I’ve been happily using the Trisquel Toutatis (6.06) distro of GNU/Linux for a good couple of years now. Fair play to the folk who still support the Ubuntu project, they have made some great contributions to the user-friendliness of desktop GNU, and Ubuntu still respects users rights much more than Windows or MacOSX do (although that’s not hard). To be brutally honest though, I do not miss having that spyware-bundling resource hog on my laptop.

Speaking of spyware-bundling resource hogs, I finally mustered the courage to delete Windows XP and its NTFS partitions. When I bought my Aspire One laptop about five years ago, it came with both XP and Android (a curious combination). When I dual-booted with Ubuntu, I kept XP around as a “magic feather“, and used most of the partition for file storage. But NTFS is a terrible file system, and when I realised how badly fragmented that partition had become, I realised it was time to fly without the feather. In the space freed (in at least two sense of the word), I’ve created a new 20GB ext4 partition at the start of the disc which will house the GNU/Linux distro I’m going to use for the next year or two at least. Trisquel Belenos (7.0) came out while I was offline, and while I was testing it and deciding whether to upgrade or stick with Toutatis for now, I figured I’d check out the latest version of one or two of the other distros on the FSF endorsement list too.

First up, I tried to install ‘Parkes’, version 3.0 of the GNewSense distro of GNU/Linux, from a boot USB I made using Unetbootin. The install started ok, but then Parkes tried to look for the installation files on CD-ROM, instead of USB. Epic fail. This is unusual, as Unetbootin is usually pretty reliable, certainly more so than Ubuntu’s USB Creator (which only works with Buntu-based distros), or even the one by PenDriveLinux. I do remember having the same problem a couple of years ago when I first tried to install Debian, and I can’t remember how I fixed it. It just occurred to me I may have formatted the USB with a native Linux file system (EXT3 or 4) before making the boot USB, which may have confused UNetbootin. Maybe if I try again, formatting with FAT, and hold my mouth just right?

Which brings me to the title of this blog. With movies still selling on Blu-Ray, and Fujifilm making noises about the possibility of 1TB discs, optical disc technology probably isn’t going away anytime soon. But there is now a whole generation of smaller, lighter laptops and other devices which don’t include bulky optical disc drives, and do have USB ports. A boot USB is now a common - even mainstream - way to install GNU/Linux.

Perhaps its time for some of the bigger GNU/Linux distros to start packaging system images specifically for USB, instead of the poor folks at projects like UNetbootin hacking away at .ISO images designed for burning to CD-ROM or DVD? I remember the first time someone showed me that I could right-click on a GNU/Linux .ISO, left-click ‘burn to disc’ (with a blank disc in the CD-Writer), and hey presto, a boot CD! Imagine being able to do the same thing with ‘install to USB’, that would be sick. In a good way.

EDIT: Forgot to mention that USBs are easy to format and re-use unlike CDs, which are basically made to become landfill unless they’re the more expensive reusable ones. Also, because they come with their own protective casing, USBs don’t get scratched or wrecked as easily as CDs, and don’t need a separate plastic case or sleeve to carry them around in (also disposable plastic destined for landfill).

Filed September 18th, 2015 under free software

I’ve been vaguely aware for years of sites like Jamendo and Magnatune where music fans can stream or download music released under CreativeCommons licenses, free from DRM (”Digital Restrictions Management”). Over the last couple of days I’ve been diving into what sort of music is available and “Queeting” my finds using Quitter, a federated platform for publishing short posts (”microblogging”) running on the GNU Social software (formerly known as StatusNet). I’m using the #ccmusic tag, and tags for the particular license (eg #CC-BY-SA), the kind of music (eg #electronic #guitar), and genre.

I’ve been listening to a lot of bass-heavy dubby music of late (’Kinetic’ by PhuturePrimitive and LubDub’s self-titled album are favourites but sadly ARR not CC), celebrating that I’ve finally got some decent speakers set up in a room where I can crank them up a bit, so a lot of what I’ve posted so far is electronic stuff. However, I’ve also found a handful of guitar albums I like, and being a sonic magpie, I hope to cover all the genres on offer over time. Most of the tunes I’ve posted so far have been from BandCamp and Jamendo, but I’m looking forward to searching for juicy CC sounds on other sites on the Guide to DRM-Free Living like Magnatune, as well as more mainstream sites like SoundCloud, MixCloud, and YouTube.

Edit: Quitter (and Twitter) seem to get a bit confused by hashtags with more than one dash in them (eg #CC-BY-SA).  Blast and botheration. Will start doing them without the dashes (eg #CCBYSA). At least I’ll know what they mean ;)

Edit: Been trying to use Jamendo and BandCamp on my Android tablet, with minimal success. Jamendo.com didn’t work at all in most of the browsers I tried, and although the site worked in Fennec (unbranded distro of Firefox from F-Droid) I couldn’t get it to actually play music. The Jamendo app is in the F-Droid app repository of free code apps, but it’s fairly limited compared to their web interface, both in the search options, and the information made available about the music playing (especially license info). In one case I did an artist search for an artist I’d already found in the web interface, but no joy. The BandCamp app is proprietary, and although I could get songs to play using BandCamp.com in the vanilla Android browser (neither FireFox nor Fennec would work), play would stop every time the screen locked.

Filed September 9th, 2015 under free culture

It seems there’s quite a bit of news I missed during my year off the net, much of it good (lots of progress on free code Skype alternatives), but some of it spectacularly bad. Over a year ago I wrote a piece opposing the attempt by a cabal of media and tech corporations (notably Microsoft and Google) to shoehorn DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) into the HTML5 specification, under the name EME (Encrypted Media Extensions). The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is the body charged with maintaining web standards (including HTML) in the public interest, the bad news is that they did accept EME into HTML5 in 2014, about the same time I went offline. This prompting the EFF to castigate them for lowering their standards, and reminded them of the WHATWG, who parted ways with the W3C over its support for XHTML, and seem set to do so again over EME.

In even worse news, the only browser company which is not a psychopath (or “for-profit corporation“), Firefox, owned by the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation, decided to accept the proprietary blob that EME requires into their otherwise free code (or “open source”) browser. Mozilla’s excuses were laid out in a May 2014 post on the developer blog Mozilla Hacks entitled ‘Reconciling Mozilla’s Mission and W3C EME’, and as summed up in a  comment on the post by user ‘Wuzzy’, were pretty weak:

“1) If this does not get implemented, the user base would massively shrink.

2) If the user base shrinks, this would be bad.

3) It is not really Mozilla’s choice to go this route; Mozilla has basically been forced to do it.”

I agree with Wuzzy’s rebuttals, basically:

  1. There is no sensible reason to think users of a free code browser would leave in protest for lack of a proprietary DRM add-on
  2. Even if they did Mozilla’s mission is to support a free and open web, not maximize their user base
  3. This is just garbage. Mozilla could have agreed to support any version of EME which required no proprietary code, ie none, allowing them to both doff their cap to the HTML5 standards, but also stand by their open source principles (such as they are).

The apologetics from Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker were even more distressing:

“People want to watch video, including movies and TV shows. Browsers must provide the ability to watch video or the browser becomes less and less the tool users need.”

Baker’s implied claim here is that if we can’t use Firefox to watch TV, users will switch to another browser. In other words, if we don’t use a certain browser for *everything*, we won’t use it for *anything*. What’s more likely is that anything we can’t watch in *every* browser won’t become a thing we usually watch in *any* browser. If we’re desperate enough to watch shows from NetFlix and other DRM-mongers, we’ll hold our noses, install an app to do so, and continue to use our browsers for what they’re for…  browsing the free and open web. We don’t need Mozilla to hold our noses for us, we need them to stick to their mission.

The web is not television, or the movies, and that’s a *good* thing. Yes, it’s cool to be able to embed songs or videos in web pages, or even watch videos in full screen without leaving the comfort of the browser. But there is a huge range of devices, media player software, and download/ streaming services, for users who want to watch movies and television shows (desktop media players like VLC, mobile apps, gaming consoles, *televisions*). Push come to shove, audio and video are nice-to-have extras that most websites do perfectly well without. But there are plenty of DRM-free ways to serve and display them, and even if there weren’t, this would be no excuse to allow legacy media corporations to dictate how the web should work, or force free code browsers to use proprietary components which strip their users of legal rights like ‘fair dealing’ (or in the US ‘fair use’).

Baker goes on:

“We have selected Adobe to provide the key functionality… We believe that Adobe is uniquely able to bring new value to the setting.”

Seriously? As pointed out by John Sullivan of the Free Software Foundation, Adobe have used their Flash plug-ins as a backdoor to spy on users’ computers for over a decade. What “new value” could possibly make it worth letting them within 1000 miles of the Firefox code repository?!?

Sullivan also challenged Mozilla to make sure the resources they put into helping abolish DRM match the resources they are putting into implementing it in the form of EME. With all the other common browsers predictably integrating EME too, this left users who don’t support DRM, but haven’t yet made the transition to a free code OS like GNU+Linux (I use Trisquel), in a tricky position. One option is to follow the instructions on the Mozilla support pages to disable Adobe’s EME spyware. The good news is that Mozilla recently announced they will be distributing a DRM-free version of Firefox, in unbranded form, although these are aimed mainly at add-on developers.

This just adds to the frustrations created by Mozilla bundling a WebRTC videophone client into Firefox called ‘Hello’, which I described on this blog as part of a Core-Us update in July this year:

“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.”

Mozilla could have partnered with Jitsi, whose fully free code WebRTC stack (under the Apache license) can be tried out at meet.jit.si. Their decision to work with Telefonica instead, like their decision to work with Adobe, is a disturbing omen that the decision-makers at the Mozilla Foundation have lost touch with the Mozilla project’s free code origins, and its social mission. As I asked in July:

“What is up with Mozilla these days?”

Filed September 7th, 2015 under free culture, free software, open source

TheDailyBlog published a guest blog I wrote about meals in schools and community gardens.

Filed September 7th, 2015 under Uncategorized

I’m currently a broke writer and activist. This has been the case for a fair few years now, and it’s been easy for me to use that as an excuse for not putting my money where my mouth is when it comes to supporting free culture. True, I have put in a lot of unpaid time over the years, researching and advocating for free culture and free software, and publishing writing online under CreativeCommons licenses. Even if you only value that time at minimum wage, I’ve donated thousands of dollars worth of hours to free culture. But here’s the thing that’s started to bother me; if everyone who reads free writing on the web put even a tiny proportion of their weekly income into some way of paying online authors, I’d like to think there’s a good chance I wouldn’t still be writing for free. The same is true for everyone who listens to music and watches video online, including me.

The cold, hard truth is, there were times in the past when I had no more money than I do now (maybe less), but I still put at least $10 a week into music. For a start, I used to go to a lot of live shows, especially by kiwi bands, or lesser known international acts whose ticket prices I could afford. When it came to buying music, I liked to buy CDs directly from bands at their shows, and at record shops I tended to buy second-hand, or bargain bin. This was partly because it made that $10 go further, but mainly because I had the same attitude to the oligopoly of corporate music labels as I do now; total disdain for their role in limiting the diversity of music that’s easily available, and spoon-feeding the public shit sandwiches like Hootie and the Blowfish (apologies to anyone that likes Hootie, I’m sure you can think of your own Top40 horror story to put in their place). I preferred to put my humble $10 a week into funding the independent artists, small studios, labels, and record stores who made, recorded, distributed, and sold the music that really set my ears on fire.

In the first few years of using the internet, I got very excited about the potential of online busking; people could put their music online, and anyone who enjoyed it could throw a dollar or two in their virtual hat. Actual busking is surprisingly lucrative, especially when you’re genuinely entertaining. Online busking, I thought, would have the dual advantage that the musician wouldn’t actually have to be there, just their music streaming off a website, and that they would have access an online audience of millions of people. If ten thousand people like your music enough to give you NZ$2, you could live on that pretty comfortably for a year. The only problem, I thought, was the lack of a user-friendly way of making such small payments (”micropayments” in geek jargon) without being hit with punishing transaction charges. When BitCoin came to my attention a few years ago, I had high hopes that this was the solution.

Then, I came across a 2000 article by Clay Shirky called ‘The Case Against Micropayments‘, which explains why the main problems with micropayments are not primarily technical, but psychological. As he puts it:

“…users want predictable and simple pricing. Micropayments, meanwhile, waste the users’ mental effort in order to conserve cheap resources, by creating many tiny, unpredictable transactions. Micropayments thus create in the mind of the user both anxiety and confusion, characteristics that users have not heretofore been known to actively seek out.”

Now, keep in mind that Shirky was talking about proposals to charge $0.01 to look each article on a newspaper website. That’s quite a different proposition to throwing a buck in a busking hat when you like what you hear (or see). Projects like HumbleBundle have successfully brought in large wads of cash for creators of indie games by creating the online equivalent of a busking hat, and crowdfunding sites like KickStarter, CrowdFunder, and our own PledgeMe (see ‘Crowdfunding’ in the blogroll to the right), have done the same for other works including not only artwork and software like Diaspora, but physical hardware like the Makey Makey invention kit, and Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles.

Music sites like Jamendo and Magnatune have survived for more than a decade using more or less the formula I proposed in my 2003 Boheme Magazine article ‘Decommodifying Music‘; free streaming of music under CreativeCommons licenses, easy ways to donate band or buy merchandise directly from the artist, and support for royalty-free file formats like Vorbis and FLAC (although the ubiquity of digital music players which only support proprietary formats like .MP3 makes offering these unavoidable). Using basically the same business model, BandCamp has even done well enough that a number of high profile independent music labels (including SubPop, Epitaph, Fat Wreck Cords) recently set up pages on the site to promote their artists, although they’re mostly sticking with ARR (All Rights Reserved) copyright.

Shirky’s article offers three solutions to the problem micropayments systems try to solve:

“Micropayment advocates often act as if this is a problem particular to the Internet, but the real world abounds with items of vanishingly small value: a single stick of gum, a single newspaper article, a single day’s rent. There are three principal solutions to this problem offline - aggregation, subscription, and subsidy - that are used individually or in combination. It is these same solutions - and not micropayments - that are likely to prevail online as well.”

This goes some way to explaining the success of subscription services like Spotify, despite the digital handcuffs they come with. Ask yourself this; would you rather make daily decisions about whether to give some money to an artist (and which one of the many talented artists you can find online to give it to), or give a fixed monthly subscription to one organisation and listen to as much streamed music as you like? It’s pretty obvious the subscription is simpler and easier for most people, than deciding how much to donate to every musician whose music you like. 

It’s also easier for the artists, who can spend less time figuring out how to get people to visit their own website and donate/ buy something, and more time writing and performing music. I suspect this is why so many have put up with the often exploitative practices of the corporate music industry for so long, even with online self-promotion beckoning. Also, there are benefits to a relatively stable income (even a modest one), over random spurts of donations (even big ones), beautifully described by folk singer-songwriter David Rovics on his subscription page. The situation for writers is similar, although our costs are lower - pens and paper are cheaper than guitars and strings, word processing laptops cheaper than digital recording computers -  and I intend to set up a similar subscription system to see if I can make a modest but reliable living from researching and writing.

Which brings me back to my $10 a week. I’m going to start putting that money aside again, starting next payday. What I’d ideally like to do is pay a regular subscription to a music streaming service like Spotify. But one which is DRM-free, usable with only free code software, and all the music it offers is under CreativeCommons (or some other license which at least allows free distribution), so I can save a permanent copy of anything I really like, and share copies with other music fans. If anyone readers can recommend such a service, please contact me. In the meantime, I’ll be making awkward decisions about whether to go to a show, or give $10 to one artist, or $2 each to five of them on sites like BandCamp. Hopefully, what goes around, comes around.

Update 2017-05-11: I swapped in Magnatune for BandCamp, so that this piece lists both of the main CC music stores, and clarified that only some of the artists on BandCamp’s use CC licenses.

Filed September 3rd, 2015 under free culture
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