Update 2018-11-29: Rich Bartlett wrote an excellent piece on his experiences with trying to get paid for contributing to the commons. Rich is an activist, writer, and hacker, associated with Enspiral, Loomio, and The Hum.

——–

A couple of years back, I decided to see if I could actually get funded by the communities who I created Disintermedia to inform and support. I started gathering information about different ways people could pay me over the internet, and adding it to a page called Help Disintermedia, which was initially created to publicly thank services like CoActivate that help us in non-monetary ways. First, I experimented with setting up the software to receive BitCoins, and put up a wallet address (is that right?), and over the next year that was followed by a link to a Patreon page, and then a Liberapay page. These “micro-patronage” sites allow people to give small, regular amounts, and in theory, like newspaper subscriptions, many people’s small payments can add up. I’m embarrassed to admit that so far, these efforts have been a dismal failure.

For a start, the BitCoin address I published was: 19KER7hfqXhZnHnnJ3VcGRr2w3i1v6e44e

But I have no idea now where this directs BitCoins to, or if anyone actually donated any, how to retrieve them. I just haven’t had the time to do all the reading required to fully understand how to use BitCoin; how to back up my wallet, how to accept payments to the same wallet from multiple devices, whether I can do this using the same address, so many questions! The same is even more true for other crypto-tokens (FairCoin, FreiCoin, SolarCoin, NameCoin, FileCoin etc). If you can help me get to grips with any of this, especially if you are keen to donate to Disintermedia  please feel free to contact me.

I’m also considering figuring out how to use Brave, Minds, SteemIt, Earn.io, and a bunch of other new systems that claim to offer ways of paying creators who contribute to the weaving of the free web. But seriously, figuring out which of these are honest, and viable, is a high-stakes research project in and of itself. With real money involved, there’s no kind of software more attractive to bad actors, idealistic incompetents, and venture capitalists. They all take time to set up and learn to use well, and you can’t get any benefit out of them without giving them real personal details and banking information. On top of that, there’s a risk involved in implicitly endorsing them if they end up being dodgy.

I’ve thought about experimenting with the newly relaunched Flattr 2.0, since unlike most micro-patronage sites, it’s pretty set-and-forget. Creators can get paid through it without needing to constantly self-promote (”click here to subscribe!”). There have been some hard questions asked about the privacy implications of the Flattr browser extension, but the developers do sound like they take privacy seriously, and it’s encouraging that all their apps are free code (not sure about the javascript on the site itself though). Another critical question is about how much money creators can realistically get out in payments. Even if they took 50% of whatever Flattr payout I got, that’s still potentially more than I’d get by not using it at all, but the new fees scheme for Flattr does seem to take a lot of bites out of my sandwich before I get to eat it.

Really, if the developers of any of these community funding platforms really think they are viable, they should be eating their own dogfood, and funding themselves using their own platform. Gratipay did this (RIP), and Liberapay still do, which is why I tried them first. Any platform skimming their users’ donations with fees, or heaven forbid, sucking up to venture capitalists, isn’t showing much confidence in their own funding platform. After all, you don’t see GitHub developing the code for GitHub on another code forge (they might have a backup there but that’s different).

For example, Ko-fi fund themselves using their own platform, instead of taking fees. I can’t find any source code though, and their use of a proprietary mail missile called SendGrid to send out emails isn’t encouraging. Ko-fi is designed to give the original Flattr model another go; buttons creators can stick on their web page, that users can click to “buy me a coffee”.

A Flattr developer posting on HackerNews claimed that model failed, because:

  • a) people using the web don’t want to click buttons (?!?)
  • b) publishers didn’t want another private company’s branded buttons all over their site

None of this seems to affect PaylPal / Stripe or social media buttons. I suspect it was more like:

  • a) people are used to having to enter their credit card details (or deal with PayPal shudder) when they click a donate button, which is a painful and scary user experience
  • b) when Flattr launched you couldn’t get paid anything without first setting up a monthly contribution to Flattr so most people didn’t bother (that’s why I didn’t), and nobody wanted buttons all over their site promoting a thing that smelt like a pointless ponzi scheme
  • c) Flattr funded themselves by skimming off 10% every time credit moved across their platform, and as mentioned above, Flattr 2.0 has even more ways to charge everyone.

I’ve set up a Ko-Fi account, just to try it out. Is it really going to help to add yet another layer of management between me, PayPal, the bank, and the person trying to give me money? I’m sceptical about whether it was worth the time, or the indignity of having to deal with PayPal or some other toll collector on the information superhighway (again, shudder). Frankly, I’m not convinced that Ko-Fi is an improvement on just having a button for PayPal or Stripe, although it is nice to not have their garish corporate branding all over an activist website. But hey, prove me wrong, buy me a coffee!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

I suspect that for the contribute button thing to really take off, it needs to become a neutral web standard, so the buttons are all over the web, they always look the same, and its a standard icon on them, not one company’s logo. The person clicking them can set up a payment system that gets activated when they click the contribute button, and website creators can decide which payment gateway processes the money when they get clicked. I’m hoping GNU Taler takes off, and we can eventually use that. If anyone reading this is involved in a credit union, or cooperatively owned bank, who might be willing to get involved in a pilot scheme, I encourage you to contact the Taler team.

For now, if anyone can recommend any other sites for collecting one-off donations for struggling web writers, that would be much appreciated. If you want to donate, and you don’t mind the banking system knowing it, please contact me, and I can give you bank account details privately.

————————————

Update 2018-10-01: it just occurred to me that I could be missing out on potential donations by deleting emails from PayPal (which I presume to be spam), and emails offering me money (which I presume to be variants on 419 fraud). If you’ve ever tried to donate to Disintermedia, please reach out via the fediverse (where scam messages haven’t appeared yet), and let me know, so we can figure out if the money left your account, and where it went. 

Filed April 19th, 2018 under free culture, independent media, News, open source

In 2016, I included a graph from Layer 3 Networking blog, in a rant about the tendency to put on weight over time that I’ve seen in even the most lightweight GNU-Linux DE (Desktop Environment). The blog piece I took that graph from gave a detailed run-down of the lightweight DE ecosystem, as it stood in 2013, which still serves as the most thorough introduction I’ve found on the subject.

Being 5 years old now, the graph can’t be treated as a true indication of how much RAM more recent versions of these DEs might use. But it does offer an idea of just how many different free code DEs are out there, some screenshots of what some of the lighter ones look like installed, and roughly how much RAM a wide range of them use relative to each other. It also gives the exact methods used to make the RAM use comparisons between DEs, which is important to whether their results are a fair comparison, and another reason I still consider this a useful guide despite being five years old.

Obviously, being 2013 data, some of the DEs mentioned are now superseded or defunct (eg E17, Unity), or merged (LXDE and Razor-QT are now LXQT), and other newer ones aren’t mentioned (Artemis, Moksha, Pantheon, Yunity, Zorin etc). Based on the numbers from the graph there, I’d say in 2013 you could break DEs down into 3 categories (RAM use numbers assume a freshly booted system running no extra user apps):

  • Small (0-20MB): TinyWM, 9wm, miwm, wm2, dwm, Ratpoison, olvwm, TWM, xmonad/mobar, JWM, i3, Blackbox, Sawfish, IceWM, PekWM, Openbox, Window Maker, awesome, FVWM, Fluxbox, Mutter
  • Medium (20-100MB): E17, LXDE, KWin, Mate, Trinity, XFCE, Cinnamon
  • Bloated (>100MB): Razor-QT, GNOME 3, Unity, KDE

The DEs I describe as bloated are clearly targeted at providing every imaginable widget and performance boost, for users with fairly new hardware, or middle-aged hardware that’s been upgraded or is unusually powerful. Unless you are a business with deep pockets, or someone else who upgrades your computer every couple of years so you can always run the newest software, I suggest avoiding the bloated category. That is, if you don’t want to end up switching to a lighter DE in a couple of years, as the hardware requirements of the bloated DEs continue to creep up towards the latest hardware.

Cinammon, a fork of GNOME 2 developed for the Mint distro, offers everything the average user needs from a desktop experience, while using significantly less RAM than older and more common DEs like KDE Plasma or GNOME 3. Mate, Mint’s lightweight DE, uses even less RAM, while still providing a familiar point-and-click desktop, with the bells and whistles familiar to Windows users who have used any version of Windows from 95 to 7. I’m typing this on an Acer Aspire One that’s nearly 10 years old, and the Mate desktop in the about-to-be-released Trisquel 8 runs fine, although I have improved the performance by doubling the RAM to 2GB and, more importantly, replacing the internal drive with an SSD (Solid State Drive). I can’t emphasize enough what a big difference the SSD makes.

If you still want to be using your computer in ten years time, especially if you bought a netbook or some other unusually under-powered PC like I did, I strongly recommend getting familiar with the pros and cons of the DEs in the small category. If I just want to play a game, I use Openbox, and I really notice how much better the heavier games run without all the extra desktop bells and whistles taking up resources. I intend to get into a habit of logging into Openbox whenever I plan to work on a long piece of writing, or anything else that doesn’t really require flipping back and forth between apps.

In summary, I can’t tell you which DE is right for you, and just to confuse you even more, the same DE can use a different amount of resources depending on which GNU-Linux distro you’re running it on, and even whether or not it’s the default DE for that distro. But it’s definitely worth doing some reading, and choosing one that not only does what you want right now, but will keep doing it for as long as you don’t want to have to switch to keep your computer usable.

Filed April 16th, 2018 under free software, open source

Update 2018-05-23: I just read a highly misleading piece on The Atlantic called ‘Email Hackers are Winning‘, discussing a recent crack called ‘Efail” that proves encrypted email can be cracked, and claiming that Efail:

“showed that encrypted (and therefore private and secure) email is not only hard to do, but might be impossible in any practical way, because of what email is at its core”

Ummm … no. For the Efail crack to work, the receiver of the malicious email has to have HTML mail turned on in their email app. If HTML mail is turned off, Efail … well … fails. The core of email - the email protocols - have nothing to do with it. The author, security blogger Quinn Norton, who really ought to know better, also claims that the fundamentals of email have remain unchanged since the 1970s. Since that was before HTML was invented, if that was true, Efail wouldn’t work at all. Indeed, the email protocols are constantly being improved through standards work at the IETF (Internet Engineer Task Force). However, despite the weird fairy tale Quinn wraps around the story of Efail, it is yet another very good reason for activists not to use HTML mail.

——————————

I wrote a couple of blog pieces last year about how horrified I am when I find activist groups and other social change organizations helping surveillance capitalism tools like NationBuilder and MailChimp to track their supporters. In the MailChimp piece, I also took the opportunity to gripe about people sending HTML pages as emails. At the risk of sounding like the 1990s internet equivalent of people who moan about how nobody sends paper letters anymore, I just wanted to share a few resources about just how dodgy HTML mail can be.

To set the scene, here’s what I said in the MailChimp piece:

While we’re on the subject of mass email, the “service” that seems to make MailChimp so attractive is that is uses HTML to add a bunch of trackers to the email sent through its servers. Putting aside the ethics of enabling companies to use email to track people we like, I strongly discourage people from sending HTML by email.

Email is designed as a text-only medium, and works better this way. HTML email massively increases the amount of space email takes up in someone’s inbox, how much of their data allowance is used looking at it, and how much of the total resources of the internet are used by email that may not even be wanted or seen. HTML email also creates vectors for viruses and malware to spread through email, vectors which do not exist in plain text email.

If you want to show someone a page of HTML, it’s better to put that on a website, and include a link to it in a plain text email. That way people can read the email anytime, then look at the linked web pages when they are using fast, un-metered internet. This is also helpful to people still using dial-up connections, or slow rural broadband.

But hey what do I know? I’m just a guy who researches user-respecting software and writes a tech blog. I practically live in my Mum’s basement. How about we consults some experts?

Let’s start with George Dillon, a performance artists and web designer. Now we all know how much web designers love HTML, and George has been building his own websites since the late 90s. But his article on using HTML for email lists seven reasons why HTML mail is “evil”, or at least unhelpful and unnecessary, covering many of the points I touched on but in more detail. OK, it hasn’t been updated in about ten years, and some of the specifics may seen out-of-date (HTML mail exploits are the least of your worries if you’re still using Windows XP), but you’d be amazed how many people still use dial-up connections to access the net. As I forgot to mention in the MailChimp piece, many of the same issues that apply to dial-up also apply to people using mobile devices to read their email, on metered net connections they pay through the nose for.

Next, let’s pay a visit to tech writer M. E. Kabay, who wrote a 2004 piece about the growing use of HTML in email, for NetworkWorld.com, describing a number of specific security holes made possible by HTML mail, and dismissing it as a pointless source of …

“unwanted, mislabeled links, Web bugs, harmful active content, and outright worms and viruses”.

 Kabay sums up the piece with this advice:

“I urge everyone to send plain text instead of HTML as the default format for outgoing e-mail. If you need to send a message with features beyond text, you can always create a word-processing document and send that.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. Like me, these articles are showing their age. I mean, 2004 was more than a decade ago. Surely all these security problems have been solved by now, right? Nope. Here’s the conclusion of an article published on The Conversation in 2017, written with input from security researcher Robert Graham:

“Security-conscious users must demand that their email providers offer a plain-text option. Unfortunately, such options are few and far between, but they are a key to stemming the webmail insecurity epidemic. Mail providers that refuse to do so should be avoided, just like back alleys that are bad places to conduct business.”

The title of the piece is ‘The only safe email is text-only email‘. Need I quote further?

Finally, there’s StackExchange, a Q&A website where anyone can ask a question, and the answers from the communities of experts there get upvoted, and downvoted, and commented on, and edited, until only the best answers are left standing. A question about the security risks of creating a webmail that allows HTML mail was asked in the software engineering department, and my favourite quote from among the answers given is this one by one Michael Shaw, which pretty much sums it all up:

“Start allowing anything beyond presentational [HTML] tags and you are making assumptions that you know more about how these tags can be misused than the mal-ware writers. And believe me, that is a brave claim for anyone to make.”

Asked a question on the internet, actually got a useful answer.jpg

Filed April 12th, 2018 under security

Today I spent a bit of time updating the Disintermedia page on free code OS for desktop use. I reorganised the content a bit so it’s easier to browse, and moved a few discontinued distros into the appropriate box in the summary table. There are a few distros I’ve tried since I last updated that page, like LMDE and PureOS, and a few more I’d like to test drive, like the new version of Heads (Dyne’s answer to Tails). So keep an eye out for more updates, hopefully soon.

Trisquel 8 is nearly ready for release, so I’ll be testing that this week. Watch this space for the cliff notes. For now, my everyday OS is still Trisquel 7 (based on Ubuntu 14.04), running on Bishop, a small laptop that’s almost a decade old. It’s working fine, now that I’ve maxed out the RAM (now 2GB, wow!), and replaced the internal disc with an SSD (Solid State Drive). To be honest, the SSD made much more difference to the performance, and it doesn’t hurt that I’ve almost doubled the storage space too (from 140GB to 240GB), even though I bought a smaller, cheaper SSD. If you are trying to keep an old laptop in use, I highly recommend getting yourself an SSD over buying more RAM.

Filed April 9th, 2018 under free software, open source

Update 2018-08-28: I just rechecked this post and realized I listed SocialHome as an OStatus network. In fact, SocialHome uses the Diaspora protocol, making it part of “the federation” (which also includes Hubzilla, Friendica, and GangGo), not the “fediverse”, and I’ve corrected the post to reflect this.. The developers intend to add ActivityPub support for SocialHome though, which will make it compatible with the fediverse apps as they also add support. Many of us are hoping all the apps will have their AP support rolled out by the end of 2018.

Also, I claimed in the piece that ActivityPub will eventually allow federation with MediaGoblin and NextCloud. Seems that NextCloud were only considering AP for closed federation among NextCloud servers, and nobody seems sure if MediaGoblin will go ahead with ActivityPub support now that PeerTube exists.

—-

Here’s a some thoughts I posted in response to a piece on Medium by @digits entitled ‘Join the anti-capitalist social network‘. For the record, Medium is a proprietary walled garden, which I don’t support, and I’m working on a piece looking at how we might establish federated blogging networks, which implement some of the more helpful aspects of Medium’s UX (User eXperience).

—————————————–

Great article @digits. A few points. First, not only do Mastodons federate with other Mastodons, they also federate with instances of any other software that supports the OStatus protocol (a protocol is a technical agreement about how to different things work together), creating a meta-network informally known as the fediverse. This already includes a number of other social network apps like GNU Social, Hubzilla, and Pleroma. But Mastodon has just added support for a new social protocol called ActivityPub, which will eventually allow federation with multimedia hosting sites running MediaGoblin, video streaming sites running PeerTube, file-hosting sites running NextCloud, and more.

Social network migration is a great idea, and you’re absolutely right that it’s essential to allows users to own their data (their “social graph” in geek jargon), so they can keep instance operators honest, and when necessary, survive their downfall. But from my reading of the relevant GitHub Issues (eg #177, #201, and #454), this is still a work in progress in Mastodon. Hubzilla has totally solved it with the Nomadic Identity aspect of their Zot protocol, but as far as I can tell, they are the only software that supports this.

Rather than anti-capitalist, it is more accurate to call Mastodon a nonmarket social network.

Is it though? I know this all depends on what you think a market is. But it’s arguable that what the decentralization of Mastodon allows is a true free market (what left libertarians like Kevin Carson and Gary Chartier call a “freed market”), and this is even more true of the fediverse as a meta-network. Closed, centralized platforms like FarceBook, the birdsite, and Goggle, are like feudal estates, where users harvest data (thoughts, converations, photos, videos) for their own use, but must pay tithes to the landlord in the form of data mining. In decentralized networks like Mastadon and the fediverse, users are tenants not peasants, customers who can choose among many digital landlords, based on the kind of place they’re looking for, and how they’re willing to pay (fees, donations, volunteer time), or even build their own homestead on their own land (by self-hosting).

I would call the fediverse a non-privatized social network, where your social relationships are not reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold by capitalists. So in this sense, I think your headline got it right; it is an anti-capitalist social network. I look forward to the day when we remember FarceBook in the same scornfully nostalgic way we remember AmericaOnline, as feudal empires that both technology and its users outgrew and abandoned.

Filed April 7th, 2018 under open social networks

Every now and then, I contact the developers of an interactive website I’ve stumbled across to ask them where I can find their source code, and under what free code license(s). I’m usually asking because their software is clearly using some free code components imported from other projects, so I believe they have a moral obligation to return the favour, even if they’re not legally obliged to.

Their reply emails often focus on how likely it is that anyone would want to re-use their source code, and how that might affect their project. That’s understandable, but I’m asking for reasons I consider to be much more important. Here’s how I responded to one such email, doing my best to explain my concerns clearly, but also to write in a way that wouldn’t come across as pushy or unfriendly.

Whether or not anyone would want to re-use your code is an interesting question, but it’s not my primary concern here. What programs you choose to run on your computing set-up, and whether they respect your freedoms, is none of my business. But when I allow programs to run on my system, I want to know that those programs respect my freedoms.

Since I can’t even log into your site without allowing it to run JavaScript programs on my system, I want to know that the source code of those programs is publicly available, under a free code license. If that’s not the case, for all I know I could be exposing myself to the next FarceBook, and I’m not willing to do that, nor to recommend a site to others if that’s the case. This situation is discussed in more detail in as essay called ‘The JavaScript Trap‘.

As a bonus, when source code is publicly available, it can be audited for security flaws and other bugs by the tech community (many eyes make bugs shallow and all that), patches submitted to improve it, and so on. And yes, it’s possible that someone else might benefit from not reinventing the wheel, by re-using some of your code, just as you’ve done with other people’s code. But that just means helpful bug reports and patches are more likely, which saves you work, and improves your software. It’s a win-win.

If you decide that you’re up for this, I highly recommend joining the Open App Ecosystem group on Loomio. There are people involved from a number of different free code web apps, and it’s good place to chat about how to make inter-operation work smoothly (common protocols, standards etc). For example, Loomio itself is a decision-making app, and I can definitely see some potential benefits in being able to embed [name of project] elements in Loomio discussion threads.

As you can see, I don’t shy away from making a case for software freedom as a principle. But I also make sure I talk about the potential benefits for them, and invite them to become involved in the open source community, within which free code is nurtured. When we share, we create abundance, and being welcomed into communities that enact that principle is one of the best ways to encourage people to start doing the same.

Filed April 4th, 2018 under free software, open source
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