A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Technology’ tag

Killing Yourself Slowly

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Trump is working to take this country back to the good old days of mercantilism when governments decided who would succeed and who would fail. Implementing tariffs was just the first act in his strategy to provide a supposed advantage to American companies. His latest act was far more blatant. He issued an executive order to prohibit Huawei from the United States market. In the aftermath of this executive order Google has revoked Huawei’s use of its services, including its Play Store:

President Trump issued an executive order last week banning “foreign adversaries” from doing telecommunication business in the US. The move was widely understood as a ban on Huawei products, and now we’re starting to see the fallout. According to a report from Reuters, Google has “suspended” business with Huawei, and the company will be locked out of Google’s Android ecosystem. It’s the ZTE ban all over again.

That’ll give a much needed boost to American device manufacturers, right? You know, all of those device manufacturers who manufacture their devices in China, where Huawei is headquartered. Because I’m sure this executive order won’t result in any reciprocation from the Chinese government.

But even if we set aside the likelihood of a Chinese retaliatory response, this executive order sends a rather clear message for companies headquartered outside of the United States. That message is that they shouldn’t rely on products or services from companies headquartered in the United States. Huawei can still use Android since it’s an open source project (a good reason to prefer open source code to closed source code) so it doesn’t have to write an operating system for its devices from scratch. It does have to figure out a replacement for Google’s proprietary bits though. There are several solid third-party clients available for Android that allow access to online calendaring, contacts, and e-mail services. Many of those clients are also open source. Huawei could utilize them in place of apps like Google Calendar, Google Contacts, and Google Mail (Google Maps is the tough one to replace but a third-party client could be written for it). So it would only need to worry about distribution and it has enough funding to build its own app store (it could also use something like F-Droid, but that’s unlikely). It could also make licensing money off of its app store by providing access to other Android device manufacturers who had their access revoked by Google due to an executive order.

Foreign companies aren’t going to stop doing business when the figurehead of the United States puts his signature on a piece of paper. They’re going to either make or buy replacements for everything can no longer use. If this behavior of barring foreign companies from business in the United States continues, companies headquartered outside of the United States are going to become more and more wary of relying on American products and services and instead seek foreign alternatives. American companies like Google will find themselves more and more isolated from the global market. The constantly dwindling market size will cause them serious economic hardship, which will translate into economic hardship for their employees.

Isolating domestic businesses from foreign markets is slow economic suicide.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 20th, 2019 at 8:00 am

Destructive Rights Management

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Digital Rights Management (DRM), and oxymoronic term since something ceases to be a right the second it’s managed, has been the bane of digital content consumers’ existence since it was first developed. Why does the single player game I bought need a constant Internet connection? DRM. Why is this audio CD trying to install a rootkit on my system? DRM. Why can’t I watch this movie I purchased from the iTunes Store on my Kodi box? DRM.

However, the greatest danger of DRM lies in the fact that any content protected by DRM can be taken away from you. This is a lesson that people who purchased e-books via Microsoft’s service (I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know Microsoft had an e-book service) are learning right now:

There’s bad news for users of Microsoft’s eBook store: the company is closing it down, and, with it, any books bought through the service will no longer be readable.

To soften the blow, the company has promised to refund any customers who bought books through the store (a clue that there may not have been that many of them, hence the closure. Microsoft did not offer further comment).

But just think about that for a moment. Isn’t it strange? If you’re a Microsoft customer, you paid for those books. They’re yours.

But they’re not yours. Why? DRM.

The upside for consumers is that Microsoft isn’t closing its e-book service because it’s is filing for bankruptcy, which means it’s is in a position to offer refunds (more on that in a moment). This situation makes it an oddity though. Oftentimes when a service shuts down it’s doing so because it has run out of money. If this were a small e-book distribution service, not only would its customers lose all access to the books that they purchased, but they would also receive no refund.

But let’s talk about Microsoft’s refund for a moment. If you go to the announcement page, you’ll see that there are some strings attached:

How do I get my refund?

Refund processing for eligible customers start rolling out automatically in early July 2019 to your original payment method. If your original payment method is no longer valid and on file with us, you will receive a credit back to your Microsoft account for use online in Microsoft Store.

If your original payment method is still valid (i.e. if your credit card hasn’t expired or been stolen) you will get a credit back. That’s actually pretty good but if the original payment method is no longer valid, you get Microsoft Fun Bucks, which you can use to buy more DRM encumbered content that may go away at any moment. That’s not as sweet of a deal.

The service will shutdown in July so if you’re in the middle of reading a book, you better finish it up before it’s taken away from you.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 4th, 2019 at 10:00 am

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Subscription Fatigue

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Daniele Bolelli announced that he was going to take his excellent History on Fire podcast to a new subscription podcast service called Luminary. I don’t blame him. As he said, he’s been putting full-time hours into a podcast that is currently paying part-time wages and Luminary appears to be offering him a better deal. However, Luminary is a new player in the already crowded premium podcast market. There are quite a few services offering podcasters a mechanism to monetize their content. The problem is that they’re all silos that have a handful of exclusive podcasts available, which is the same problem facing the movie and television streaming market at the moment.

Rewind just a few years ago when Netflix was the king of streaming movies and television shows. You paid Netflix a monthly fee to access all of the content it had available and life was pretty good. But Netflix’s success convinced a lot of content creators that they could make big money in this space without giving a third-party like Netflix a cut of the action. Today if you want to stream the new Star Trek series, you need to subscribe to CBS’s streaming service. If you want to stream Marvel movies and shows, you’ll soon have to subscribe to Disney’s streaming service. If you want to stream Man in the High Castle, you’ll have to pay for Amazon Prime. Hell, DC Entertainment is starting its own streaming service, which is where you’ll probably have to go if you want to watch the latest Batman series.

Compare this to music streaming services. Whether you subscribe to Apple Music or Spotify doesn’t make a huge difference. Both services provide largely the same content. That’s because the record labels never entered the streaming market themselves. Instead they let far more competent companies handle the delivery mechanism. The fact that music piracy is down shows that people are willing to pay for convenience. But would this story be the same if each record label was operating its own service? Would people who currently pay a single monthly subscription to Apple Music or Spotify be willing instead to pay a monthly fee to Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and EMI simultaneously?

As more and more content, software, and services migrate to a subscription model we’re going to start seeing what I like to refer to as subscription fatigue. Consider just a small sample of the subscription fees an individual could find themselves paying today. You have the obvious service subscriptions such as a home Internet connection, cell phone plan, garbage collection, water, etc. But people have to get work done so they may also find themselves paying a subscription fee for Microsoft Office 360, Adobe Creative Suite, Dropbox Plus, and maybe an important app or two on their phone. All work and no play makes for a dull life so many people may subscribe to a few entertainment services. They may pay a subscription fee for cable or satellite television, Netflix, Disney+, World of Warcraft, a phone game or two, and maybe soon Google Stadia (if Stadia uses a subscription fee). Then you have their daily commute to consider. What will they listen to as they drive to work? Maybe Apple Music or Spotify subscription, Luminary, and Stitcher Premium.

All of these small monthly subscriptions add up quickly and each household only has so much money to spend. At some point an individual may decide that they can’t afford both Netflix and Disney+. Does that mean they will cancel one and forego that service’s exclusive content or does that mean that they will simply pirate that service’s exclusive content? I’d bet the latter in most cases. And once they’re pirating one service’s content, they may decide it would be financially smarter to cancel their other subscription and pirate that service’s content too.

This post isn’t meant to be a condemnation of subscription services. I understand that people need to make a living and certainly don’t disparage people for trying to do so. But I do question the sustainability of having so many silos. I think the current music streaming model where content creators are largely separate from content deliverers and exclusive access deals are at a minimum is the most sustainable model. That way the content creators get paid and the content consumers can take their pick of delivery services without having to sacrifice a lot of their content. I think the diaspora way from Netflix is going to hurt the movie and television streaming markets (although some large players like Disney will likely do well with their service) in the long run. I also think it would be wise for Podcast streaming services to adopt the music streaming model where content creation is mostly separate from delivery and exclusive content deals are the exception rather than the rule. And when game streaming becomes more viable (which is may with Google Stadia), I think it would be wise for game creators to avoid being shuffled into a series of exclusive silos rather than providing their games to a wide number of streaming services. All of these services are ultimately competing not just with each other but with the free alternative of piracy. People will pay for convenience but they will only pay so much.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 25th, 2019 at 10:00 am

Posted in Economics

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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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The Dying Concept of Ownership

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Apple is once again pushing developers to utilize a subscription model rather than a one-time purchase model for their software:

For a while now, Apple has been encouraging app developers to consider subscriptions as a key revenue source, and the company is introducing some new options for developers that it hopes will make the option more attractive. In the past few days, Apple has informed developers that they will now be able to target current and recent subscribers with promotional rates on subscriptions. That means subscribers will be able to offer discounts to try to get you back if you lapse, or they might try to entice you to stay if you’re considering leaving.

Apple’s push isn’t unique. More and more markets are trying to transition to a subscription model. Car dealerships often push leasing over purchasing. Music and video are moving from selling songs and albums to stream subscriptions. Home ownership is being usurped by renting.

To put it bluntly, ownership is dying. It shouldn’t surprise anybody though. Subscription models are far more profitable. Consider a software package. For the sake of argument, let’s say that there is a software package that you use and that it originally cost $60 for each major version upgrade and that it averages a major upgrade release once per year. Suddenly the developer decided to transition to a subscription model. Now you will pay $5 per month. At first you don’t notice any difference since you’re still paying $60 per year. However, under the old model you paid once and had that software in perpetuity. If the developer released a new major version that didn’t have any new features that interested you, you could just skip it and continue to use the old version. Under a subscription model, even if you stick with an old version, you will lose access if you stop paying your subscription.

The other issue with subscription models is that, contrary to claims made by subscription advocates, they can discourage developers from adding new features. If, for example, a developer releases a piece of software that customers absolutely need to get their job done, they will enjoy a continuous stream of revenue even if they fail to release improvements. Under a one-time purchase model, the only way that the developer could make more money is to release a new version that’s good enough to convince customers to buy it.

But, in the end, subscription models offer more profit for less work so I predict that they will continue to overtake one-time purchase models. I’m not looking forward to such a future but it is what it is.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 28th, 2019 at 10:00 am

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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

Potentially the Largest Threat to the Advertisement Business Model

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I dislike the advertisement business model that currently dominates the Internet. My biggest gripe with it is that it encourages website operators to spy on their users. While nothing so far as been able to supplant advertising as a revenue source, we may see website operators looking more thoroughly for an alternative. Why? Because advertisers are starting to realize the impossibility of perfectly enforcing rules on globally accessible services that allow users to upload content:

YouTube is still grappling with predatory comments on child videos, and it’s once again facing the consequences. Bloomberg has learned that Disney, Fortnite creator Epic Games, Nestle and Oetker have “paused” spending on YouTube ads after video blogger Mark Watson shared a video showing how comments on videos with children were being used to enable an ad hoc softcore child porn ring. Commenters would flag videos where underage girls were performing supposedly suggestive actions, such as gymnastics, while YouTube’s own algorithms would inadvertently suggest similar videos.

The YouTube comments section: where naivety and predatory behavior collide.

Children are able to upload videos to YouTube. Pedophiles are able to mark timestamps and post comments on videos. Needless to say, when a young girl uploads a video of herself modeling swimwear, matters play out exactly as you would expect. Moreover, when another person uploads a video showing this expected outcome, advertisers with reputations to maintain expectedly become skittish and pull their ads.

I’m sure Google, YouTube’s parent company, will remove the offending videos, ban the users who made sexual remarks on said videos, and claim that they’re working behind the scenes to ensure this never happens again… just like it did every other time something like this has happened. It’ll likely appease advertisers enough that they’ll return. But eventually YouTube’s brand could become blackened enough that advertisers refuse to return after yet another one of these controversies.

YouTube, like most websites, is globally accessible. While only a fraction of the seven billion people who inhabit this planet will ever access YouTube, even a tiny fraction of seven billion people is too large of a number of people for a single company to effectively watch over. What makes this problem even worse is the fact that these users are somewhat anonymous (especially if they’re outside of the jurisdictions YouTube exists) and thus permanently banning them is difficult because they can simply create new accounts.

Do I see a hand in the audience going up? I do! It’s a hypothetical Google employee! What’s that hypothetical Google employee? You’ll just “create an algorithm to fix this?” Good luck. Humans have so far proven less clever at creating content filtering algorithms than they have at bypassing content filtering algorithms. Maybe you’ll finally create the perfect algorithm (my money is against you by the way) but, at best, that will just cause the timestamps and comments to move to another site and then it will only be a matter of time until some YouTuber posts a video showing that site and you’re looking at the same controversy all over again (this time without the benefit of control over the offending site).

Written by Christopher Burg

February 21st, 2019 at 10:00 am

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A Barrel of Laughs

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If it exists, politicians will try to tax it. As a correlative, politicians will try to tax it and tax it again. Politicians already tax personal electronics via federal and state sales taxes, regulatory compliance costs, tariffs, etc. But now some politicians in Kansas want to add an additional tax under the auspices of fighting human trafficking:

Two bills introduced in the Kansas House on Wednesday generate funding for human trafficking programs by requiring all new internet-capable telephones or computers sold in the state to feature anti-pornography software and by mandating adult entertainment businesses charge a special admissions tax.

Sabetha Rep. Randy Garber sponsored legislation requiring the software installations and dictating purchasers would have to pay a $20 fee to the state, and whatever cost was assessed by retail stores, to remove filters for “obscene” material. No one under 18 would be allowed to have filter software deleted.

Pay a $20 fee to the state or ask a neighborhood teenager (who will probably do it for free out of spite) to remove it just for the irony? Tough decision.

Setting aside the mental gymnastics required to tie human trafficking to the legal pornography industry, we’re left wondering how, exactly, Kansas legislators plan to enforce this. Take my ThinkPad for instance. Let’s pretend I purchased it in Kansas 20 minutes into the future and it included this hypothetical filtering software. The first thing I did after purchasing my ThinkPad was replace the stock hard drive with an SSD, which removed all of the included software. Moreover, I didn’t reinstall the included software, I install a Linux distribution. I effectively bypassed this legislation in a matter of minutes.

“Ah, you cheeky bastard,” you say, “but what about your phone?” If I lived in Kansas under this law, I would purchase my phone in a neighboring state. If that wasn’t an option, I would likely purchase an Android smartphone with an unlockable bootloader and flash something like LineageOS on it, which would accomplish the same thing as installing Linux on my ThinkPad.

I also guarantee that if this legislation passed, a script to remove the filtering software would be published to GitHub within a day or two. “But that would be illegal,” you say? Maybe in Kansas but that doesn’t apply to anybody in, say, Minnesota.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 20th, 2019 at 10:00 am