Friday Jan 15, 2010

Last Days at Sun Microsystems

The Sun is setting - so an Oracle has told me - and my days at this company, one of the best I have ever worked for are nearing their end.

I will be moving my blog over to http://bblfish.net/ as soon as I get the right software set up there. You can follow me on twitter or identica for updates.

Sun will continue to pay me for the next 8 month at a salary very close to the one I am earning now, so in gratitude to them, I will essentially just keep doing what I have been doing while here. I will keep working on foaf+ssl and securing the social web. As I won't be getting any travel money, I will be happy for anyone willing to sponsor those costs for me.

So to all a happy new 2010.

Wednesday Jan 13, 2010

Faviki: social bookmarking for 2010

faviki logo

Faviki is simply put the next generation social bookmarking service. "A bookmarking service? You must be kidding?!" I can hear you say in worried exasperation. "How can one innovate in that space?" Not only is it possible to innovate here, let me explain why I moved all my bookmarks from delicious over to faviki.

Like delicious, digg, twitter and others... Faviki uses crowd sourcing to allow one to share interesting web pages one has found, stay up to date on a specific topic of interest, and keep one's bookmarks synchronized across computers. So there is nothing new at that level. If you know del.icio.us, you won't be disoriented.

What is new is that instead of this being one crowd sourced application, it is in fact two. It builds on wikipedia to help you tag your content intelligently with concepts taken from dbpedia. Instead of tagging with strings the meaning of which you only understand at that time, you can have tags that make sense, backed by a real evolving encyclopedia. Sounds simple? Don't be deceived: there is a huge potential in this.

Let us start with the basics: What is tagging for? It is here to help us find information again, to categorize our resources into groups so that we can find them again in the rapidly increasing information space. I now have close to ten years of bookmarks saved away. As a result I can no longer remember what strings I used previously to tag certain categories of resources. Was it "hadopi", "paranoia", "social web", "socialweb", "web", "security", "politics", "zensursula", "bigbrother", "1984", ... If I tag a document about a city should I tag it "Munich", "München", "capital", "Bavaria", "Germany", "town", "agglomeration", "urbanism", "living", ...? As time passed I found it necessary to add more and more tags to my bookmarks, hoping that I would be able to find a resource again in the future by accidentally choosing one of those tags. But clearly that is not the solution. Any of those tags could furthermore be used very differently by other people on delicious. Crowd sourcing only partially works, because there is no clear understanding on what is meant by a tag, and there is no space to discuss that. Is "bank" the bank of a river, or the bank you put money in? Wikipedia has a disambiguation page for this, which took some time to put together. No such mechanism exists on delicious.

Faviki neatly solves this problem by using the work done by another crowd sourced application, and allowing you to tag your entries with concepts taken from there. Before you tag a page, Faviki finds some possible dbpedia concepts that could fit the content of the page to tag. When you then choose the tags, the definition from wikipedia is made visible so that you can choose which meaning of the tag you want to use. Finally when you tag, you don't tag with a string, but with a URI: the DBPedia URI for that concept. Now you can always go back and check the detailed meaning of your tags.

But that is just the beginning of the neatness of this system. Imagine you tag a page with http://dbpedia.org/resource/Munich (the user does not see this URL of course!). Then by using the growing linked data cloud Faviki or other services will be able to start doing some very interesting inferencing on this data. So since the above resource is known to be a town, a capital, to be in Germany which is in Europe, to have more than half a million inhabitants, to be along a certain river, that contains certain museums, to have different names in a number of other languages, to be related in certain ways to certain famous people (such as the current Pope)... it will be possible to improve the service to allow you to search for things in a much more generic way: you could search by asking Faviki for resources that were tagged with some European Town and the concept Art. If you are searching for "München" Faviki will be able to enlarge the search to Munich, since they will be known to be tags for the same city...

I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about other interesting ways to use this structured information to make finding resources easier. Here is an image of the state of the linked data cloud 6 months ago to stimulate your thinking :-)

.

But think about it the other way now. Not only are you helping your future self find information bookmarked semantically - let's use the term now - you are also making that information clearly available to wikipedia editors in the future. Consider for example the article "Lateralization of Brain Function" on wikipedia. The Faviki page on that subject is going to be a really interesting place to look to find good articles on the subject appearing on the web. So with Faviki you don't have to work directly on wikipedia to participate. You just need to tag your resources carefully!

Finally I am particularly pleased by Faviki, because it is exactly the service I described on this blog 3 years ago in my post Search, Tagging and Wikis, at the time when the folksonomy meme was in full swing, threatening according to it's fiercest proponents to put the semantic web enterprise into the dustbin of history.

Try out Faviki, and see who makes more sense.

Some further links:

Tuesday Jan 05, 2010

MISC 2010 and the Internet of Subjects

The International Conference on Mobility, Individualisation, Socialisation and Connectivity (MISC 2010) will be taking place in London from Jan 20 to 23 under the rallying cry "Personal Data It's Ours!". It will cover a very large number of topics in the space of Identity, the Social Web, Privacy and Data Ownership, (see the Agenda). I will be presenting on the developments of the Secure Social Web with foaf+ssl.

The conference will also be the launch pad for the Internet of Subjects foundation, whose manifesto starts with the following lines (full version)

The place digital technologies have now dwelled in our lives is leading to an ever-increasing flow of personal data circulating over the Internet. The current difficulties experienced in personal data management, like trust and privacy, are the revealing symptoms of a growing contradiction between an architecture that was primarily designed to manage documents, with the growing expectations of individuals of a more person-centric web. This contradiction will not be resolved by adding a simple patch to the current architecture; a second order change, similar to Copernican revolution, is required to move from a document-centric to a p erson-centric Internet, and create the conditions for a more balanced and mature relationship between individuals and organisations.

I completely sympathise with the feeling expressed by this message. But just as the Copernican revolution did not require an actual change in the movement of the planets - they have been turning around the Sun quite happily for billions of years - but 'only' required a change in how the humanity thought about the movement of the planets, so Web architecture as it currently stands, is perfectly adequate for an Internet of Subjects. It has been designed like that right from the beginning. Tim Berners Lee in his 1994 Plenary at the First International World Wide Web Conference, presented a Paper "W3 future directions" where he showed how from the flat world of documents as shown here

one could move to a world of objects described by those documents as shown here

This is what led to the development of the semantic web, and to technologies such as foaf that since 2000 have allowed us to build distributed Social Networks, and foaf+ssl that are allowing us now to secure them. Using the semantic web then to describe the authors of the documents and hence turn the web of objects into a web of subjects making statements about objects, does not require much technological innovation: it's built into the semweb architecture.

Still to someone who does not know this - the conference as well as the Manifesto are aimed at people who don't - their feeling will be that something is fundamentally wrong with web architecture. This is indeed the feeling the pre Copernican astronomers would have had as their models became more and more complicated to accommodate the always increasing amount of information they gathered about the stars. What should have been simple and beautiful, revealing the mind of God, must have seemed more and more confusing. Until one day, the way the world looked, suddenly changed...

Sunday Nov 29, 2009

Web Finger proposals overview

If all you had was an email address, would it not be nice to be able to have a mechanism to find someone's home page or OpenId from it? Two proposals have been put forward to show how this could be done. I will look at them and add a sketch of my own that hopefully should lead us to a solution that takes the best of both proposals.

The WebFinger GoogleCode page explains what webfinger is very well:

Back in the day you could, given somebody's UNIX account (email address), type
$ finger email@example.com 
and get some information about that person, whatever they wanted to share: perhaps their office location, phone number, URL, current activities, etc.

The new ideas generalize this to the web, by following a very simple insight: If you have an email address like henry.story@sun.com, then the owner of sun.com is responsible for managing the email. That is the same organization responsible for managing the web site http://sun.com. So all that is needed is some machine readable pointer from http://sun.com/ to a lookup giving more information about owner of the email address. That's it!

The WebFinger proposal

The WebFinger proposed solution showed the way so I will start from here. It is not too complicated, at least as described by John Panzer's "Personal Web Discovery" post.

John suggests that there should be a convention that servers have a file in the /host-meta root location of the HTTP server to describe metadata about the site. (This seems to me to break web architecture. But never mind: the resource http://sun.com/ can have a link to some file that describes a mapping from email ids to information about it.) The WebFinger solution is to have that resource be in a new application/host-meta file format. (not xml btw). This would have mapping of the form

Link-Pattern: <http://meta.sun.com/?q={%uri}>; 
    rel="describedby";type="application/xrd+xml"
So if you wanted to find out about me, you'd be able to do a simple HTTP GET request on http://meta.sun.com/?q=henry.story@sun.com, which will return a representation in another new application/xrd+xml format about the user.

The idea is really good, but it has three more or less important flaws:

  • It seems to require by convention all web sites to set up a /host-meta location on their web servers. Making such a global requirement seems a bit strong, and does not in my opinion follow web architecture. It is not up to a spec to describe the meaning of URIs, especially those belonging to other people.
  • It seems to require a non xml application/host-meta format
  • It creates yet another file format to describe resources the application/xrd+xml. It is better to describe resources at a semantic level using the Resouces Description Framework, and not enter the format battle zone. To describe people there is already the widely known friend of a friend ontology, which can be clearly extended by anyone. Luckily it would be easy for the XRD format to participate in this, by simply creating a GRDDL mapping to the semantics.

All these new format creation's are a real pain. They require new parsers, testing of the spec, mapping to semantics, etc... There is no reason to do this anymore, it is a solved problem.

But lots of kudos for the good idea!

The FingerPoint proposal

Toby Inkster, co inventor of foaf+ssl, authored the fingerpoint proposal, which avoids the problems outlined above.

Fingerpoint defines one useful relation sparql:fingerpoint relation (available at the namespace of the relation of course, as all good linked data should), and is defined as

sparql:fingerpoint
	a owl:ObjectProperty ;
	rdfs:label "fingerpoint" ;
	rdfs:comment """A link from a Root Document to an Endpoint Document 
                        capable of returning information about people having 
                        e-mail addresses at the associated domain.""" ;
	rdfs:subPropertyOf sparql:endpoint ;
	rdfs:domain sparql:RootDocument .
It is then possible to have the root page link to a SPARQL endpoint that can be used to query very flexibily for information. Because the link is defined semantically there are a number of ways to point to the sparql endpoint:
  • Using the up and coming HTTP-Link HTTP header,
  • Using the well tried html <link> element.
  • Using RDFa embedded in the html of the page
  • By having the home page return any other represenation that may be popular or not, such as rdf/xml, N3, or XRD...
Toby does not mention those last two options in his spec, but the beauty of defining things semantically is that one is open to such possibilities from the start.

So Toby gets more power as the WebFinger proposal, by only inventing 1 new relation! All the rest is already defined by existing standards.

The only problem one can see with this is that SPARQL, though not that difficult to learn, is perhaps a bit too powerful for what is needed. You can really ask anything of a SPARQL endpoint!

A possible intermediary proposal: semantic forms

What is really going on here? Let us think in simple HTML terms, and forget about machine readable data a bit. If this were done for a human being, what we really would want is a page that looks like the webfinger.org site, which currently is just one query box and a search button (just like Google's front page). Let me reproduce this here:

Here is the html for this form as its purest, without styling:

     <form  action='/lookup' method='GET'>
         <img src='http://webfinger.org/images/finger.png' />
         <input name='email' type='text' value='' />         
         <button type='submit' value='Look Up'>Look Up</button>
     </form>

What we want is some way to make it clear to a robot, that the above form somehow maps into the following SPARQL query:

PREFIX foaf: <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/>
SELECT ?homepage
WHERE {
   [] foaf:mbox ?email;
      foaf:homepage ?homepage
}

Perhaps this could be done with something as simple as an RDFa extension such as:

     <form  action='/lookup' method='GET'>
         <img src='http://webfinger.org/images/finger.png' />
         <input name='email' type='text' value='' />         
         <button type='submit' value='homepage' 
                sparql='PREFIX foaf: <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/> 
                 GET ?homepage
                 WHERE {
                   [] foaf:mbox ?email;
                      foaf:homepage ?homepage
                 }">Look Up</button>
     </form>

When the user (or robot) presses the form, the page he ends up on is the result of the SPARQL query where the values of the form variables have been replaced by the identically named variables in the SPARQL query. So if I entered henry.story@sun.com in the form, I would end up on the page http://sun.com/lookup?email=henry.story@sun.com, which could perhaps just be a redirect to this blog page... This would then be the answer to the SPARQL query

PREFIX foaf: <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/>
SELECT ?homepage
WHERE {
   [] foaf:mbox "henry.story@bblfish.net";
      foaf:homepage ?homepage
}
(note: that would be wrong as far as the definition of foaf:mbox goes, which relates a person to an mbox, not a string... but let us pass on this detail for the moment)

Here we would be defining a new GET method in SPARQL, which find the type of web page that the post would end up landing on: namely a page that is the homepage of whoever's email address we have.

The nice thing about this is that as with Toby Inkster's proposal we would only need one new relation from the home page to such a finder page, and once such a sparql form mapping mechanism is defined, it could be used in many other ways too, so that it would make sense for people to learn it. For example it could be useful to make web sites available to shopping agents, as I had started thinking about in RESTful semantic web services before RDFa was out.

But most of all, something along these lines, would allow services to have a very simple CGI to answer such a query, without needing to invest in a full blown SPARQL query engine. At the same time it makes the mapping to the semantics of the form very clear. Perhaps someone has a solution to do this already. Perhaps there is a better way of doing it. But it is along these lines that I would be looking for a solution...

(See also an earlier post of mine SPARQLing AltaVista: the meaning of forms)

How this relates to OpenId and foaf+ssl

One of the key use cases for such a Web Finger comes from the difficulty people have of thinking of URLs as identifiers of people. Such a WebFinger proposal if successful, would allow people to type in their email address into an OpenId login box, and from there the Relying Party (the server that the user wants to log into), could find their homepage (usually the same as their OpenId page), and from there find their FOAF description (see "FOAF and OpenID").

Of course this user interface problem does not come up with foaf+ssl, because by using client side certificates, foaf+ssl does not require the user to remember his WebID. The browser does that for him - it's built in.

Nevertheless it is good that OpenId is creating the need for such a service. It is a good idea, and could be very useful even for foaf+ssl, but for different reasons: making it easy to help people find someone's foaf file from the email address could have many very neat applications, if only for enhancing email clients in interesting new ways.

Updates

It was remarked in the comments to this post that the format for the /host-meta format is now XRD. So that removes one criticism of the first proposal. I wonder how flexible XRD is now. Can it express everything RDF/XML can? Does it have a GRDDL?

Wednesday Nov 25, 2009

Identity in the Browser, Firefox style

Mozilla's User Interface chief Aza Raskin just put forward some interesting thoughts on what Identity in the Browser could look like for Firefox. As one of the Knights in search of the Golden Holy Grail of distributed Social Networking, he believes to have found it in giving the browser more control of the user's identity.

The mock up picture reproduced below, shows how Firefox, by integrating identity information into the browser, could make it clear as to what persona one is logged into a site as. It would also create a common user interface for allowing one to log in to a site under a specific Identity, as well as allow one to create a new one. Looking at the Weave Identity Account Manager project site one finds that it would also make it easy to generate automatically passwords for each site/identity, to sync one's passwords across devices, as well as to change the passwords for all enabled sites simultaneously if one feared one's computer had fallen in the wrong hands. These are very appealing properties, and the UI is especially telling, so I will reproduce the main picture here:

The User Interface

One thing I very strongly support in this project is the way it makes it clear to the user, in a very visible location - the URL bar -, as what identity he is logged in as. Interestingly this is at the same location as the https information bar, when you connect to secure sites. Here is what URL bar looks like when connected securely to LinkedIn:

One enhancement the Firefox team could immediately work on, without inventing a new protocol, would be to reveal in the URL bar the client certificate used when connected to a https://... url. This could be done in a manner very similar to the way proposed by Aza Raskin in the his Weave Account manager prototype pictured above. This would allow the user to

  • know what HTTPS client cert he was using to connect to a site,
  • as well as allow him to log out of that site,
  • change the client certificate used if needed
The last two feature of TLS are currently impossible to use in browsers because of the lack of such a User Interface Handle. This would be a big step to closing the growing Firefox Bug 396441: "Improve SSL client-authentication UI".

From there it would be just a small step, but one that I think would require more investigation, to foaf+ssl enhance the drop down description about both the server and the client with information taken from the WebID. A quick reminder: foaf+ssl works simply by adding a WebID - which is just a URL to identify a foaf:Agent - as the subject alternative name of the X509 certificate in the version 3 extensions, as shown in detail in the one page description of the protocol. The browser could then GET the meaning of that URI, i.e. GET a description of the person, by the simplest of all methods: an HTTP GET request. In the case of the user himself, the browser could use the foaf:depiction of the user, to display a picture of him. In the case of the web site certificate, the browser could GET the server information at its WebId, and display the information placed there. Now if the foaf file is not signed by a CA, then the information given by the remote server about itself, should perhaps be placed on a different background or in some way to distinguish the information in the certificate, from the information gleaned from the WebId. So there are a few issues to work on here, but these just only involve well developed standards - foaf and TLS - and some user interface engineers to get them right. Easier, it seems to me, than inventing a whole protocol - even though it is perhaps every engineers desire to have developed a successful one.

The Synchronization Piece

Notice how foaf+ssl enables synchronization. Any browser can create a public/private key pair using the keygen element, and get a certificate from a WebId server, such as foaf.me. Such a server will then add that public key as an identifier for that WebId to the foaf file. Any browser that has a certificate whose public key matches that published on the server, will be able to authenticate to that server and download all the information it needs from there. This could be information

  • about the user (name, depiction, address, telephone number, etc, etc)
  • a link to a resource containing the bookmarks of the user
  • his online accounts
  • his preferences
Indeed you can browse all the information foaf.me can glean just from my public foaf file here. You will see my bookmarks taken from delicious, my tweets and photos all collected in the Activity tab. This is just one way to display information about me. A browser could collect all that information to build up a specialized user interface, and so enable synchronization of preferences, bookmarks, and information about me.

The Security Problem

So what problem is the Weave team solving in addition to the problem solved above by foaf+ssl?

The weave synchronization of course works in a similar manner: data is stored on a remote server, and clients fetch and publish information to that server. One thing that is different is that the Weave team wish to store the passwords for each of the user's accounts onto a remote server that is not under the user's control. As a result that information needs to be encrypted. In foaf+ssl only the public key is stored on a remote server, so there is no need to encrypt that information: the private key can remain safely on the client key chain. Of course there is a danger with the simple foaf+ssl server that the owner of the remote service can both see and change the information published remotely depending on who is asking for it. So an unreliable server could add a new public key to the foaf file, and thereby allow a malicious client to authenticate as the user in a number of web sites.

It is to solve this problem that Weave was designed: to be able to publish remotely encrypted information that only the user can understand. The publication piece uses a nearly RESTful API. This allows it to store encrypted content such as passwords, identity information, or indeed any content on a remote server. The user would just need to remember that one password to be able to synchronize his various Identities from one device to another. There is a useful trick that is worth highlighting: each piece of data is encrypted using a symmetric key, which is stored on the server encrypted with a public key. As a result one can give someone access to a piece of data just by publishing the symmetric key encrypted using one of her public key.

Generalization of Weave

To make the above protocol fully RESTful, it needs to follow Roy Fielding's principle that "REST APIs must be hypertext driven". As such this protocol is failing in this respect in forcing a directory layout ahead of time. This could be fixed by creating a simple ontology for the different roles of the elements required in the protocol: such as public keys, symmetric keys, data objects, etc... This would then enable the Linked Data pattern. Allowing each of the pieces of data to be anywhere on the web. Of course nothing would stop the data from being set out the way specified in the current standard. But it immediately opens up a few interesting possibilities. For example if one wanted a group of encrypted resources to be viewed by the same group of people, one would need only one encrypted symmetric key each of those resources could point to, enabling less duplication.

By defining both a way of getting objects, and their encoding, the project is revealing its status as a good prototype. To be a standard, those should be separated. That is I can see a few sperate pieces required here:

  1. An ontology describing the public keys, the symmetric keys, the encrypted contents,...
  2. Mime types for encrypted contents
  3. Ontologies to describe the contents: such as People, bookmarks, etc...
Only (1) and (2) above would be very useful for any number of scenarios. The contents in the encrypted bodies could then be left to be completely general, and applied in many other places. Indeed being able to publish information on a remote untrusted server could be very useful in many different scenarios.

By separating the first two from (3), the Weave project would avoid inventing yet another way to describe a user for example. We already have a large number of those, including foaf, Portable Contacts, vcard, and many many more... I side for data formats being RDF based, as this separates the issues of syntax and semantics. It also allow the descriptions to be extensible, so that people can think of themselves in more complex ways that that which the current developers of Weave have been able to think of. That is certainly going to be important if one is to have a distributed social web.

Publishing files in an encrypted manner remotely does guard one from malicious servers. But it does I think also reduce the usability of the data. Every time one wants to give access to a resource to someone one needs to encrypt the symmetric key for that user. If the user looses his key, one has to re-encrypt that symmetric key. By trusting the server as foaf+ssl does, it can encrypt the information just in time, for the client requesting the information. But well, these are just different usage scenarios. For encrypting password - which we should really no longer need - then certainly the Weave solution is going in the right direction.

The Client Side Password

Finally Weave is going to need to fill out forms automatically for the user. To do this again I would develop a password ontology, and then markup the forms in such a way that the browser can deduce what pieces of information need to go where. It should be a separate effort to decide what syntax to use to markup html. RDFa is one solution, and I hear the HTML5 solution is starting to look reasonable now that they removed the reverse DNS namespace requirement. In any case such a solution can be very generic, and so the Firefox engineers could go with the flow there too.

RDF! You crazy?

I may be, but so is the world. You can get a light triple store that could be embedded in mozilla, that is open source, and that is in C. Talk to the Virtuoso folks. Here is a blog entry on their lite version. My guess is they could make it even liter. KDE is using it....

Tuesday Nov 24, 2009

my time at Sun is coming to an end

Many have been laid off at Sun over the past few years, and we are in a new round now in France: it looks like it may be my turn next.

I am lucky to be working from Europe where these things take quite some time to be processed. There may be even some way I can extend my pay for 3 months, if I volunteer to depart, and don't take some time to find another job inside of Sun. In France people don't get fired, unless they did something really bad - their jobs are terminated.

I have known this was on the cards for the past 6 months, and so I had really hoped that the Social Web Camp in Santa Clara would help me demonstrate the value of what I had been doing to a larger cross section of people in the Bay Area. Sadly that was messed up by the decision by the SFO Homeland Security bureaucrats to send me to jail instead; a very interesting experience with hindsight, that has triggered a number of new interests, that could well guide me to a radical departure of my career as writer, sociologist, psychologist, political scientist. So many interesting things to do in life...

My time at Sun has certainly been the best experience of work I have ever had. I learned so much here. Certainly, I would have preferred it if we could have launched a large and successful semantic web project while I was here, but somehow that just seemed to be a very elusive task. My hope was to simplify the Semantic Web down to a core, and to show how there is a tremendous opportunity in distributed Social Networks. But Sun's current financial difficulties and the uncertainties of the takeover by Oracle, have meant that the company had to focus more on its core business. Much bigger projects have failed, and many much better engineers have lost their job here.

Still this means that I am a bit in limbo now. I will certainly continue to work on Decentralized Social Networks (esp, foaf+ssl), as I believe these have a huge potential. But even more so that over the past few months, I will be doing this under my own steam.

Thursday Nov 19, 2009

http://openid4.me/ -- OpenId ♥ foaf+ssl

OpenId4.me is the bridge between foaf+ssl and OpenId we have been waiting for.

OpenId and foaf+ssl have a lot in common:

  • They both allow one to log into a web site without requiring one to divulge a password to that web site
  • They both allow one to have a global identifier to log in, so that one does not need to create a username for each web site one wants to identify oneself at.
  • They also allow one to give more information to the site about oneself, automatically, without requiring one to type that information into the site all over again.

OpenId4.me allows a person with a foaf+ssl profile to automatically login to the millions of web sites that enable authentication with OpenId. The really cool thing is that this person never has to set up an OpenId service. OpenId4.me does not even store any information about that person on it's server: it uses all the information in the users foaf profile and authenticates him with foaf+ssl. OpenId4.me does not yet implement attribute exchange I think, but it should be relatively easy to do (depending on how easy it is to hack the initial OpenId code I suppose).

If you have a foaf+ssl cert (get one at foaf.me) and are logging into an openid 2 service, all you need to type in the OpenId box is openid4.me. This will then authenticate you using your foaf+ssl certificate, which works with most existing browsers without change!

If you then want to own your OpenId, then just add a little html to your home page. This is what I placed on http://bblfish.net/:

    <link rel="openid.server" href="http://openid4.me/index.php" />
    <link rel="openid2.provider openid.server" href="http://openid4.me/index.php"/>
    <link rel="meta" type="application/rdf+xml" title="FOAF" href="http://bblfish.net/people/henry/card%23me"/>

And that's it. Having done that you can then in the future change your openid provider very easily. You could even set up your own OpenId4.me server, as it is open source.

More info at OpenId4.me.

Wednesday Nov 18, 2009

Detained in Heathrow

Sipping a coffee in Heathrow, after having - finally - picked up my computer and bicycle that just arrived back from the US, following my recent adventure in San Francisco. Thanks to a very friendly Ernesto Smith from British Airways, who very kindly dealt with the paper work at the police lost and found at SFO, and forwarded my belongings to London.

As I was catching up on my last 2 weeks of e-mail Mischa Tuffield kindly sent me a few links to the following PHD Comics cartoon. :-)

Click on the image for the following episodes.

He had it easy. In the UK, they even let him go out to seek a hotel! Perhaps what I need is a Phd...

Monday Nov 09, 2009

7 days in SF Jail - arrival

On October 29 I left London for what was to be a month tour of California. On all previous trips I prepared very little. This time though I spent two weeks organizing a Social Web Camp in order to build up contacts in the Bay. But things took a very different turn.

At Hexagram 64 of the Yi Ching - the oldest book in China - entitled "Before Completion", one can read:

The caution of a fox walking over ice is proverbial in China. His ears are constantly alert to the cracking of the ice, as he carefully and circumspectly searches out the safest spots. A young fox who as yet has not acquired this caution goes ahead boldly, and it may happen that he falls in and gets his tail wet when he is almost across the water. Then of course his effort has been all in vain. Accordingly, in times "before completion," deliberation and caution are the prerequisites of success.

Flight to San Francisco

The British Airways flight left in the late morning from London Heathrow. To keep me busy for the 10 hours trip I had bought the UK and US editions of Wired Magazine at the airport to complement the 1300 pages long collections of essays by Francois Jullien comparing European and Chinese approaches to wisdom which I had bought in Paris a few weeks earlier. ( some of these are available on Google Books in English ).

The plane took off and we were a served a very good and healthy lunch - I was pleasantly surprised. The shades were then pulled down to allow people to sleep or watch films. Even though I woke up at 5am that morning, I was too excited to sleep. So I read the easier Wired magazines from beginning to end to help me get back into the Silicon Valley spirit. One article that caught my attention and that was reprinted in both editions was Neil Christy's "Empty the Prisons" in the "12 Shocking Ideas that Could Change the World" Section. The following diagram makes the point very simply:

prison population comparison across countries

The cost of putting people in prisons is very high. Not just the monetary cost, but also the cost to Liberty. The easier it is for the state to put people in prison, the easier it is for this to be abused by underground operatives to put pressure on people to do things they would not have done otherwise. Perhaps there are crimes that should not be crimes. Not impossible: Alcohol was illegal in the 30ies in the US before being legalised after the complete failure of the program.

Yin and Yang symbol

Having finished those mags I started reading a longer article by Francois Jullien on the different conceptions of Evil and negativity in the East and the West. It is an interesting story that goes all the way back to the earliest conceptions of religion. If God is pure good, how does evil enter the world? Is evil just the lack of Good, as Socrates would have had it? Or is the universe a battle between two equal forces, Good and Evil, as Saint Augustin, had been tempted to think in his earlier days as proponent of the Manichean religion. Or as the Taoists would have it, and as is symbolized so well in the Taoist Tajitu symbol, are these concepts such that they cannot exist without one another? Just as light cannot exist without dark, or high without low, perhaps good cannot exist without bad. And perhaps there is bad in the good and good in the bad? Certainly the Good of One can be the Bad of the other, as this poem - which is part of John Cage's Indeterminacy series - so nicely illustrates:

Kwang-tse
   points         out
               that         a         beautiful
                                                woman


                 who         gives
                           pleasure

                                                 to         men




    serves
 only                                                                                             to
      frighten

                             the         fish


                                                                                when         she
   jumps
                                                                 in         the          water.

Moving away from the desire for purity, may be a very healthy thing to do.

I was tired and would not have had time to finish the 200 page article. Dinner was served. It was then just a short wait till we arrived. The plane dipped. I yawned to relieve the pressure on my ears, and looked out of the window, to what was the only view of the Bay I was going to be allowed to have. The plane landed around 3pm California time, which would have been 11pm London time.

Arrest

I had not filled in the forms for immigration, so I decided to do that comfortably in the plane. Those are the sheets where you are asked questions such as "Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were you involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?" One has to enter 3 or four times the same information. I had to look up the address and phone number of my contacts in the Bay Area. As a result I was the last person to get out of the plane. A huge line awaited me at the passport control check point, and I was upset with myself for not getting out faster. I still wanted to get my bicycle out of the box, and go to Menlo Park to get a few posters for the Social Web Camp and place them around the Bay Area.

I arrived at the control point, gave the officer my passport and cards. But I had forgotten to enter my birth date on the back of one form, so he ordered me to the side to do that, while he dealt with another traveler. I came up, he processed the forms, asked me to put my hand on a fingerprint machine. Something beeped. He did not seem too happy, and told me to go down to the corner of the huge room, to the door I could see in the distance. "Straight down there", he said. I wondered what that was about.

As I entered the room I first saw a row of benches with a little under 10 people sitting there waiting to be processed. I was told to put my passport in a slot and sit down. I thought I could perhaps phone someone, but one was not allowed to make calls there for some reason. I did not want to bother anyone before I knew what the problem was anyway, so I just waited. Slowly people were processed. Some came out of interview rooms. A Woman was asked if she knew someone the Bay Area. She seemed not to understand. An interpreter came around. Her son was called...

I was asked to step to the back office, where they passed my hand through a machine which took the prints of my whole hand and of the side of my hand. They took a few photos. Then they asked me if I knew why I was arrested. No I did not. I thought perhaps I had failed to pay a parking ticket, but I could not imagine that that would warrant my being stopped at the border. So no, I did not understand.

It turns out that a case from 2001, which I was certain had been closed had popped up in their systems. This was from my last year working in the Bay Area, when I had moved to San Francisco to work for E-Translate, at the end of the dot.com boom. So quite some time ago. I had come to the Bay Area three or four times since then, which seemed to shock them, as much as their bringing this issue up shocked me. I told them this was certainly a mistake. Everything had been taken care of. I would be certainly very happy to get this problem cleared up at the courts, and I told them it would very certainly not take much time - Indeed when 6 days later I saw the judge it took him 30 seconds to clear the case. But the officer in front of me did not know that. The information against me on the computer looked bad enough for him, and that was it.

By this time they had taken my telephone, passport and other material, and I was no longer in a position to get advice. I certainly had never been read any rights, and I could not ask anyone for help - I suppose that is just for US citizens. In fact by signing the entry papers I had waived my rights to an immigration court hearing I was told. The interrogating officer, very slowly typed up a report. The first question on the report was: "How are you feeling?" My answer: very tired. It was probably 3am in the morning UK time.

I had pleaded with the officer that I had come just to talk at a conference which I had organized, and to then present talks in different venues. My interest was to have a clear record, and so I would certainly show up in court. Somehow he made me think that I could get bail, and that from there on I could organize the hearings. That seemed like a good enough solution. I felt relieved. Shit happens. At least I'd get a free ride in a cop car.

Ride in a police car

After another long wait, I was asked to remove my shoe laces, empty all my pockets, was handcuffed and walked out to the front of the San Francisco airport. There a couple of policemen were waiting for me. I squeezed into the back seat on the very narrow bench separated by glass and metal from them. They closed the door and drove off, the bag with my cell phone, passport and other bits and bobs with them in the front seat.

They were quite entertaining. One of the officers asked the other if he wanted to go for a pizza, to which the first officer replied that he could no longer eat greasy foods since his appendicitis operation. He went into detail to describe both the cause of appendicitis, the operation, the stones they found in the appendix and the whole trouble that this caused. His colleague did not abandon the pizza idea, and described in detail a famous low cost pizza place where there were only 4 types of pizza available, and where you had better be careful not to ask for anything else. I suggested that I would not be against going for a pizza, to which the pizza loving officer responded jokingly that that clearly showed that I was evil: trying to kill his appendix missing colleague with fatty foods!

We arrived at the San Mateo police station. I had been taken to this station I was told because the San Francisco airport is in fact located in the San Mateo district. They would have to send me over to San Francisco within 5 days. How long that would take would depend on the space available there. I was hoping I could bail out before hand I told them, to which they replied that I would have to talk to the officers in the San Mateo station, they would help me work that out.

San Mateo police station

In San Mateo I was then asked a lot of details all over again. Contact details for people in the Bay, what I was doing here, if I was suicidal, and so on. If you think that the checks at the airport are intrusive - when they ask you to clear everything out of your luggage, and remove your shoes - then you may not want to read the next paragraph.

I was placed into a room and told to strip naked. The officer then frisked my body, then my balls, then asked me to turn against the wall, lean over, spread my cheeks and say "ahh". Not sure what the "Ahh" was for. It did not seem like a good idea not to obey. "Nothing is hidden" as Wittgenstein so well writes in the Philosophical Investigations. I was just happy that the officer did not have to make his blue plastic gloves dirty. As Scott McNeally once quipped: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it". So I did.

I could then put my shoes and clothes back on. I was sent to a window where a nurse asked me to fill out a form for diseases I could have, if I practiced safe sex, if I was gay or straight, if I was suicidal, and so on... I then had to go through a hand scan and fingerprint scan once more. Then I was sent to a glass protected cell facing the police office, with a small hard bench and behind a low wall, a metal toilet.

In the room was a telephone attached to the wall for collect calls only, and plastered against the wall was a list of bail agents and their telephone numbers. These could be called to borrow money for bail. They take 10% of the money lent. I called one of them to see if and how they would be able to help. Nope he said. We don't help foreigners. Mhh. Well I could pay for bail myself if I had to.

The Drunk Depressive

As I was doing this, the door opened, and I was joined by a strong, slightly overweight and effeminate man, with a bit of a South American look to him, but unusually well dressed. Not very well dressed, I should add. Just that he had a striped office shirt, and clearly paid attention to his looks.

"Burn, burn. They should all burn in hell", he said, which made me just a little uncomfortable.

"People are bad. They deserve to die.", he continued. "They all deserve to die, each one of them.", and after a pause. "We will all die". This he repeated quite a lot.

I let him go on like this, looking through the window. I wanted to find out how I could get bail, as I was quite keen to leave this place. If I could get out of here then I could find hotel close by, and prepare for my talk on Monday. There was still time.

I knocked on the window, as an officer passed and asked how I could find out about bail. They told me to wait for the O.R. people, and pointed to two women working diagonally across the room. I tried waving to them. Time passed.

I found out that the guy in my cell had been arrested for Jay walking and being somewhat drunk. Though to me he seemed more depressed than drunk. He certainly did not smell heavily of alcohol. I did not know Jay Walking could land you in Jail. I never heard of anyone in France being booked for that. It is also I think quite rare for people to be sent away for being tipsy, unless they make a lot of noise, in which case they would be sent out for being a public nuisance I suppose. He wanted to go home, because he had to work at 5 or 6 in the morning at what I understood to be something like a cafe. He had been unemployed for a while, and this was his first job a lady had helped him get. So he had just been celebrating his new job that evening, and things had turned bad.

No exit

"Look at them, they are like children", he said pointing at the officers. "Playing their little games, so sure of themselves. They don't care. They don't care at all. Playing sheriff. Look at that one..."

And it is true they did not seem to care. It must have been 11pm now, and I had been up for over 26 hours without sleep. I was wondering when I could get bail! I might as well sleep here I thought, that would save me a night at the hotel. I started to get worried, so I called the friends in California, whose number I was had written down on a scrap of paper they had left me - I thought someone at least ought to know where I am.

At some point, one of the women came up to the door, and told me I could not get bail. The immigration officers had put an ICE hold on me, disallowing that. I broke up in tears, as I felt the doors close one by one on me.

Thursday Oct 15, 2009

November 2nd: Join the Social Web Camp in Santa Clara

The W3C Social Web Incubator Group is organizing a free Bar Camp in the Santa Clara Sun Campus on November 2nd to foster a wide ranging discussion on the issues required to build the global Social Web.

Imagine a world where everybody could participate easily in a distributed yet secure social web. In such a world every individual will control their own information, and every business could enter into a conversation with customers, researchers, government agencies and partners as easily as they can now start a conversation with someone on Facebook. What is needed to go in the direction of The Internet of Subjects Manifesto? What existing technologies can we build on? What is missing? What could the W3C contribute? What could others do? To participate in the discussion and meet other people with similar interests, and push the discussion further visit the Santa Clara Social Web Camp wiki and

If you are looking for a reason to be in the Bay Area that week, then here are some other events you can combine with coming to the Bar Camp:

  • The W3C is meeting in Santa Clara for its Technical Plenary that week in Santa Clara.
  • The following day, the Internet Identity Workshop is taking place in Mountain View until the end of the week. Go there to push the discussion further by meeting up with the OpenId, OAuth, Liberty crowd, which are all technologies that can participate in the development of the Social Web.
  • You may also want to check out ApacheCon which is also taking place that week.

If you can't come to the west coast at all due to budget cuts, then not all is lost. :-) If you are on the East coast go and participate in the ISWC Building Semantic Web Applications for Government tutorial, and watch my video on The Social Web which I gave at the Free and Open Source Conference this summer. Think: if the government wants to play with Social Networks, it certainly cannot put all its citizens information on Facebook.

Monday Oct 12, 2009

One month of Social Web talks in Paris

Poster for the Social Web Bar Camp @LaCantine

As I was in Berlin preparing to come to Paris, I wondered if I would be anywhere near as active in France as I had been in Germany. I had lived for 5 years in Fontainebleau, an hour from Paris, close but just too far to be in the swing of things. And from that position, I got very little feel for what was happening in the capital. This is what had made me long to live in Paris. So this was the occasion to test it out: I was going to spend one month in the capital. On my agenda there was just a Social Web Bar Camp and a few good contacts.

The Social Web Bar Camp at La Cantine which I blogged about in detail, was like a powder keg for my stay here. It just launched the whole next month of talks, which I detail below. It led me to make a very wide range of contacts, which led to my giving talks at 2 major conferences, 2 universities, one other Bar Camp, present to a couple of companies, get one implementation of foaf+ssl in Drupal, and meet a lot of great people.

Through other contacts, I also had an interview with a journalist from Le Monde, and met the very interesting European citizen journalism agency Cafe Babel (for more on them see this article).

Here follows a short summary of each event I presented the Social Web at during my short stay in Paris.

Friday, 18 September 2009
Arrived in plane from Berlin, and met the journalists at the Paris offices of Cafe Babel, after reading an article on them in the July/August issue of Internationale Politik, "Europa aus Erster Hand".
Saturday, 19 September 2009
Went to the Social Web Bar Camp at La Cantine which I blogged about in detail. Here I met a many people, who connected me up with the right people in the Paris conference scene, where I was then able to present. A couple of these did not work out due to calendar clashes, such as an attempted meeting with engineers and users of Elgg a distributed Open Source Social Networking Platform popular at Universities here in France and the UK.
Monday, 21 September 2009
Visited the offices of Le Monde, and had lunch with a journalist there. I explain my vision of the Social Web and the functioning of foaf+ssl. He won't be writing about it directly he told me, but will develop these ideas over time in a number of articles. ( I'll post updates here, though it is sadly very difficult to link to articles in Le Monde, as they change the URLs for their articles, make them paying only after a period of time, and then don't even make an abstract available for non paying members).
Friday, 25 September 2009
I visited the new offices of af83.com a startup with a history: they participated in the building of the web site of Ségolène Royal the contender with Nicholas Sarkozi, during the last French Presidential Elections.
There I met up with Damien Tournoud, and expert Drupal Developer, explained the basics of foaf+ssl, pointed him to the Open Source project foaf.me, and let him work on it. With a bit of help from Benjamin Nowack the creator of the ARC2 Semantic Web library for PHP, Damien had a working implementation the next day. We waited a bit, before announcing it the following Wednesday on the foaf-protocols mailing list.
Tuesday 29 September, 2009
La Cantine organised another Bar Camp, on a wide range of topics, which I blogged about in detail. There I met people from Google, Firefox, and reconnected up with others. We also had a more open round table discussion on the Social Web.
Thursday 1st and Friday 2nd October, 2009
I visited the Open World Forum, which started among others with a track on the Semantic Desktop "Envisioning the Open Desktop of the future", headed by Prof Stefan Decker, with examples of implementations in the latest KDE (K Desktop Environment).
I met a lot of people here, including Eric Mahé, previously Technology Advisor at Sun Microsystems France. In fact I met so many people that I missed most of the talks. One really interesting presentation by someone from a major open source code search engine, explained that close to 60% of Open Source software came from Eastern and Western Europe combined. (anyone with a link to the talk?)
Saturday, 3rd October 2009
I presented The Social Web in French at the Open Source Developer Conference France which took place in La Villette.
I was really happily surprised to find that I was part of a 3 hour track dedicated to the Semantic Web. This started with a talk by Oliver Berger "Bugtracking sur le web sémantique. Oliver has been working on the Baetle ontology as part of the 2 year government financed HELIOS project. This is something I talked about a couple of years ago and wrote about here in my presentation Connecting Software and People. It is really nice to see this evolving. I really look forward to seeing the first implementations :-)
Oliver's was followed by a talk by Jean-Marc Vanel, introducing Software and Ontology Development, who introduced many of the key Semantic Web concepts.
Tuesday 6th October, morning
Milan Stankovitch whom I had met at the European Semantic Web Conference, and again at the Social Web Bar Camp, invited me to talk to the developers of hypios.com, a very interesting web platform to help problem seekers find problem solvers. The introductory video is really worth watching. I gave them the talk I keep presenting, but with a special focus on how this could help them in the longer term make it easier for people to join and use their system.
Tuesday 6th September, afternoon
I talked and participated in a couple of round table talks at the 2nd Project Accelerator on Identity at the University of Paris 1, organised by the FING. Perhaps the most interesting talk there was the one by François Hodierne , who works for the Open Source Web Applications & Platforms company h6e.net, and who presented the excellent project La Distribution whose aim it is to make installing the most popular web applications as easy as installing an app on the iPhone. This is the type of software needed to make The Internet of Subjects Manifesto a reality. In a few clicks everyone should be able to get a domain name, install their favorite web software on it - Wordpress, mail, wikis, social network, photo publishing tool - and get on with their life, whilst owning their data, so that if they at a later time find the need to move, they can, and so that nobody can kick them off their network. This will require rewriting a little each of the applications so as to enable them to work with the distributed secure Social Web, made possible by foaf+ssl: an application without a social network no longer being very valuable.
Thurday 9th October, 2009
Pierre Antoine Champin from the CNRS, the National French Research organisation, had invited me to Lyon to present The Social Web. So I took the TGV from Paris at 10:54 and was there 2 hours later, which by car would have been a distance of 464km (288.3 miles) according to Google Maps. The talk was very well attended with close to 50 students showing up, and the session lasted two full hours: 1 hour of talks and by many good questions.
After a chat and a few beers, I took the train back to Paris where the train arrived just after 10pm.
Saturday October 10, 2009
I gave a talk on the Social Web at Paris-Web, on the last day of a 3 day conference. This again went very well.
After lunch I attended two very good talks that complemented mine perfectly:
  • David Larlet had a great presentation on Data Portability, which sparked a very lively and interesting discussion. Issues of Data ownership, security, confidentiality, centralization versus decentralization came up. One of his slides made the point very well: by showing the number of Web 2.0 sites that no longer exist, some of them having disappeared by acquisition, others simply technical meltdown, leaving the data of all their users lost forever. (Also see David's Blog summary of Paris-Web. )
  • Right after coffee we had a great presentation on the Semantic Web by Fabien Gandon, who managed to give in the limited amount of time available to him an overview of the Semantic Web stack from bottom to top, including OWL 1 and 2, Microformats, RDFa, and Linked data, and various very cool applications of it, that even I learned a lot. His slides are available here. He certainly inspired a lot of people.
Tuesday, 13 October 2009
Finally I presented at the hacker space La suite Logique, which takes place in a very well organized very low cost lodging space in Paris. They had presentations on a number of projects happening there:
  • One project is to build a grid by taking pieces from the remains of computers that people have brought them. They have a room stashed full of those.
  • Another projects is to add wifi to the lighting to remotely control the projectors for theatrical events taking place there.
  • There was some discussion on how to add sensors to dancers, as one Daito Manabe a Japanese artist has done, in order to create a high tech butoh dance (see the great online videos).
  • Three engineers presented the robots they are constructing for a well known robot fighting competition
Certainly a very interesting space to hang out in, meet other hackers, and get fun things done in.
All of these talks were of course framed by some great evenings out, meeting people, and much more, which I just don't have time to write down right here. Those were the highlights of my month's stay in Paris. I must admit that I really had no idea it to be so active!

Wednesday Oct 07, 2009

Sketch of a RESTful photo Printing service with foaf+ssl

Let us imagine a future where you own your data. It's all on a server you control, under a domain name you own, hosted at home, in your garage, or on some cloud somewhere. Just as your OS gets updates, so all your server software will be updated, and patched automatically. The user interface for installing applications may be as easy as installing an app on the iPhone ( as La Distribution is doing).

A few years back, with one click, you installed a myPhoto service, a distributed version of fotopedia. You have been uploading all your work, social, and personal photos there. These services have become really popular and all your friends are working the same way too. When your friends visit you, they are automatically and seamlessly recognized using foaf+ssl in one click. They can browse the photos you made with them, share interesting tidbits, and more... When you organize a party, you can put up a wiki where friends of your friends can have write access, leave notes as to what they are going to bring, and whether or not they are coming. Similarly your colleagues have access to your calendar schedule, your work documents and your business related photos. Your extended family, defined through a linked data of family relationship (every member of your family just needs to describe their relation to their close family network) can see photos of your family, see the videos of your new born baby, and organize Christmas reunions, as well as tag photos.

One day you wish to print a few photos. So you go to web site we will provisionally call print.com. Print.com is neither a friend of yours, nor a colleague, nor family. It is just a company, and so it gets minimal access to the content on your web server. It can't see your photos, and all it may know of you is a nickname you like to use, and perhaps an icon you like. So how are you going to allow print.com access to the photos you wish to print? This is what I would like to try to sketch a solution for here. It should be very simple, RESTful, and work in a distributed and decentralized environment, where everyone owns and controls their data, and is security conscious.

Before looking at the details of the interactions detailed in the UML Sequence diagram below, let me describe the user experience at a general level.

  1. You go to print.com site after clicking on a link a friend of your suggested on a blog. On the home web page is a button you can click to add your photos.
  2. You click it, and your browser asks you which WebID you wish to use to Identify yourself. You choose your personal ID, as you wish to print some personal photos of yours. Having done that, your are authenticated, and print.com welcomes you using your nicknames and displays your icon on the resulting page.
  3. When you click a button that says "Give Print.com access to the pictures you wish us to print", a new frame is opened on your web site
  4. This frame displays a page from your server, where you are already logged in. The page recognized you and asks if you want to give print.com access to some of your content. It gives you information about print.com's current stock value on NASDAQ, and recent news stories about the company. There is a link to more information, which you don't bother exploring right now.
  5. You agree to give Print.com access, but only for 1 hour.
  6. When your web site asks you which content you want to give it access to, you select the pictures you would like it to have. Your server knows how to do content negotiation, so even though copying each one of the pictures over is feasible, you'd rather give print.com access to the photos directly, and let the two servers negotiate the best representation to use.
  7. Having done that you drag and drop an icon representing the set of photos you chose from this frame to a printing icon on the print.com frame.
  8. Print.com thanks you, shows you icons of the pictures you wish to print, and tells you that the photos will be on their way to your the address of your choosing within 2 hours.

In more detail then we have the following interactions:

  1. Your browser GETs print.com's home page, which returns a page with a "publish my photos" button.
  2. You click the button, which starts the foaf+ssl handshake. The initial ssl connection requests a client certificate, which leads your browser to ask for your WebID in a nice popup as the iPhone can currently do. Print.com then dereferences your WebId in (2a) to verify that the public key in the certificate is indeed correct. Your WebId (Joe's foaf file) contains information about you, your public keys, and a relation to your contact addition service. Perhaps something like the following:
    :me xxx:contactRegistration </addContact> .
    Print.com uses this information when it creates the resulting html page to point you to your server.
  3. When you click the "Give Print.com access to the pictures you wish us to print" you are sending a POST form to the <addContact> resource on your server, with the WebId of Print.com <https://nasdaq.com/co/PRNT#co> in the body of the POST. The results of this POST are displayed in a new frame.
  4. Your web server dereferences Print.com, where it gets some information about it from the NASDAQ URL. Your server puts this information together (4a) in the html it returns to you, asking what kind of access you want to give this company, and for how long you wish to give it.
  5. You give print.com access for 1 hour by filling in the forms.
  6. You give access rights to Print.com to your individual pictures using the excellent user interface available to you on your server.
  7. When you drag and drop the resulting icon depicting the collection of the photos accessible to Print.com, onto its "Print" icon in the other frame - which is possible with html5 - your browser sends off a request to the printing server with that URL.
  8. Print.com dereferences that URL which is a collection of photos it now has access to, and which it downloads one by one. Print.com had access to the photos on your server after having been authenticated with its WebId using foaf+ssl. (note: your server did not need to GET print.com's foaf file, as it still had a fresh version in its cache). Print.com builds small icons of your photos, which it puts up on its server, and then links to in the resulting html before showing you the result. You can click on those previews to get an idea what you will get printed.

So all the above requires very little in addition to foaf+ssl. Just one relation, to point to a contact-addition POST endpoint. The rest is just good user interface design.

What do you think? Have I forgotten something obvious here? Is there something that won't work? Comment on this here, or on the foaf-protocols mailing list.

Notes

Creative Commons License
print.com sequence diagram by Henry Story is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at blogs.sun.com.

Wednesday Sep 30, 2009

foaf+ssl in Mozilla's Fennec works!

At yesterday's Bar Camp in La Cantine I discovered that Mozilla's Fennec browser for mobile phones can be run on OSX (download 1.0 alpha 1 here). So I tried it out immediately to see how much of the foaf+ssl login would work with it. The answer is all of it, with just a few easy to fix user experience issues. I really am looking forward to trying the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet for real.

Anyway here are quick snapshots of the user experience.

Getting a certificate

First of all the best news is that the <keygen> tag, now documented in html5 works in Fennec. This means that one can get a client certificate in one click without going through the complex dance I described in "howto get a foaf+ssl certificate to your iPhone".

This is how easy it can be. Go to foaf.me.

After filling out the form, you can create yourself an account on foaf.me:

To make your WebId useful all you need to do is click on the "Claim account with SSL certificate" button -- which could certainly be phrased better -- on the account creation successful page:

Once clicked, your browser will start calculating a new public private key pair, send the public key to the server which will turn it into a certificate, and send that back to your browser, which will then add it to they keychain! All you will see of this whole transaction is:

The Fennec message here is a bit misleading: you should not in fact need to keep a backup copy of your certificate. Foaf+ssl certificates are very cheap to produce. And without a link to the keychain from the popup, most users won't know what is being talked about, or how to keep a backup. Also on a cell phone they may well wonder where to put the backup anyway. So in this case it is wrong, and not that helpful. Much better would be to have a popup say: "Your certificate has been installed. Would you like to see it?" Or something like that. Most people won't care.

Using the certificate

You can then test the foaf+ssl certificate on any number of sites. The foaf.me site has a login button for example that when clicked will get the browser to ask the user to choose a certificate. And, this is where the User Interface choices made by the Mozilla team are just simply embarrassing. Not unusable, but just really bad.

No user ever cares about these details! It is confusing. Do you think users have issues with URLs? Well what do you think they are going to make of the old outdated Distinguished Names?

Just compare this with the User Experience on the iPhone

Quite a few bug/enhancement reports have been reported on this issue on the Mozilla site. See for example Bug 396441 - Improve SSL client-authentication UI, and my other enhancement requests.

Still this user interface issue should be really easy to fix, as it is just a question of making things simpler, ie. of reducing the complexity of their code. And clearly on a cell phone that should be a priority.

Another issue I can see on the Fennec demo browser, is that I could not find a way to remove the certificates.... That would be quite an important functionality too.

But in any case using foaf+ssl on Fennec is the easiest of all cell phone browsers to use currently - and one of the rare ones, if not the only one, that works correctly! So kudos for that! Fennec and the Nokia N810 is the place to look for what a secure life without passwords, without user names, and a global distributed social network can look like on a mobile platform.

Sunday Sep 20, 2009

Social Web Bar Camp in Paris

social web bar camp program drawn up on the black board

After flying in from Berlin on Friday and celebrating the Jewish new year late into the night with Ori Pekelman, I woke up earlyish on Saturday to go to the Social Web Bar Camp organized in and by La Cantine, the very friendly Parisian conference, community, meeting space for creative people in the digital age.

At 10am the conference started and people slowly arrived for the freely available espresso coffee and pastries. The conference was free too, being sponsored by the member organizations of La Cantine. At 10:20am as the coffee had worked itself into the 60 or more attendees, Ori started the workshop (picture) by having everybody introduce themselves shortly by name and 3 tags. The Bar Camp rules of the game were then explained:

  • Everybody is a participant
  • You make the event
  • Feel free to move between sessions if you feel you are not getting what you were looking for at one of them
  • Write up your interests on the black board, this will be used to create the time table.
So the sessions were put together on the spot there and then.

Of course I put up a session on foaf+ssl and Distributed Social Networks on the black board, for the session starting at 11am.

After a last coffee, a little over 20 people gathered in the room. I connected the laptop to the projector, introduced myself and the W3C Social Web XG, before starting the presentation (slides in pdf) which I have been giving in various universities and hacker spaces around Europe for the past 5 months. (see the FrOSCon video for example)

picture of the discussion in the foaf+ssl session

A round table discussion of this size has a very different dynamic to conference presentations. It is a lot more free flowing and people can ask question and did as I went through the presentation, leading to lively discussions on security, identity and web architecture. At times it seemed in danger of veering off into widely philosophical discussions, but somehow we always got back to the topic helped by the real implementations of foaf+ssl that are now available. Somehow we did in fact manage to complete covering the subject by 12:30 including an excursion into a description of the very real business opportunities this enables.

From the twitter posts (tagged #swcp) and the invitations to follow up with other French public and private institutions that I got over the course of the day, I can only say that this conference was a great success. I could not have started my 1 month stay in Paris in a better way. I will clearly be very busy during the coming month, before my return to Berlin.

Thanks to Huges M for the photos. More of his pictures are available on his flickr account under the #swcp tag.

Further pointers

Wednesday Sep 09, 2009

RDFa parser for Sesame

RDFa is the microformat-inspired standard for embedding semantic web relations directly into (X)HTML. It is being used more and more widely, and we are starting to have foaf+ssl annotated web pages, such as Alexandre Passant's home page. This is forcing me to update my foaf+ssl Identity Provider to support RDFa.

The problem was that I have been using Sesame as my semweb toolkit, and there is currently was no RDFa parser for it. Luckily I found out that Damian Steer (aka. Shellac) had written a SAX bases rdfa parser for the HP Jena toolkit, which he had put up on the java-rdfa github server. With a bit of help from Damian and the Sesame team, I adapted the code to sesame, create a git fork of the initial project, and uploaded the changes on the bblfish java-rdfa git clone. Currently all but three of the 106 tests pass without problem.

To try this out get git, Linus Torvalds' distributed version control system (read the book), and on a unix system run:

$ git clone  git://github.com/bblfish/java-rdfa.git

This will download the whole history of changes of this project, so you will be able to see how I moved from Shellac's code to the Sesame rdfa parser. You can then parse Alex's home page, by running the following on the command line (thanks a lot to Sands Fish for the Maven tip in his comment to this blog):

$ mvn  exec:java -Dexec.mainClass="rdfa.parse" -Dexec.args="http://apassant.net/"

[snip output of sesame-java-rdfa compilation]

@prefix foaf: <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/> .
@prefix geo: <http://www.geonames.org/ontology/> .
@prefix rel: <http://purl.org/vocab/relationship/> .
@prefix cert: <http://www.w3.org/ns/auth/cert#> .
@prefix rsa: <http://www.w3.org/ns/auth/rsa#> .
@prefix rdfs: <http://www.w3.org/2000/01/rdf-schema#> .


<http://apassant.net/> <http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml/vocab#icon> <http://apassant.net/misc/favicon.ico> ;
        <http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml/vocab#stylesheet> <http://apassant.net/sites/apassant.net/files/css/css_84042a598208a6aade8783e8c2937a8c.css> , 
                     <http://apassant.net/sites/apassant.net/files/css/css_ba2732162a421c6422a6f5a68742254e.css> .

<http://apassant.net/#id> rdfs:label "About"@en .

<http://apassant.net/alex> a foaf:Person ;
        foaf:name "Alexandre Passant"@en ;
        foaf:workplaceHomepage <http://deri.ie> , 
                               <http://nuigalway.ie> ;
        foaf:schoolHomepage <http://paris-sorbonne.fr> , 
                            <http://dauphine.fr> ;
        foaf:topic_interest <http://dbpedia.org/page/Social_software_%28computer_software%29> ,
                            <http://dbpedia.org/resource/Semantic_Web> ;
        foaf:currentProject <http://www.w3.org/2009/sparql/wiki/> , 
                <http://www.w3.org/2005/Incubator/socialweb/> ;
        <http://purl.org/vocab/bio/0.1/olb> """
\\nDr. Alexandre Passant is a postdoctoral researcher at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute, National University
of Ireland, Galway. His research activities focus around the Semantic Web and Social Software: in particular, how these
fields can interact with and benefit from each other in order to provide a socially-enabled machine-readable Web,
leading to new services and paradigms for end-users. Prior to joining DERI, he was a PhD student at Université 
Paris-Sorbonne and carried out applied research work on \\"Semantic Web technologies for Enterprise 2.0\\" at
Electricité De France. He is the co-author of SIOC, a model to represent the activities of online communities on the
Semantic Web, the author of MOAT, a framework to let people tag their content using Semantic Web technologies, and
is also involved in various related applications as well as standardization activities.\\n"""@en ;
        foaf:based_near <http://dbpedia.org/resource/Galway> ;
        geo:locatedIn <http://dbpedia.org/resource/Galway> ;
        rel:spouseOf <http://julie.letierce.net/#id> ;
        foaf:holdsAccount <http://www.flickr.com/people/terraces/> ,
                          <http://www.linkedin.com/pub/alexandre-passant/1/797/1ab> ,
                          <http://last.fm/user/terraces> , 
                          <http://slideshare.net/terraces> , 
                          <http://twitter.com/terraces> .

<http://apassant.net/#cert> a rsa:RSAPublicKey ;
        cert:identity <http://apassant.net/alex> .

_:node14efunnjjx1 cert:decimal "65537"@en .

<http://apassant.net/#cert> rsa:public_exponent _:node14efunnjjx1 .

_:node14efunnjjx2 cert:hex "8af4cb6d6ec004bd28c08d37f63301a3e63ddfb812475c679cf073c4dc7328bd20dadb9654d4fa588f155ca05e7ca61a6898fbace156edb650d2109ecee65e7f93a2a26b3928d3b97feeb7aa062e3767f4fadfcf169a223f4a621583a7f6fd8992f65ef1d17bc42392f2d6831993c49187e8bdba42e5e9a018328de026813a9f"@en .

<http://apassant.net/#cert> rsa:modulus _:node14efunnjjx2 .

[snip]

This graph can then be queried with SPARQL, merged with other graphs, and just as it links to other resources, those can in turn link back to it, and to elements defined therein. As a result Alexandre Passant can then use this in combination with an appropriate X509 certificate to log into foaf+ssl enabled web sites in one click, without needing to either remember a password or a URL.

Monday Aug 24, 2009

FrOSCon: the Free and Open Source Conference in Sankt Augustin, Germany

[froscon logo goes here]

At HAR2009 a couple of people put me in contact with Dries Buytaert, the creator and project lead of Drupal, the famous Open Source content management platform based on php. Dries is leading a very interesting effort aimed at integrating the semantic web stack in Drupal. So I was really happy when he responded to the introduction. He suggested we meet at FrOSCon the Free and Open Source conference located in Sankt Augustin, near Bonn, Germany. I really wanted to stay a bit longer in Amsterdam, but this was just too important an occasion to miss. So I packed up my bag Friday, and after meeting up with Dan Brickley, the co-author of the Foaf ontology who needs no introduction, I caught the last train towards Germany. This turned into a 5 hour trip with 5 changes on slow local trains as those were the only ones I could bring my bicycle onto without first packing it into a box.

[note: this blog uses html5 video tag to view ogg video files, and is best viewed with Firefox 3.5]

Going to FrOSCon turned out to be a very good idea. First of all I met Dries and introduced him quickly to foaf+ssl. It took less than 15 minutes to explain how it worked, for Dries to get himself a foaf certificate on foaf.me and to try it out. If this were made easy to use on Drupal sites, it would be a great way to get some very creative people to help build some cool apps making the most out of distributed social networks...

On Sunday Dries gave a very good keynote "The secrets of building and participating in Open Source communities". Building Open Source communities is not easy, he starts off with, yet it is fundamental to any successful project. He then goes on to elaborate on 6 six themes which from his experience allow a community to thrive and grow:

  • Time: it takes time to grow a community. Open source communities are always a bit broken, like the internet: there is always something not functioning, but the whole works very well.
  • Software architecture:
    • make the code modular,
    • centralise the source code, so that people who contribute modules, and others can find the code
  • Ecosystem: allow volunteers and commercial organizations to work together. Each has something to bring to the party. Everybody has to be equal. And don't have roadmaps, as they disencourage experimentation and rigidify processes. "Trust, not money is the currency of Open Source"
  • Tools, Community Design patterns:
    • Adoption: easy registration. RSS feeds, documentation
    • Identity: profiles, avatars, buddy lists, contacts
    • Group support: issue queues, trackers, activity streams, reputation
    • Conversations: messaging, comments, forums, blogs, interest groups, planet/aggregator
    • Development: CVS/SVN/git/bzr issue queues. release management
  • Mission: Have a mission that goes beyond the project. In the case of Drupal it is democratizing online publishing. And the core values are
    • Be open to Change
    • Collaboration
    • 100% transparency
    • Agile
  • Leadership: "leadership is not management". Replace planning with coordination (see Clay Shirky's talk "Institution vs collaboration")
Coming from someone with real experience in a very successful project these words are very much worth listening to:

Just before the start of Dries' keynote you may have noticed an announcement about a change in the program. The talk on Subversion was canceled due to the inability of the speakers to attend, and it was replaced by a talk on distributed social networks. Yep! During the party the evening before I was told there could be a slot for me to give a talk on foaf+ssl the next day. So on the suggestion of Naxx, an open source grey hat security specialist I had met in Vienna, and who I was surprised to see here again, I spent the whole evening rewriting my slides for Apple Keynote. Naxx spends 3/4 of the year traveling giving talks on security and he had a few hints for me on how to improve my presentation skills. I tried to remember a few of them, and to make sure I did not wave my hands as much as I did at HAR. Here is the result "The Social Web: How to free yourself of your social networks and create a global community:


(The slides for this talk are available online here)

Please do send me some feedback on how I can improve both my talk and my presentation of it. I may have gone a bit too deeply here into technical details for example, and I should probably have added a section on the business model of distributed social networks. As the last talk of the conference there were only 40 or so attendees, but I was really thankful for the last minute opportunity given to me to present on this topic.

Naxx who helped me work on my presentation skills, gave a very interesting and worrying talk "Malware for Soho Routers: The war has begun", where he showed just how easy it is to hack into everyday home routers and turn them into zombie machines ready to launch an attack on the web. I had always thought that financial incentives would lead large telecoms to make sure that such routers were secure. Not at all it seems. Short term profit motives have led many of them to buy the cheapest machines with the worst possible software (web pages built with shell scripts!) with laughable security. Security may be on the news everyday since September 11 2001, but clearly it was always just a sham. Listen to his talk, and be very worried:

Time either to help out on a open source project for secure routers, or to invest money in a cisco one!

Finally I do have to say that the prize for best presentation (I saw) clearly has to go to Simon Wardley from Canonical, for his funny, entertaining and educational keynote "Cloud Computing". If you have been wondering what this beast is, this will really help:

Well that's it from the FrOSCon, which in german is pronounced FroshCon, "Frosch" being the german for Frog, hence the logo. It was great attending, and I have the feeling of having made a huge leap forward here on my tour.

Thursday Aug 20, 2009

Camping and Hacking at HAR2009

HAR2009 logo

On Monday 10 August evening I arrived under a light drizzle in Vierhouten in the Netherlands, after cycling the last 100km section of the 300km that I had traveled from the University of Koblenz. I just had time for a beer and a soup, as the c-base bus arrived from Berlin. Night was falling fast, and so we all got together and helped put up the large colorful tent on the edge of a still mostly empty field. The BSD camp next to us had worked out how to get some electricity and kindly let us have enough to power a lamp and a couple of laptops. So we could relax and listen to some music, as it got colder.

I travel very light weight on my bicycle for obvious reasons. So I don't carry a tent with me. Instead I go from hotel, to youth hostel, to family couch. I have not tried the Couch surfing network yet, but it's an extra option I could use. Here on the camp, in the middle of the forest, none of the options were available. So I was very grateful to Dirk Höschen for having taken a nice tent with him for me to sleep in, and also to Rasta for having given me some blankets and furs he happened to have to sleep on. The thick down coat I had carried with me from France, finally came in useful, in the cold nights that followed.

C-base tent at HAR2009
(the tent to the right was the one I slept in)

HAR (Hacking At Random) is an international technology and security conference, with a strong free software, freedom of information political leaning. I had not heard of it until I reached Berlin, but was told so much good about it from so many different people, that I was convinced to go. I was lucky to get some last minute tickets, from some friends of a friend from the Viennese Metalab who could not make it. The 2000 tickets had all been sold out a month ago. Needless to say I had largely missed the deadlines for submitting a presentation. The organisers though were interested enough in what I was presenting on Distributed Social Networks that they gave me a couple of 2 hour workshop sessions to present. The first one of them was filmed, but I am not sure where the video is yet. (I'll update this when I get a link to it.) On Saturday I was lucky to get a 10 minute slot on the Lightening Talks track. This was recorded (slides here)

(( Mhh, one learns a lot from being filmed. I was not so aware how much I gesticulate with my hands. Something I picked up in France I think, but without the french mastery...))

Given how foaf+ssl builds up on X509 and relies on existing Internet infrastructure this conference was an excellent place to come to and learn the latest on holes and limitations in these technologies. Perhaps the most relevant talk was the one given by Dan Kaminsky x509 considered harmful, which he gave while downing a bottle of excellent whiskey - as I found out while talking to him after the presentation.

In his talk Dan really beats home the importance of DNSSEC, the next version of DNS which is about to get a lot higher profile as the root DNS server moves over to it at the end of this year. The x509 problems could mostly disappear with the rollout of DNSSEC, which is good for me, because it means we can continue working on foaf+ssl. Also foaf+ssl relies a lot less on Certificate Authorities. The only place where that is important is for server authentication (which is where DNSSEC comes in). Client certificates can be self signed as far as foaf+ssl is concerned.

If there was a main theme I got from this conference, then it was clearly the importance of the deployment of DNSSEC. It may be a lot more heavy weight, and a lot more complex than what we have currently, but the problems are getting to be so big, that it is unavoidable. For a good presentation of these issues see Bert Hubert's talk, the man behind PowerDNS:

For an overview/introduction of what DNSSEC is, how it functions and what problems it solves, see Rick Van Rein's presentation Cracking Internet: the urgency of DNSSEC.

Sun Microsystems is also supporting the DNSSEC effort. In this security alert, you can read

Note 1: The above patches implement mitigation strategies within the implementation of the DNS protocol, specifically source port randomization and query ID randomization making BIND 9 more resilient to an attack. It does not, however, completely remove the possibility of exploitation of this issue.

The full resolution is for DNS Security Extensions (DNSSEC) to be implemented Internet-wide. DNS zone administrators should start signing their zones.

If your site's parent DNS zone is not signed you can register with the ISC's DNSSEC Look-aside Validation (DLV) registry at the following URL:

https://secure.isc.org/ops/dlv/

Further details on configuring your DNA zones for DNSSEC is available from the ISC at the following URL:

http://www.isc.org/sw/bind/docs/DNSSEC_in_6_minutes.pdf

The issues addressed by these talks are not just technical, they have political implications for how we live. There were many good talks on the subject here at HAR, but my favorite, perhaps because I followed the story in France so carefully, was the one given by Jéremie Zimmermann co-founder of Quadrature du Net a French site with an English translation, that does an excellent job tracking the position of French and European politicians on issues related to web freedom. Jeremie's talk on Hacking the Law was on Sunday noon, the last day of the talk, and there were some technical problems getting the projectors to work. The best way to get it for the moment is to download it from the command line

curl -o jeremie.ogv ftp://ftp.sickos.org/pub/HAR2009/room1/r1-filer.20090816-115405.ogv
And view in in your favorite ogg viewer. I think the talk starts around the 20th minute.

The talks will hopefully be placed online soon in an easier to access manner.

But HAR2009 was not just about talks. It was also about meeting people, talking, exchanging ideas. Some of the best parties were organised by the Chaos Computer Club a German wide hacker's club that deals with security and political issues, and that is widely referenced by the German media, when in need of enlightenment. They had a great tent with an excellent view of a pond, and at night had excellent DJs to create just the right ambiance to meet people. Mix that together with some Tschunk a cocktail of Club-Mate - the Germanic hacker drink - and Rum, and I found it difficult to go to sleep before 4am.

On Monday morning I cycled the remaining 100km to Amsterdam, one of the most easy going, beautiful towns in Europe, where I am writing this.

Monday Aug 03, 2009

Berlin is a funky Zoo

The improbabily drive seems to have been in full swing on Saturday. After getting the second pair of keys for my new Berlin appartment and passing them to my flat mate Alex, I got on my bike and drove towards the Chaos Computer Club some 7 km away. My GPS was running out of batteries, and died completely as I reached the Jannowitzbrücke. As I looked around for directions, I recognized that I was right next to the c-base computer/culture club. So I cycled over, went in, plugged in my GPS into my laptop to recharge, and one thing leading to another got into a number of fun conversations. Amongst others I met Tobias Mathes and introduced him to secure distributed social networks which really seems to be a hit in Berlin.

I asked about how one gets to find a good party, as I had not celebrated my birthday, the date of the move in having coincided with it. There are too many options I was told. "Any party will do" I replied. Tobias invited me to come along to the Arena Sommer Safari party where his favorite DJ was playing. I had no idea what to expect, but was happy to go along as a night-club tourist.

We walked 1km and arrived at street packed full of puffed up, often shaved or crew cut men and their (sometimes fake) blond girl friends. A very unusual group for Berlin. I was told they were mostly from the northern smaller and poorer parts of Berlin. As I collected my €20 ticked we ran into aroemchen, a strong and very friendly Bavarian woman who had an electronic keyboard and a big cardboard star popping out of her backpack. She was the DJ and was herself waiting for her singer elahi. There must have been 5000 to 10000 people trying to get in. Streams of bodies pushing for the large entrance to an old brick building, beer bottles rolling on the floor, people pushing each other forward, backwards, sideways... Avoiding to step onto large muscular tough looking dudes toes. Inside was a huge space with a band playing in the distance. I did not feel like swimming through the crowd onto the packed dance floor, and was content looking at the various characters that turned up, some of them reminding me of the outrageous Backardi advertisment.

Somehow Tobias managed to end up getting a VIP pass for me and I found myself invited up to the stage floor, behind the DJ table, where we sat down after getting a large bottle of water. Tobias took out a Sony camera, and started filming the transition as DJ Aroma took the stage. From that position I was able to see the band spinning and singing 8 meters away, and the crowd dancing to the disco-punk sound released by our two Bavarian friends. I had a few beers and my head was swooning to the beat as I got up to dance to the final Berlin is a funky zoo.

The Zoo is not as bad as it used to be
It is only very funky since the 90ies
A lot of different species can be found
       come round
  stay for a while or longer
share their food and their behavior.
Try to get a little smoother
And though there's not a lot of luxury in our crew
It's ok to stay for me and you
because it's wild and funky in our Zoo
(Wild and funky in our zoo)

Berlin is a funky Zoo
Berlin is a funky Zoo
Berlin is a funky Zoo
yea Berlin \*is\*  \*a\* funky Zoo!

The teddy bears from Schöneberg
It loves to run in underwear
The beary is gay and never gray
he likes to stay the nights away

The monkeys in the Blue 8 Bar
in Herman platz which is quite far
The bar is far but not beyond
there's food around and drinks along

The drink is not beer but iron here
And TV says its weird here
But the mix is the mix, it's just the truth
Just like nature in the Zoo
 
Berlin is a funky Zoo
Berlin is a funky Zoo
Berlin is a funky Zoo
yea Berlin \*is\*  \*a\* funky Zoo!

Chuck is selling hemp or chicken
playing games and being tricky
Oh such lovely food here for the bear
but only with the propper gang wear

proper lease the penguin
looking like on heroin
spending weekends at the ranch
searching fish at minimal trance

you also find the panda bear
without bamboo but dancing square
in the black colcolgova 
which is not just very far

but in Kreuzberg and in Hein
another spot for hogs and swine
being naked like the fish
the old sweaty berlinish

Berlin is a funky Zoo
Berlin is a funky Zoo
Berlin is a funky Zoo
yea Berlin \*is\*  \*a\* funky Zoo!

The bearfoot ? is in the park
Dancing somedays till it's dark
No one watching and the groups
perfect playground lovely fos (?)

The bear lives in this funky zoo
just at times its like a loo
At other times it's cool and fresh
It's seduction and its fresh

the bear is heavy ego-tying(?)
living in this crazy shrine
He loves to dance just like you
cause Berlin is a funky zoo

Berlin is a funky Zoo
Berlin is a funky Zoo
Berlin is a funky Zoo
yea Berlin \*is\*  \*a\* funky Zoo!

Next thing I was watching the sun rise over Berlin.

Saturday Jul 25, 2009

Saving Face: The Privacy Architecture of Facebook

In his very interesting thesis draft Saving Face: The Privacy Architecture of Facebook, Chris Peterson, describes through a number of real life stories some very subtle and interesting issues concerning privacy and context that arose during the rapid evolution of the now 250 million member social network.

Perhaps the most revealing of these stories is that of Junior High School student Rachel who broadcast the following distress status message my grandmother just friend requested me. no Facebook, you have gone too far! Chris Peterson develops: Rachel and her grandmother are close. She trusts her grandmother. She confides in her grandmother. She tells her grandmother "private" things. She is certainly closer to her grandmother than many of her Facebook Friends. So what's the big deal? Rachel explains:

Facebook started off as basically an online directory of COLLEGE STUDENTS. I couldn't wait until I had my college email so that I could set up an account of my own, since no other emails would give you access to the site. Now, that was great. One could [meet] classmates online or stay in touch with high school mates [but it] has become a place, no longer for college students, but for anyone. [About] five days ago, the worst possible Facebook scenario occurred, so bizarre that it hadn't even crossed my mind as possible. MY GRANDMOTHER!? How did she get onto facebook?...As my mouse hovered between the accept and decline button, images flashed through my mind of sweet Grandma [seeing] me drinking from an ice luge, tossing ping pong balls into solo cups full of beer, and countless pictures of drunken laughter, eyes half closed. Disgraceful, I know, but these are good memories to me. To her, the picture of my perfectly angelic self, studying hard away at school, would be shattered forever.

The paper is full of legally much more serious stories, but this one is especially revealing as it makes apparent how the flat friendship relation on Facebook does not take into account the context of the relationship. Not all frienships are equal. Most people have only very few friends they can tell everything to. And most often one tells very different stories to different groups of friends. In the physical world we intuitively understand how to behave in different contexts. One behaves one way in church, another in the bar, and yet another way in front of one's teachers, or parents. The context in real life is set by the architecture of the space we are in (something Peter Sloterdijk develops at length in his philosophical trilogy Spheres). The space in which we are speaking and the distance others have to us guides us in what we should say, and how loud we can say it. On Facebook all your friends get to see everything you say.

It turns out that it is possible to create an equivalent contextual space on Facebook using a little know and recently added feature, which allows one to build groups of friends and specify access control policies on posts per group. Chris shows clearly that this by itself is not enough: it requires a much more thorough embedding in the User Interface so that the intuitive feel one has in real life for who hears what and to whom one is speaking is available with the same clarity in the digital space. In the later part of the thesis Chris explores what such a User Interface would need to do to enable a similarly intuitive notion of space to be available.

Applications to the Social Web

One serious element of the privacy architecture of Facebook (and other similar social networks) not covered by this thesis, yet that has a very serious impact in a very large number of domains, is the constant presence of a third party in the room: Facebook itself. Whatever you say on these Social Networks, is visible not only to your group of friends, but also to Facebook itself, and indirectly to its advertisers. Communicating in Facebook puts one then in a similar frame of mind to what people in the middle ages would have been in, when mankind was under the constant, omnipotent and omniscient presence of God who could read every thought, even the most personal. Except that this God is incorporated and has a stock market value fluctuating daily.

For those who wish to escape such an omni-presence yet reap the benefits of online electronic communication, the only solution lies in the development of distributed secure social networks, of a Social Web where every body could own what they say and control who sees it. It turns out that this is possible with semantic web technologies such as foaf and access control mechanisms based on ssl.

One very positive element I take from this thesis is that the minimal technical building blocks for reconstituting a sense of context is the notion of a group and access control of resources. In a the Social Web we should be able to reconstitute this using the foaf:Group class and foaf+ssl for access control. On this basis Chris Peterson's user interface suggestions should be applicable in a distributed social network.

All in all then I found this thesis to be very rewarding and a very interesting read. I recommend it to all people interested in the Social Web.

Friday Jul 24, 2009

How to write a simple foaf+ssl authentication servlet

After having set up a web server so that it listens to an https socket that accepts certificates signed by any Certification Authority (CA) (see the Tomcat post), we can write a servlet that uses these retrieved certificates to authenticate the user. I will detail one simple way of doing this here.

Retrieving the certificate from the servlet

In Tomcat compatible servlets it is possible to retrieve the certificates used in a connection with the following code:

import java.security.cert.X509Certificate;
protected void doGet(HttpServletRequest request, HttpServletResponse response)
             throws ServletException, IOException {
       //...
       X509Certificate[] certificates = (X509Certificate[]) request
                       .getAttribute("javax.servlet.request.X509Certificate");
       //...
 }

Verifying the WebId

This can be done very easily by using a class such as DereferencingFoafSslVerifier (see source), available as a maven project from so(m)mer repository (in the foafssl/ directory).

Use it like this:

  Collection<? extends FoafSslPrincipal> verifiedWebIDs = null;

  try {
     FoafSslVerifier FOAF_SSL_VERIFIER = new DereferencingFoafSslVerifier();
     verifiedWebIDs = FOAF_SSL_VERIFIER.verifyFoafSslCertificate(foafSslCertificate);
  } catch (Exception e) {
     redirect(response,...); //redirect appropriately
     return;
  }

If the certificate is authenticated by the WebId, you will then end up with a collection of FoafSslPrincipals, which can be used for as an identifier for the user who just logged in. Otherwise you should redirect the user to a page enabling him to login with either OpenId, or the usual username/password pair, or point him to a page such as this one where he can get a foaf+ssl certificate.

For a complete example application that uses this code, have a look at the Identity Provider Servlet, which is running at https://foafssl.org/srv/idp (note this servlet was trying to create a workaround for an iPhone bug. Ignore that code for the moment).

Todo

The current library is too simple and has a few gaping usability holes. Some of the most evident are:

  • No support for rdfa or turtle formats.
  • The Sesame RDF framework/database should be run as a service, so that it can be queried directly by the servlet. Currently the data gathered by the foaf file is lost as soon as the FOAF_SSL_VERIFIER.verifyFoafSslCertificate(foafSslCertificate); method returns. This is ok for a Identity Provider Servlet, but not for most other servers. A Java/RDF mapper such as the So(m)mer mapper would then make it easy for Java programmers to use the information in the database to personalize the site with the information given by the foaf file.
  • develop an access control library that makes it easy to specify which resources can be accessed by which groups of users, specified declaratively. It would be useful for example to be able to specify that a number of resources can be accessed by friends of someone, or friends of friends of someone, or family members, ....

But this is good enough to get going. If you have suggestions on the best way to architect some of these improvements so that we have a more flexible and powerful library, please contact me. I welcome all contributions. :-)

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