A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Alternate Social Media Project Part 1: Riot.im

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When I announced that I was cutting back on blogging, I explained that it was so I could focus my energy on other projects. One of those projects, which I’ve dubbed the Alternate Social Media Project (ASMP), has been replacing the social media functionality provided by Facebook. Why? Because Facebook has become not only a total invasion of privacy (which most people apparently don’t give two shits about) but also an increasingly useless platform for anybody with beliefs that aren’t state approved (which people seem to care about when they find themselves being censored by Facebook’s administrators). Rather than demand that the government step in and force Facebook to run its operations in the manner I approve, I decided it would be easier to just move somewhere freer.

This project is occurring in steps. The first step was to find something to fulfill the primary use of social media: communication. My requirements were modest. The solution upon which I settled had to be decentralized, fully usable on mobile platforms, and offer the option of secure communications. I settled on Riot.im since it was one of the few decent options that met those requirements.

Riot.im is the reference client for the Matrix protocol. The Matrix protocol is, basically, an evolution of Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Unlike other attempts to improve on IRC, Matrix is also federated, which means anybody can run a server and those servers can communicate with one another. Facebook demonstrates the importance of federation. If you express wrongthink of Facebook, you risk being exiled. If you express wrongthink on a Matrix server, you risk being exiled from that specific server but you can migrate over to another server, possibly your own server (where you can express all the wrongthink your heart desires). So long as the new server you’re on is federate with the servers your friends are on, you can continue your conversations.

Unlike IRC and many other older communication protocols (XMPP comes to mind), Riot.im works well on mobile devices. Android and iOS like to kill apps in the background and when those apps are killed, all of their active network connections die with them. With IRC this means you have no idea what is going on in the room until you open the app and reconnect. Riot.im, on the other hand, will work like other modern communication tools when your app isn’t running. When activity happens in one of the rooms of which you’re a member, you will receive notifications (unless you disable those notifications). If something piques your interest, you can open the app and jump into the conversation. My previous attempts to migrate friends to other platforms were thwarted because none of them were willing to use something that didn’t play well with mobile. I’m happy to say that Riot.im doesn’t suffer from that shortcoming.

Riot.im fulfills the third criterion by offering the option of end-to-end encryption. Matrix has no concept of direct messages as far as I can tell. When you want to communicate privately with somebody, you’re placed in a private room with them. If you want your communications to be private, you can turn encryption on in the room. Another nice feature is that once encryption is enabled in a room, it cannot be disabled. This setup, although potentially confusing to some people, has two nice features. The first is that this setup enables any room to be encrypted. You and your friends can setup an encrypted room where you can express wrongthink without the server administrators being able to see it (unless you invite them into your room). The second is that you don’t have to worry about somebody secretly turning encryption off at a future point (and thus exposing your wrongthink to outsiders).

Riot.im obviously isn’t a replacement for Facebook. At most it’s a replacement for Facebook Messenger. Since everything on Riot.im occurs in a chatroom, it’s not as easy to have a conversation about a linked article and there is no way to accrue imaginary Internet points like you can with Facebook’s reactions. However, I’m not actually a fan of services that try to do everything. It’s too difficult to replace individual parts when something better rolls around or an update to the current tool makes it unusable.

If you’re interested in migrating off of Facebook or other restrictive social media platforms, you could do worse than starting with Riot.im.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 19th, 2019 at 10:00 am

Linux on a 2010 Mac Mini Part Two

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Last week I mentioned my adventure of installing Linux on a 2010 Mac Mini. Although Ubuntu 18.10 did install and was working for a few days an update left the system unusable. After an update towards the end of last week the system would only boot to a black screen. From what I gathered online I wasn’t the only person who ran into this problem. Anyways, I ended up digging into the matter further.

I once again tried installing Fedora. When I tried to install Fedora 29, I was unable to stop it from booting to a black screen so I decided to try Fedora 28. Using basic graphics mode I was able to get Fedora 28 to boot to the live environment and from there install Fedora on the Mac Mini. After installation I was able to get my Fedora installation to boot. However, when I tried to install the Nvidia driver from RPM Fusion, the system would only boot to a black screen afterwards. I tried installing the Nvidia driver via the negativo17 repository but didn’t expect it to work since the driver distributed from that repository is based on version 418 and the last driver to support the Mac Mini’s GeForce 320M was version 340. Things went as expected. I then tried installing the Nvidia driver manually using a patched version of the 340 driver from here. Unfortunately, that driver doesn’t work with the 4.20 kernel so that was a no go as well.

The reason I hadn’t tried to install the Nvidia driver manually before was because I didn’t want to deal with supporting the setup in the future. As I was trying to install it using the previously linked instructions I felt justified because the guide isn’t nearly as straight forward as installing the driver from a repository. It became a moot point since manual installation didn’t work but it did make me think about the fact that any solution I settled upon would need to be maintained, which lead me to the idea of using Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. The LTS versions of Ubuntu are supported by Canonical for five years so if I could get 18.04 installed, the setup would have a decent chance of working for five years.

After passing the kernel the “nouveau.modeset=0” argument, just as I had to do with 18.10, I was able to boot into a live environment and install 18.04 to the hard drive. Likewise, I had to use the “nouveau.modeset=0” argument to boot into the installation. Once I was booted into the installation I was able to use “sudo apt install nvidia-340” to install the 340 version of the Nvidia driver. After rebooting everything worked properly. I’m hoping that future updates will be less likely to break this setup since the LTS releases of Ubuntu tend to be more stable than non-LTS versions.

So, yeah, if you want to get a currently supported Linux distro running on a 2010 Mac Mini, take a look at Ubuntu 18.04. It might be your best bet (if it continues to run properly for the next month or so, I’ll say it is your best bet).

Written by Christopher Burg

March 4th, 2019 at 10:00 am

Posted in Technology

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Linux on a 2010 Mac Mini

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I prefer repurposing old computers to throwing them away. A while ago I acquired a 2010 Mac Mini for $100. It has worked well. I even managed to install macOS Mojave on it using this patcher. However, I wanted to try installing Linux on it.

I first tried installing my go-to distro, Fedora (version 29 to be specific). Unfortunately, I immediately ran into problems. The Mac Mini has an Nvidia card that doesn’t play nicely with the nouveau driver in the kernel so I couldn’t bring up a graphical environment (I just got a black screen with a blinking cursor in the upper left corner). I tried booting the Fedora live distro with the “nouveau.modeset=0” parameter but to no avail.

So I decided to try Ubuntu (18.10). Ubuntu also initially failed to boot but it at least gave me an error message (related to the nouveau driver). When I booted it with the “nouveau.modeset=0” parameter I was able to get to the graphical interface and install Ubuntu. After installation I once again booted with the “nouveau.modeset=0” parameter and install Nvidia’s proprietary driver. After that the system now boots into Ubuntu without any trouble (installing the Nvidia driver also enabled audio output through HDMI).

If you’re having trouble installing Linux on a 2010 Mac Mini, try Ubuntu and try passing the “nouveau.modeset=0” parameter when booting and you may have better luck.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 27th, 2019 at 10:00 am

Posted in Technology

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Self-Inflicted Dystopia

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Nike has released its self-lacing shoes and the result is funnier than anything I predicted:

One user writes, “The first software update for the shoe threw an error while updating, bricking the right shoe.” Another says, “App will only sync with left shoe and then fails every time. Also, app says left shoe is already connected to another device whenever I try to reinstall and start over.”

“My left shoe won’t even reboot.” writes another. One user offers a possible solution, saying, “You need to do a manual reset of both shoes per the instructions.”

People like to argue over whether Orwell or Huxley more accurately predicted our dystopian future but I think Mike Judge’s prediction is proving most accurate.

Products like the Nike Adapt BB provide the opportunity for a self-inflicted dystopia. If your life is too free from anxiety, you can buy some. Running a little late for work? Now you can worry about whether or not your shoes have enough charge in them to lace themselves or whether or not your smartphone app will connect to them to activate the self-lacing operation. Will the lithium-ion batteries in your shoes explode? Who knows! Will wearing them outside in -20 weather cause the batteries to discharge to such a point that you won’t be able to unlace them? Perhaps!

On the upside, the entertainment derived from watching people struggle with their “smart” shoes is free.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 22nd, 2019 at 10:00 am

If You’re Good at Something, Never Do It for Free

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A minor controversy has developed in the macOS world. Linuz Henze, a security researcher, has discovered a vulnerability in Keychain for macOS that allows an attacker to access stored passwords. However, Henze isn’t providing the details to Apple because Apple’s bug bounty program, for some stupid reason, doesn’t cover macOS vulnerabilities:

Security researcher Linuz Henze has shared a video demonstration of what is claimed to be a macOS Mojave exploit to access passwords stored in the Keychain. However, he has said he is not sharing his findings with Apple out of protest.

Henze has publicly shared legitimate iOS vulnerabilities in the past, so he has a track record of credibility.

However, Henze is frustrated that Apple’s bug bounty program only applies to iOS, not macOS, and has decided not to release more information about his latest Keychain invasion.

Some people aren’t happy with Henze’s decision because his refusal to provide the exploit to Apple will make it harder for the company to fix the vulnerability. What these people are forgetting is that Henze isn’t refusing to provide the exploit to Apple, he’s refusing to provide it for free. In other words, he wants to be paid for his work. I don’t know many people who would willingly work for free. I certainly wouldn’t. Unless you would, you really should put the blame for this on Apple for refusing to pay for macOS exploits.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 7th, 2019 at 10:00 am

Posted in Technology

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Disable FaceTime

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If for some inexplicable reason you own an Apple device and haven’t already disabled FaceTime, you should do so now:

Users have discovered a bug in Apple’s FaceTime video-calling application that allows you to hear audio from a person you’re calling before they accept the call—a critical bug that could potentially be used as a tool by malicious users to invade the privacy of others.

You don’t want a caller to hear you bitching them out for being inconsiderate by calling you instead of having the decency to send a text message.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 29th, 2019 at 10:30 am

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Don’t Forget to Put Your Shoes on the Charger

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Nobody could credibly accuse me of being a Luddite but there are a lot of products that cause me to tilt my head and say what the fuck. Nike released a video of basketball players adjusting a pair of self-lacing shoes with a smartphone app. The shoes themselves are blurred out like genitals in a Japanese porno but the point is made clearly enough: Nike has self-lacing shoes that interface with smartphone.

My initial reaction was to assume that this product was the epitome of laziness. But then I thought about it and decided that digging out my smartphone, unlocking it, opening an app, and tapping a button actually requires more work than manually tying shoes. So I’m left to assume that these shoes are aimed at people who a) want to add the risk of being unable to lace up their shoes in the morning because they forgot to put them on the charger the night before and b) want the thrill of adding more hazardous materials to landfills when they toss out their battery equipped shoes.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 15th, 2019 at 10:30 am

Corporate Euphemisms

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Apple’s quest to make its products thinner at any cost is once again making some customers unhappy. There have been reports of iPad Pros arriving bent out of the box. I would be unhappy even if a $100 table arrived bent out of the box so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’d be unhappy if an $800+ tablet arrived bent out of the box. But now that Apple is positioning itself as a luxury products company, it’s striving to provide the same level of customer satisfaction as, say, Patek Philippe, right? After all, if you purchased a new Patek Philippe watch and it had any defect whatsoever, the company would likely bend over backwards to remedy the situation since it knows that, as a luxury products company, it lives an dies by its reputation for customer satisfaction. If you believed that, you would be incorrect.

Instead of addressing the issue of bent iPad Pros, Apple has taken the route of using corporate euphemisms to explain why bent iPad Pros are something with which customers will just have to live:

These precision manufacturing techniques and a rigorous inspection process ensure that these new iPad Pro models meet an even tighter specification for flatness than previous generations. This flatness specification allows for no more than 400 microns of deviation across the length of any side — less than the thickness of four sheets of paper. The new straight edges and the presence of the antenna splits may make subtle deviations in flatness more visible only from certain viewing angles that are imperceptible during normal use. These small variances do not affect the strength of the enclosure or the function of the product and will not change over time through normal use.

That’s a lot of words to say your brand new $800+ iPad Pro may arrive at your doorstep bent.

This issue reminds me a lot of the issue with the iPhone 4 where holding it in your left hand could cause cellular signal degradation (and thus drop your call). Instead of addressing the issue right away, Steve Jobs tried to argue that the solution was to hold the phone “correctly.” Eventually Apple opted for the half-assed solution of providing a free case, which was at least better than publishing an official page that used a lot of words to try to hand wave the problem away.

Between this and the high failure rate of the MacBook butterfly switch keyboards, Apple is having a rough start to its transition from a consumer electronics company into a luxury products company.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 8th, 2019 at 10:00 am

You’re Unboxing It Wrong

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Apple has spent the last couple of years transitioning itself from a consumer electronics company to a luxury products company. For the most part it has been doing a good job of this. The company’s attention to detail on its products is easy to see. However, when you’re a luxury products company, expectations go up. Somebody who buys a Seiko 5 isn’t likely to throw a fit because the second hand doesn’t sweep smoothly. Somebody who spends the big bucks on a Rolex is probably going to be unhappy if their second hand isn’t gliding smoothly over the watch face. Likewise, somebody who buys an Amazon Fire table is probably willing to tolerate a number of limitations and defects. Somebody who spends no less than $799 on an iPad Pro is probably going to be unhappy if their brand new tablet is bent out of the box:

Apple has confirmed to The Verge that some of its 2018 iPad Pros are shipping with a very slight bend in the aluminum chassis. But according to the company, this is a side effect of the device’s manufacturing process and shouldn’t worsen over time or negatively affect the flagship iPad’s performance in any practical way. Apple does not consider it to be a defect.

The thing about being a luxury products company is that you need to make your customers feel special. Telling them that they have to live with a defect on a brand new product isn’t going to fly, especially when your cheaper competitors are apt to replace new products that have any kind of defect whatsoever (if you received a slightly bent Fire table, Amazon would probably get a replacement heading your away immediately).

Apple’s response on this matter is reminiscent of Steve Jobs’s response to people complaining about the iPhone 4 dropping calls when they held it in their left hand (for those who don’t know, he told them that they were holding it wrong). That might have flown when the iPhone was a reasonably priced option on the market but I have my doubts that such a cavalier attitude is going to fly now that Apple’s products are priced as high as they are.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 20th, 2018 at 11:00 am

The Unseen Threat of Advertising Companies

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Most people have a very poor understanding about how advertising companies work. Everybody who uses Facebook and doesn’t use an ad blocker sees ads. They may even consciously recognize that those ads are how Facebook makes money. What they often don’t understand though is that Facebook isn’t just displaying ads, it’s also selling their personal information to third-parties. Even when people do understand that their personal information is being sold to third-parties, they often don’t understand what exactly is being sold. They assume it’s the content they upload like photos and decide it’s not a big issue because they lead a “boring” life. But then they discuss intimate and sometimes embarrassing medical issues with family members through Facebook’s messaging service:

The exchange was intended to benefit everyone. Pushing for explosive growth, Facebook got more users, lifting its advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired features to make their products more attractive. Facebook users connected with friends across different devices and websites. But Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The unseen threat of advertising companies is that all of the data they collect is potentially for sale and you have no idea to whom they’re selling.

A lot of people probably don’t care if Netflix or Microsoft have access to their “private” messages. But technology companies aren’t the only kids on the block with big bucks. Do you really want your health insurance company having access to your “private” messages? That medical issue that grandma messaged you about may be hereditary and the fact that you might face it at some point may convince your health insurance company to up your premium. Would Facebook provide access to your “private” messages to health insurance companies? You have no way of knowing.

And even if Facebook guaranteed that they wouldn’t sell your “private” messages to health insurance companies, they could change their policy down the road (Facebook is, after all, notorious for making changes to privacy policies without notice). Or another party to whom Facebook is selling your “private” messages may sell them to health insurance companies. Once the data exists on Facebook’s servers you lose all control over it.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 20th, 2018 at 10:30 am