Red Echo

December 23, 2010

Home schooling infographic: numbers, results, averages. There’s nothing too surprising here, but it’s always interesting to get an outside view into one of the more unusual features of my childhood.

I have mixed feelings about the whole anti-institution of modern home-schooling. It definitely worked well for me, and I feel fortunate to have had two intelligent, well-educated, well-read parents willing to pour so much time into teaching. I’m reluctant to advocate it for anyone else, though: the features which make home-schooling work are hard to find outside the fundamentalist Christian subculture where it thrives.

One great thing about the high profile of the Wikileaks situation is that it seems to have gotten a lot of people thinking about practical steps we can take to further decentralize the web. Aaron Swartz’s proposal combines certificate authorities, mirrors, URL-hash-lookup services, Tor, and the new simple concept of a reverse URL hash lookup to produce a system which allows people who want to publish controversial data to do so without fear of censorship.

December 22, 2010

Bruce Sterling has the deepest, most thoughtful commentary I’ve read on the whole Wikileaks situation. This is very much a cryptopunk project, and Sterling understands that background like very few others; he’s also looking at this with a broader perspective, explaining the deeply nerdy worldview that spawned Wikileaks without losing touch with the bigger culture around it.

December 20, 2010

One shop space ends, another begins

The three-year lease Adam and I signed on the Rocket Factory space is nearly finished, so we’ve been making plans to vacate. The shop never really worked out the way we hoped it would – it’s too far away, the roof leaks, and it’s impossible to keep the place warm or clean. Nor have we taken on any of the large Burning Man projects we intended the place for, so it’s been sadly underutilized. We gave it a good try, but it’s time to let the place go.

In the last week, however, I’ve stumbled across a new vacant commercial space much closer to home, written up a plan, gotten four of my artsy friends on board, and set myself up to launch a brand new shop / studio / makerspace. It’s a great venue: right near home, in the Burner Triangle neighborhood where most of my friends live, with a garage, good power, heat, and light, running water and its own bathroom and shower – at the same rate per square foot we’ve been paying in Ballard! In four years of looking at shop spaces around Seattle, this is the best place I’ve ever seen. Given the zoning restrictions on Capitol Hill and in the Central District, I would bet that the total number of spaces like this in existence could be counted on one hand. I feel very lucky to have found it and glad that there are other people willing to join me in the venture.

This will be a bigger project than the Rocket Factory was: more space, more people, more uses – but it feels like the right place and the right crew at the right time. It won’t be open to the public, like Metrix or Jigsaw Renaissance, but it is definitely supposed to be a social hub, albeit on a smaller scale. I’ve believed for years that the groovlabs / mezbian burner community could do great things with a shared art space, and this time around maybe I will be able to make it happen. I’m looking forward to seeing what we make of it.

First, we need a name.

December 17, 2010

How to use an Amazon EC2 instance as a VPN server

December 14, 2010

The Murata OKI-78SR DC-DC power converters are a pair of drop-in replacements for the classic linear regulators, LM7803 and LM7805. Unit cost is about four bucks, where the LM78xx is more like $0.60, but they claim 95% efficiency and no need for a heat sink. Sounds like a nice tool to have in one’s parts box.

I have never been a fan of Microsoft, but as the company has become less of an all-conquering juggernaut, I’m starting to see something valuable in its approach to computing which is rapidly being lost in the world outside the increasingly insular Redmond walls.

The last ten years have all been about web platforms, server-side applications, cloud computing: a sort of modern return to the mainframe. Microsoft, on the other hand, continues to be all about the personal computer. Of course they are trying to play in the new world too, but Microsoft still fundamentally sees the network as a service for the PC.

Contrast this with Google’s new CR48 laptop, a device so unstylish, so unremarkable, that it is clearly nothing more than a viewer for the network. The computer is not interesting, Google is trying to tell us: all that matters is the data on the network.

They’re right, of course, and this approach has a lot going for it. Why shouldn’t everyone delegate system administration to the professionals? Why shouldn’t everyone keep all their data offsite all the time, where it’s invulnerable to accidents? Why shouldn’t you be able to get to everything from anywhere, no matter who happens to have paid for the piece of hardware you’re using to get it?

Google, as a company, gives me all the warm fuzzies Microsoft never could, but there’s something wrong with the future they seem to be building, and I can’t completely get on board. The problem with the network is that you don’t own it, you can’t control it, and you are therefore at the mercy of whoever does own it and control it. Once your data lives on someone else’s machine, you have to trust that someone to take care of it, and no matter how reputable, that someone will never care about your data as much as you do.

The Google of today appears to be an extraordinarily intelligent, farsighted, responsible corporation, but organizations change over time as people come and go. Will the Google of ten years from now be as trustworthy? I doubt it. Google is vulnerable to pressure from various governments; this will not change unless they recruit an army and set themselves up as an independent state. Google is not accountable to its users, but its shareholders; this will not change unless they commit a spectacularly unprecedented act of corporate suicide and turn themselves into some sort of user-driven non-profit. Organizations change, but data is permanent, and I am not willing to extend my trust to all the possible future Googles as well as the current one.

I am picking on Google in part because they are the biggest, the smartest, and the most ambitious; they are pushing this new frontier farther than anyone else, and their projects make it easiest to guess where we will all be a few years from now. I’m also picking on Google because they are also the most obviously benign of our grand technological overlords. There are other cloud services, other thin-client projects, and the situation there looks more grim. Amazon booted WikiLeaks off of EC2 the moment they started to look a little inconvenient; they’re certainly not going to stand up for anyone else. Apple, lovely as their design work is, has an even more strongly paternalistic little walled garden going with their iPhone and iPad; I’ve been a Mac user since 1985, but I wouldn’t trust Apple with my data.

I understand the economic forces that are pushing the future in this direction; I just don’t like the direction very much. I have smart friends at these big companies who are working hard to create enormously powerful tools that will change the world for the better, and I wish I could be as wholeheartedly enthusiastic about their work as I believe their efforts deserve. The irony is that the move toward a Web-centric world has cost us the decentralized freedom of communication that the Internet originally offered.

Decentralized peer-to-peer services are the way out of this trap, which is part of the reason governments and organizations dependent on governmental coercion find them so unpleasant. Every central server is a vulnerability, because governments or greedy corporations can interpose themselves as gatekeepers; every service that depends on a central server is thus dependent on their blessing, or at least their indifference.

How can we re-engineer the web so that every node in the network can participate in the cloud system? How can we build something like EC2 or Azure that cannot possibly be shut down by anyone, no matter how large their army or how deep their pocketbook? It’s a hard project, and the economic model is a far bigger challenge than the technical one, but freeing our communication infrastructure from the threat of corporate or governmental interference is the most important project of the 21st century.

December 12, 2010

Ski report

Kevin M. and I joined Barry B. for a quick little ski-trip getaway this weekend. We met up after work Friday and drove up to a cabin near Mt. Baker, so we were in line waiting when the lifts started up. The epic drifts of fresh powder we had heard about did not materialize, but it was good snow and the place never got crowded, so we had a great time. We spent most of the day bombing down a single run, over and over, stretching out and encouraging the muscle memory to come back. I missed last season, so I definitely felt rusty, but I had my carving down again after a couple hours, and was working on balance by the time my quads started to give up.

We all got tired around the same time and left an hour and a half before the lifts closed. There’s something to be said for pushing yourself, but there comes a point of exhaustion where your body just doesn’t respond properly anymore, and there’s not much fun to be had after that.

I wore my new ski jacket, of course, and the experiment was a definite success. I stayed warm and comfortable all day, had no trouble moving around, and got a number of enthusiastic comments from the resort staff. The material worked, the style worked, the design mostly worked, and I will definitely wear it again. That said, of course I learned a few things that will help me do a better job next time:
– there is nowhere to hang the lift-ticket tag. needs some kind of loop stitched in along the bottom hem.
– the collar is too snug – it works fine when the jacket is all I’m wearing, but it doesn’t close when there’s a layer of fleece underneath.
– the front flap tends to blow open in cross-breezes: needs more weight or some kind of closure to keep it positioned. Next time I might use a longer zipper and add some side vents, instead of using the front for range-of-motion.
– the hardshell material keeps the wind and water out but doesn’t really keep heat in; the jacket is not much use without a fleece layer underneath. Next time, why not incorporate a microfleece lining?

December 4, 2010

I’m having a good time with MJ. There’s no real agenda for this weekend – I’m just here to have fun in New York and spend some time catching up with my sister. Yesterday I went up to the fashion district and bought pieces of various fabrics at Mood: nothing too exotic this time, but some interesting, quality material I couldn’t find at home.

After dinner we went rambling around the lower east side and found a place called the Living Room, with a series of bands playing one-hour sets. The group playing when we walked in were a bunch of hilariously earnest music nerds – the front man played a banjo and some circuit-bent kid’s toy – so we didn’t expect much, but the next band was really surprisingly good. Called Feldberg, they are touring here from Iceland, and we’re going to go catch them again tonight in Brooklyn and bring some of MJ’s friends with us.

Today we visited the farmer’s market at Grand Army Plaza and bought some cheese and apple cider. Then we wandered around prospect park and poked our heads in various shops, stopped in at Press 195 for lunch, rode the subway, and wound up spending a couple hours in the Brooklyn Bead Box making stuff. I had just been looking for a couple split rings to repair a cuff link, but MJ got sucked into a Christmas-ornament project, and then I started making a braided wire-and-bead bracelet, and we had a great time hanging out chatting with the staff and working on our creations.

We’re off to dinner soon, then music and dancing and probably a fair amount of whiskey along the way. Should be a good night out!

December 2, 2010

The code is done and the assembly line is humming. With one exception, everything works the way it is supposed to. I’m not supposed to describe what it is I’ve been building or explain what the project will accomplish, but a descendant of this device will ship as a commercial product someday, and perhaps then I’ll be able to point it out. For now, I’m just glad crunch time is over, and impressed that crunch time at Synapse has been such a reasonable experience. Long days are never exactly fun, but there’s a big difference between pushing hard for a few days, as this week, and having to grind on for weeks or months.

December 1, 2010

uIP: a TCP/IP stack for various 8-bit microcontroller architectures. Wow.

Work. Lots of it.

Shipping soon? I hope so.

Going to NYC to visit M.J. tomorrow evening. Yay.

Hoping to swing by Mood while I’m in the neighborhood.