Today I was catching up on some posts to the NZ Open Source Society’s OpenChat email list. As you will notice if you click that link, the OpenChat list is now hosted by OnlineGroups.net (who now have an automated export tool for user data - like in not lock in! Thanks crew).

Anyway, one contributor suggested that Electronic Document and Record Management Systems (EDRMS) are an overlooked area when it comes to pitching free code solutions to government departments. A couple of free code options were suggested:

* DSpace (BSD license, suggested by Kim Shepherd)

* Alfresco (LGPLv3 license, suggested by Dave Lane)

I did a bit of a web search and came up with two other free code packages for EDRMS:

* Kordil (GPLv2 license)

* Mayan (Apache license)

Added to DSpace (thanks Kim) and Alfresco (thanks) Dave, that makes four options we know of. Be good to get some more feedback from people who’ve tried these (or others).

Filed July 31st, 2015 under Uncategorized

It is established practice when writing in Te Reo Māori, the first language of Aotearoa (NZ), to use macrons above vowels (ā,ē,ī,ō,ū) for indicating a long vowel sound, an important distinction which can make a big difference to the meaning of words. For example, kāinga means “home”, while kainga (without the macron) is the passive form of the verb “to eat”.

The transition to digital communication has required a concerted effort to get support for this use of macrons in both software (including operating systems and applications), and internet infrastructure (eg website and email addresses). Disintermedia has made a modest contribution by documenting some of the methods free code software developers have made available for setting up GNU/Linux operating systems for macron support which works across most applications. Five years ago, in the lead-up to Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (”Māori LanguageWeek”), macrons were enabled for web addresses registered under the ‘.nz’ namespace. In 2013, the Ministry of Justice  National Translation Service announced it was “using a software package developed at the University of Waikato to automatically add the correct macrons to Māori texts.” Even the Māori translation of the Christian Bible has been updated to use macrons.

So it’s frustrating to learn, in the middle of this year’s Wiki o Te Reo Māori, that most NZ government websites still don’t accept macrons in email addresses. This is merely annoying for someone who chooses a Māori word as part of their email address and wishes to spell it correctly, but for a Māori person whose name includes a long vowel, it’s demeaning and distressing. Imagine those of us using names of European origin as our email address had to replace any vowels in our names with a ‘y’, because government websites wouldn’t accept vowels!?!

As part of its digital strategy, and as a cost-cutting measure, the government strongly encourages us to fill out forms on their websites instead of on paper, and receive correspondence from them via email. Failing to support Te Reo email addresses with macrons is culturally insensitive, and quite frankly, lazy. Government departments need to make full macron support a minimum standard for all digital platforms, and fund their ICT teams to ensure it’s in place.

He mihi nui ki a Waatea News, hei whakatau ngā pānui nei, hoki a Karaitiana Taiuru, rātou ko te rōpu Māori Internet Society, hei ōna mahi toa i tutoko i te kaupapa nei.

Edit: Corrected the spelling of Karaitiana’s name (arohamai e hoa!). An ironic typo in a blog about the dignity of correctly spelled names. Check out the full report on this issue by Karaitiana.

Filed July 28th, 2015 under Uncategorized

Today, while double checking that Subrosa.io is indeed using WebRTC (the Web Real-Time Communication protocol), as I’ve been told, I found a piece on The Tin Hat blog called ‘Three Reasons Not to Use Skype‘. It suggests three alternatives - Subrosa, Tox, and TokBox Hello (I refuse to call it “FireFox Hello”) - which I mentioned in my last post on WebRTC, where I wrote about Hello (proprietary back-end) and Tox (alpha software). Subrosa seems promising, it’s client/ server, but the various encryption layers in their security model inspire confidence, as do the sober warnings about not expecting encrypting a chat application to make everything on your computer secure. Like Tox (and *unlike* the TokBox back-end of Hello), Subrosa is GPLv3 and both server and client source code can be downloaded from the site, so its easy enough to audit and reuse.

Subrosa worked well the first time I tried it, in May this year, on both Abrowser on GNU/ Linux, and Firefox and Chrome on Windows, but when I just tried it again today, no joy. Tried ABrowser and IceCat, on Trisquel 6, on my Acer Aspire One, no joy. Tested on both FireFox and Safari on my fiancee’s MacBook, no joy. ABrowser and IceCat are both libre distributions of FireFox, but Safari is a totally different codebase (Webkit and Cocoa), so it seems unlikely that a bug specific to FireFox and its derivatives would have almost the same affect on Safari. The results on MacOSX certainly rule out that it’s a GNU+Linux problem, and it’s starting to seem that the problem is at the server end.

I’ve seen that Firefox has put out at least a couple of new versions in the last couple of months, and they’ve been integrating support for a lot of relatively recent tech like HTML5 (including the nasty “EME” digital handcuffs) and WebRTC. I’m guessing the other browsers have been doing something similar, and caught the Subrosa developers on the hop, which is forgiveable for a young project, but a little unnerving since we’re relying on them for our security when we use their platform.

Speaking of security, a comment on the Tin Hat piece recommended “XMPP and ZRTP“. ZRTP is an end-to-end ecryption protocol for text, voice, and video chat (or “Instant Messaging”), which is currently implemented by GNU Telephony (see their FAQ), amongst others. XMPP (eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) is as its name suggests, an open protocol which allows different text chat clients to talk to one another. Now in theory, some XMPP clients can be used with Jingle for one-to-one voice chat, and Muji for voice conferencing, and I’ve been out in the world for a while, so keep in mind that I haven’t tested a lot of things for more than a year, but so far I’ve never used an XMPP client that could do voice properly. The only protocol description I could find which covered using video with XMPP (XEP-0180: Jingle Video via RTP) had a big red warning stating it had been retracted by the author, and recommending against using it. If anyone can recommend an XMPP web client or a desktop client for GNU/Linux that can do video conferencing well, I’d be happy to try it.

Another comment suggested meet.jit.si (Jitsi Meet/VideoBridge), another WebRTC voice/video conferencing implementation, which looks promising too, but I haven’t tried it because it only supports a handful of browsers so far, none of them free code software.

One day, any group of people will be able to have a gratis voice and video conversation, no matter where they are in the world, as long as they can get access to computers and internet connections. This vision is not likely to excite Telefonica (owner of TokBox) as much as excites me however, for the same reason postal companies weren’t excited by the growth of email. Since we currently rely on the telecom corporations for internet access thorugh their octopus of cables, they have a lot of power to block our vision for now, and I suspect this is why Telefonica is buddying up with Mozilla to market a “smartphone” (handheld computer) based on their FireFoxOS, and pushing them into proprietary dependencies. Let’s hope that within a few months, the protocol wars will be over, and all the browsers will have put in and tidied up the code for supporting a common suite of real-time communication protocols, which can be used without proprietary software.

Filed July 24th, 2015 under Uncategorized

Core-Us is a vapourware (or “proposed project” in Disintermedia jargon ;) which aspires to make it possible for people to participate in large-scale conferences, either holding conferences entirely online, or allowing people to participate in live conferences remotely over the net. At the moment, my more modest goal is to describe as precisely as possible what features the Core-Us system needs to have, and to list (and learn about) the various libre voice and video communications tools that are out there, including desktop and server software, open protocols, royalty-free/ patent-free file formats. Once we know what we need, and we know what exists, we might find that the perfect software has already been created, or that a bunch of existing projects could be tethered together to create it.

A plethora of new free code voice/video communication projects have emerged in the year I spent offline, and I just spent a few hours reading about them and adding stuff to the Core-Us page. For example, projects like Subrosa (GPLv3) and Talky.io, who have taken up residence in the space opened up by the  adoption of WebRTC in most browsers, and its steady progress towards standardization by the W3C. There are also projects that have been going for a few years, which I’ve only just stumbled upon, like distance learning server BigBlueButton (LGPL). Others, like Jitsi I’d heard of for years, but just recently learned how they’ve been evolving in exciting new directions, including moving all their projects to Apache license, and their developer company BlueJimp being bought by Atlassian (owner of HipChat).

Probably the most exciting project on the horizon is Tox, a protocol for encrypted, peer-to-peer, text, voice, and video chat. The core library and most of the client software (each platform has its own native client) is still in alpha, but this is closest thing to a free code Skype killer I’ve seen in a long time, especially now that Skype isn’t even peer-to-peer anymore.

Speaking of WebRTC, it seems like Mozilla’s in-browser offering, Firefox Hello is a front-end for TokBox, a proprietary WebRTC implementation owned by corporate giant Telefonica. It’s sickening that a not-for-profit, open source development organisation like Mozilla is reselling proprietary software under the name of a well known free code project like Firefox. That Hello doesn’t have a flashing “powered by proprietary TokBox software” warning on its user interface makes it even worse. It’s just as bad as Mozilla distributing Adobe’s proprietary blob (the “Encrypted Media Extensions” DRM wedged into HTML5) with their browsers. What is up with Mozilla these days?

Filed July 21st, 2015 under Uncategorized

The Ogg Theora Cook Book, hosted by FLOSSManuals.net, goes through the basics of creating audio-visual movies using the patent-free Theora video format (developed by Xiph.org) video. The instructions are aimed at the newbie, and involve the use of Pitivi, the official video editing package of the GNOME desktop project. Hopefully this online book, along with Trisquel 7 and the latest version of Pitivi (0.94) can help me skip the step of testing free code video editors on my fiancée’s MacBook, although as described a couple of weeks ago, KDEnlive may turn out to be more reliable for the purpose.

Filed July 19th, 2015 under Uncategorized

In the age of eyecandy, it’s easy to find ourselves asking the question; why is so much free code software so butt ugly? Now don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing artists and designers who submit theme artwork for splash screens, default wallpapers, fonts and colours etc, and a number of the newer desktops, including Canonical’s Unity (as seen in Ubuntu) and KDE’s Plasma, give plenty of deep eyerubs. if you’ve got a fairly powerful computer (admittedly mine is 5 years old), and probably some binary blobs to run the graphics chips properly, you can do some amazing graphical whizzpoppery on a GNU/Linux system.

But none of that changes the fact that most of the applications software promoted as alternatives to popular proprietary equivalents, even cross-platform ones like LibreOffice, VLC, GIMP, and Audacity, which have been pumping out milestone releases for years now, still look like dogs balls, and their user interfaces are about as helpful. There are two problems here, and neither of them is functionality. Once you can figure out which program to use, and how to do the thing, most of the time the back-end does the job really well.

Nothing has brought that home to me more than trying to use the various free code video-editing packages out there (Jahshaka is a classic example). The confusing interfaces, which are too complex and jargon-heavy for the beginner, but not powerful or feature-rich enough for the professional, suggest the developers don’t really know who they’re designing the software for, and as a user, its easy to feel they just don’t care.

The people who code and package free code projects are busy people, oftentimes unpaid, and their focus is on stabilizing secure, usable code and getting it out the door. Often they are command-line warriors (CLW) who see graphical interfaces as an resource-hogging indulgence. These are the people we want coding back-ends, but they are generally not the people we want building UI for the average home or workplace user. For that we need people who know how to make things look good, and how to lay them out so that the newbie user can find the things they are most likely to need at the shallowest and most signposted levels of the interface.

My suggestion is that free code projects either focus on creating excellent back-ends that do one thing really well (the UNIX philosophy), or on creating user-friendly graphic interfaces that plug into whichever back-end tools they need on the system they happen to be running on. Attract CLWs for the former, and designers for the latter. In a larger project, you might have a team of each, the CLWs beavering away on back-end functionality in a fairly platform-agnostic fashion, the designers using platform specific UI tools (eg Cocoa in MacOSX) to create the same interface look and feel on each platform the project supports, without ugly hacks that compromise performance.

I wonder if the proliferation of short-lived, free code, video-editing projects (see Pitivi graphic) is a result of designers becoming frustrated with the terrible interfaces of the more stable packages, and instead of theming them, forking them, or joining them to contribute interface design help? That would explain why some projects are stable but ugly, and some are attractive but useless.

Filed July 17th, 2015 under Uncategorized

With so many free websites for hosting free code projects available now (see the list under ‘code banks’ on the blogroll to your right) it’s good to have a quick guide to what distinguishes them from each other. Gitorious stood out from from its uncle SourceForge (SF.net), or younger cousin GITHub (launched a month later than Gitorious in Feb, 2008), in that like Savannah, the whole Gitorious software stack was free code, giving users the option to download and set up their own version, instead of using the hosted one. One thing that’s changed since that 2013 post on theLinuxExperiment.com, is that Gitorious has been bought by Gitlab, and closed down, with all hosted projects being moved to a read-only version on the Internet Archive, unless their maintainers want to migrate them to Gitlab or another code bank.

SF.net has since reimplemented its stack in Python, beginning in 2009 as a new free code project called Allura under the Apache 2.0 license, and in June 2011, a piece was posted on the SourceForge blog which finished off, “pull up a chair, because we’re here to stay”. Only a year later, in June, 2012, SF.net was submitting Allura to become an Apache Foundation project, and a few months later in Sept 2012, Geeknet was selling the SourceForge platform to Dice Holdings. The proliferation of alternative code hosts, and the desperate advertising which is alleged to include inserting proprietary adware into Windows downloads of free code installers, has left the legendary SF.net a shadow of its former self.

LaunchPad, owned by Canonical and mainly a platform for Ubuntu developers, also released its source code, under the GNU AGPL, in July 2009. These changes towards respecting software freedom show that despite the grumbling within the open source movement, the free software movement does make valid arguments, which eventually get heard. Now we just need to work on the people dumping their code into code banks without appropriate licensing documentation, which is just as potentially catastrophic as dumping seeds into a seed bank without any variety or origin documentation. Hopefully choosealicense.com, which is the software equivalent of the CreativeCommons license chooser, will help newer free code developers decide which license to use.

Filed July 15th, 2015 under free software, open source

A few days ago I featured the successful equity crowdfund for Positive News. Today I discovered another equity crowdfunding success on our own kiwi crowdfunder PledgeMe, Powerhouse Wind. This team, based here in Ōtepoti (Dunedin), invented a new style of small-scale, one-bladed turbine for generating electricity from wind, and the $400,000 they crowdfunded will allow them to set up a manufacturing plant to sell the new style turbines commercially.

Filed July 15th, 2015 under Uncategorized

The other day I was looking for an ancient website (circa 2000) as part of my research for a blog piece on micropayments (watch this space, it’s turned into quite an epic). It brought home to me that one of the major causes of “linkrot” (when links on older web pages stop working), and the loss of digital history that sites like Archive.org were set up to avoid, is the lapsing of domain names. Lots of people might keep obsoleted websites running for historical purposes if they didn’t have to pay domain fees for them every year. In fact, there could be thousands of old websites *still running* on veteran webservers, but unavailable due only to the fact that their creator couldn’t be bothered paying every year to re-register a domain name they no longer actively use.

This reminded me of an article I’d seen in a print copy of the Otago Daily Times entitled “Rush to beat critics to ‘.sucks’ domain”. I thought it might be a hoax. but no, it was published 23 May (2015), not 1 April. It seems that new permutations of domain names (or “namespaces”) are being created all the time. At least a dozen new TLDs (Top Level Domains) like ‘.accountant’ have become available in the last couple of years. Here in Aotearoa, there are the newly available ‘.nz’ domain names, for example, I have disintermedia.net.nz, but I could get disintermedia.nz.

If the suppliers can just keep coming up with new domain names to supply, that rather suggests they are no longer a scarce resource, just like IP addresses are no longer a scarce resource thanks to IPv6. Which raises the question, why are we still paying yearly leases for our domain names at all? Why can’t we have freehold domain names? Imagine a real estate agent who could build an infinite number of new suburban subdivisions in uninhabited parallel universes, then lease the houses but never sell them. That pretty much gives you the idea of what a rort the domain name business has become. So, who are these domain name businesses, and where is all that money going?

But let’s back up a bit. How do these domain names they are leasing us actually work? In order for the domain name www.disintermedia.net.nz  to point you to this CoActivate project (or wherever the “owner” points it), your browser needs to look that name up using a system called DNS (Domain Name Service), where a DNS server tells your browser the IP address that I’ve set up Disintermedia.net.nz  to point to. Your browser then uses that address to fetch whatever I’ve set as the main page (or “index”) of this site, and display it on your computer.

Here in Aotearoa, the ‘.nz’ namespace is administered by a company called DomaiNZ, who are fully owned by the not-for-profit InternetNZ, which funds advocacy and education around the concept of a “free, open, and uncapturable internet”. Companies called ‘domain name registrars’ lease ‘.nz’ domains to customers, by leasing them from DomaiNZ. So far, so good, but where does DomaiNZ get them from? Ultimate control over all the domain names on the web is held by a US-based, not-for-profit corporation called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), whose DNS servers are the root of the whole domain name tree, one branch of which is the ‘.nz’ namespace. So, when you type Disintermedia.net.nz  into your browser, it searches a primary DNS server (usually one run by your ISP), which points it to the DNS server at the registrar I use (Discount Domains), which points it to the DNS server at DomaiNZ, which points it to the ‘.nz’ root server at ICANN.

Presumably, some portion of the money I pay my registrar every year goes to Domainz, and some portion of that goes to ICANN. Basically ICANN is like a weird, UScentric, unofficial web government, and “domain fees” are like a kind of online name tax. If you’re thinking that this seems like a very centralized way of handing out web namespace on a decentralized system like the internet, you’re not the first. Various attempts have been made to set up a decentralized alternatives to ICANN and its name tax, like FreeNet, and GNU Name System (GNS, part of GNUNet). In 2011, a new, decentralized namespace system was set up by forking the BitCoin cryptocurrency, to create NameCoin, which assigns domain names under a .bit namespace, which is independent of ICANN’s DNS servers. Whether any of these, or something else, will ever see mass adoption on a scale large enough to overturn ICANN’s monopoly is anybody’s guess. But my guess is if one or more of these really want to take off, they need to base their business model on selling permanent rights to a namespace, rather than just leasing it.

Filed July 12th, 2015 under Uncategorized

On July 2, I posted a piece called ‘Don’t Hate the Media, Own The Media‘, a call-out in support of UK-based PositiveNews. In most crowdfunding campaigns, the most exciting thing funders might expect to get for their donation is a physical copy of the album/ device/ widget/ whatever being funded, or a dinner date with the team. PositiveNews were offering shares in the cooperative company structure which will own the media organisation from now on, a radical spin on the new venture crowdfunding model which was also recently adopted by kiwi crowdfunder PledgeMe.

The crowdfunding campaign was a wild success. Not only did they pass the 200,000 UK pounds they needed to get funded a week before the campaign deadline, they even surpassed their 250,000 pound stretch goal by just over 10,000. Anyone who put in at least 50 pounds (just under NZ$150) now owns a share in the cooperative for every pound put in, and each funder gets a vote in deciding how the organisation will be run. Watch this space for more on what’s it’s like to “own the media”, literally.

Filed July 11th, 2015 under Uncategorized
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