A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Technology’ tag

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

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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

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

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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