs. These are people that download huge files all the time. If one tenth of hypoISP’s customers do this, then none of the “regular” customers will be able to reach full-speed.

Response

To counter this, ISPs want to introduce caps. Caps would discourage users from downloading constantly because they would then reach their limit before the month is up.

Better Response

Caps are short-sighted. They try to reduce the impact of heavy users by making them use less, but the problem is not the amount people download. ISPs are not reaching their practical limit (imposed by their maximum speed) and probably never will. The reason: peak hours. Most people are online during the day and the ISP has to have enough bandwidth to supply the peak demand at that time. During off-peak hours, the ISP has plenty of unused capacity.

Rather than applying a monthly limit to the amount you can download, ISPs should enforce rules to discourage bandwidth hogging during peak hours. To manage their network in the long-run they should be trying to encourage good habits in their consumers. This isn’t served by monthly caps. If I have a limit of (let’s say) 60GB, I will download whenever I feel like downloading (and I will probably overuse at the end of the month).

A few ideas

  1. Have a cap that only counts during peak hours.
  2. Have “happy hours” at night when usage is lowest
    • During happy hours the ISP could increase the maximum speed to compensate for the loss of daytime downloading time, for example: if you have a 10Mbps connection, you can get up to 20Mbps overnight
    • Make a speed increase dependent on bandwidth use during peak hours: you only get the speed boost if you used less than 500MB during peak time