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.

Chaos Computer Club reveals massive airport security hole

The Chaos Computer Club yesterday revealed on German Television, in a program entitled "Data theft via wireless - security risks at German airports", a massive security hole, that could easily allow intelligent terrorists - if such a being is possible - to gain access to the secure parts of many airports, thereby bypassing any of the more and more restrictive and intrusive measures being introduced to scan normal citizens, and which led the pirate party to demonstrate in underpants as I reported earlier this week.

The trick is simple. Employees at many airports use badges that are read wirelessly by scanners. Using a trick similar to that described by Chris Paget's RFID cloning presentation - a massive security scandal in the US - it is possible to capture the signals emitted by these cards and use that to produce fake ones. Having created one such card, the CCC members were able to gain access to secure parts of the Hamburg airports without going through any of the security checks imposed on the passengers.

It is not surprising that such a hole and many more should be found of a similar nature. Increasing security in one part of the airport will not make anything more secure if not all parts are secured equally. But since the threat of terrorism is so minute - you are 8 times more likely to be killed by a cop in the US than by a terrorist - any security measures will end up creating more danger than that posed by the terrorists themselves. Add more police and the danger of accidental killing by the police can only go up faster than the terrorist threat itself.

Tuesday Jan 12, 2010

Pirate Party gets naked in Berlin to protest airport scanners

The 60ies are back, and so is getting naked at protests :-) The Pirate Party in Berlin has just protested the intrusiveness of planned scanning technology at the Tegel Airport, with the motto "No need to scan we are already naked". Here is the video:

There is a very serious need to put the terrorist threat back into perspective and laugh a little. As argued very cogently in the recent Register article "Trouser-bomb clown attacks - how much should we laugh?" there is no need to respond any further with security increase to such attacks. All that has been done is done. There is nothing more one can do. Life is fundamentally insecure. According to John Baker, you are "8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist". When one responds to a crisis one has to keep the relative dangers in perspective, and deal with the most important ones first. And it is not completely unthinkable that the threat of government intrusion into our private lives is just simply a much bigger danger than terrorism right now.

This recent article in Wired "Airport Scanners Can Store, Transmit Images" details the power of these new scanners that the German government plans to introduce as an attempted response to the underpants bomber. If you accept that, then why not just go all the way and make nudist (FKK in German) planes available, as the Pirate Party demonstrators cheekily suggest.

Beyond airport security, which has so clearly now gotten completely out of hand, the demonstration is aimed to wake citizens out of the slumber which has allowed us all to give one part of society - the "security" services - completely disproportionate power over the rest of society. As Mr Security shows so well, there is no reason we should not set limits to their action, by allowing us, citizens to monitor them too, by re-establishing our rights in public spaces, and by not just accepting any irrational request for security increase, and intrusions into the private sphere.

And speaking of intrusions into the private space, we should also be careful to trust our privacy to large firms: see the recent ReadWrite web article "Facebook's Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over". Privacy like freedom, is something one has to fight for to keep.

Other links:

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.

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 16, 2009

7 days in SF Jail - the iPhone thief

image of stone inscribed with code of hammurabi

A young black boy - 18 to 20 perhaps - very tall, entered our cell, joining our growing community. [ I am not a professional writer and don't remember the exact SF expressions. I'd welcome some help to get the language right. ]. I don't think we really asked him what he was in for. He was pissed: "Those motherfuckers got me. Damn! I could have just gone away. One iPhone too much man. One iPhone too much. Do you think I'll get bail? They have not caught me in years man. Should let me out. I need to go out, there's my pussy waiting for me out there. I just was about to call her."

Someone asked him how he got those iPhones.

"I just go up and spot someone with one, ask them the time, and when they look at their phone I just grab it and run. Really easy. That's a good money. $350 for 8 MB phone, $400 for 16MB."

Someone asked him how they can resell such a phone. Won't the GPS feature in the phone locate them? How can they resell a stolen phone anyway? "Just go to the shop, they remove the SIM card. That's it. They resell it on the market."

It was remarkable how candid he was about his operation. He really seemed to have no conscience about what this activity being wrong in any way. Nor did he seem to think about the possibility that in the crowd of detainees there might lurk a few cops in disguise, which one of the older more experienced detainees later tried to get him to consider by targeting the white boy who was arrested with someone else in a drug deal, and suggesting that he might be with the other side. "What! he's way too young." was the astonished reaction. "They come in all forms and all ages" was the response. The boy defended himself weakly. "We'll see", said the older one. "If those dollar notes and their serial numbers appear in court, then you'll know it was a trap." He repeated this a few times. Ominous.

Sadly I can't quite remember where the iPhone thief was working, because that would be a good place to hang out for people with a good insurance and a broken one... (psst, here's a tip: Apparently you have more chance of being robbed if you look somewhat drunk, lost and helpless.)

I asked the young boy if he was not worried to get shot. That thought surprised him. No he said, he runs back to the car, that's where they have the guns. They caught him just before he reached the car. "Otherwise, hehe..." I wondered if he was for real, or just trying to impress. It was just too weird. Someone else pointed out that using guns in a crowded street would be very dangerous. (A bit like using nuclear armaments to win wars, I thought. Not precise enough, too indiscriminate, too full of bad consequences for the one using it. That is of course if the one using it spends a little time to think about the consequences of their actions.)

I wondered where the boy had gone to school. Of all the crimes, theft is probably the one that is the oldest, and best well known to be wrong. One should not even need school to know about this. Already in 1750 B.C. (nearly 4 thousand years ago) in ancient Babylon the Code of Hammurabi (full text) had some very strong punishments for theft: death for stealing of sacred objects, and repayment of 30 times the original value for others - or death if the thief could not repay. Punishments were quite simple in those days, perhaps due to the effort of writing those laws out in stone...

I was too tired by my own troubles to dig much deeper. I would loved to know how he came to work in this field. Who had guided him in his youth? I think he mentioned feeding his brothers and sisters as a reason for doing this, but I am not sure...

If he got bail, he was calculating, he could steal a few more iPhones to cover the costs . I think he was deluded. He was not going to get out of jail soon. And perhaps here there was something useful for him to learn. One could hope that this would be a place for him to gain a little conscience. As Philip Larkin wrote in "Wires":

The widest prairies have electric fences,
For though old cattle know they must not stray
Young steers are always scenting purer water
Not here but anywhere. Beyond the wires

Leads them to blunder up against the wires
Whose muscle-shredding violence gives no quarter.
Young steers become old cattle from that day,
Electric limits to their widest senses.

Friday Nov 13, 2009

7 days in SF Jail - Halloween Friday Transfer

hand fingerprint machine

My depressed cell mate fell asleep on the one available bench leaving me too little space to lie down myself.

I paced up and down, trying to imagine all the possible options left open to me. Perhaps if I got transferred to San Francisco there would still be a way to get the court hearing early Monday, be freed and have the rest of the day to present at the Santa Clara Social Web Camp, or at least be free for the rest of the week to attend the other conferences. I held onto that hope as a drowning animal holds onto the smallest twig that comes his way. Perhaps one could overturn the ICE Hold? Perhaps Sun lawyers could get me out of here. But I did not have any number for them. If I had to go to court soon I should be in San Francisco jail. When would that happen? I had been told that they had five days to get me over there. Mix all of those thoughts with my still not being clear as to why I was here at all: why was the case re-opened? Had I forgotten to do something really important? Had someone perhaps stolen my identity? I was swimming in a sea in upheaval, pounded by strong blowing wind, waves shifting ice blocks here and there, and me trying to swim between these to a solid shore.

My cell mate moved somewhat leaving me a little space to curl up on the edge of the bench, shut my eyes, and sleep.

Morning

Breakfast in Jail in the US is served at 4am, something to do with military discipline I guess. Cereals and milk was on the menu, and powder orange juice to mix with water from the fountain above the metallic toilet.

My cell mate was in a better mood now, though more anxious about loosing his job. He was caught between hating the police and wanting to join the force. Later he was talking of joining the marines if he lost his job. His moaning repetitive. He called the interphone for information on his release time, they answered "San Mateo police Taxi service. What can we do for you?".

He had a pee in the back toilet, separated from me just by a low wall. I wondered what the officers positioned outside on their elevated pedestal could see.

Around 5am a Eurasian man came to the window and presented himself as an immigration officer. I was hopeful. He opened the door and let me out pointing to a chair. Having taken a seat, I asked him if there was anything that could be done to overturn the ICE hold, so that I could bail out. He said he could look into it. Then he proceeded by asking me a number of boring questions, very similar to all those I had already answered previously. On returning to the cell I could not really work out how asking those questions could have helped him make a case for me. I wondered how long it would take him to get me an answer. I tried to get his attention through the window, but he was already interviewing someone else, and indicated that he would come later. When he did come around, furtively, checking the corridor to see that nobody was there, he indicated that could be a whole day before he knew. Mhh. That would push things to the weekend.

At some point a tall tough rough yet elegant woman officer arrived, clearly with a leadership role, seeing how the male officers followed her closely and seemed to be wanting to outdo each other in appearing even tougher. There seemed to be some urgency somewhere, and there was a lot of marching up and down the corridor.

My cell mate kept trying to invent scenarios of what he should tell his boss to explain his being late. Perhaps he could get away by telling him that his mother died, or had a stroke. I suggested that his boss would then wonder why he had not called to tell him about this earlier. He should call work immediately. Being in jail for Jay Walking and drinking a bit too much sounds like something that could happen to anyone. Why make up a complex story, when the truth is so simple? And it would be a lot more useful for his work to know that he would have trouble coming than to let them wait on his possible arrival... He never followed up on this suggestion though, preferring instead to invent lies one more complex than the other.

Time passed. My mind was going in circles from one possibility to the next. I could not call anyone and did not know how to get any number. If I was going to be out here for the weekend I had to do something. But there was nothing to do. I needed a lawyer and some guidance! A telephone to call people and let them know of my situation. I banged my fist repeatedly against the window shouting in desperation "I need some help!". The tall woman and her officers appeared quickly. I sat down on my hands as quickly as possible. Complete submission was clearly what was required here: I did not want to appear aggressive - I was just lost. I explained that I did not know why I was here, that I had come from Europe for a conference, and that I had no way to contact people from my work. She said that is what O.R. was for - had I not spoken to them? On the verge of crying I said I had no idea what this O.R. was that people kept telling me about, nor what their role was. And that they had told me just that I could not bail. She told me to behave if I did not want to be dropped in the isolation chamber. She would see what she could do. And O.R. stands for Own Recognizance.

Next I knew, an officer came to bring me to San Francisco.

Transfer

I was out of the cell, my thumbprints taken once more, then handcuffed, joined by an older black man, and walked by a friendly officer to a transition cell, where we were to wait for a van to drive us to San Francisco. The officer told me I would probably have a court hearing on Monday morning. Cases have to processed within 72 hours. (Though weekends don't count I was later told) Damn, that was going to be a lot of time to spend staring at the wall. The officer was holding the bag of things that they had found on me at the Airport including the 1400 page collection of essays by Francois Julien, whose title in English would read something like "Philosophy disturbed by Chinese thought" [note: see this french interview in Philosophie magazine] "Could I not have that? It's a book of philosophy, nothing harmful.", I pleaded with the officer. "No!" was the clear and final answer. "We cannot give detainees any belongings." So how could I get a book then? "You need to have friends and family send it to you directly from the publisher". I could not understand the rule at this point, and clearly revealed myself as a greenhorn arguing about this. My potential aura as an international terrorist/mafiosi arrested at the SFO airport had just vanished in a puff of smoke. I could see that in the eyes of my handcuffed partner. Nevertheless, a book like that could have usefully filled up the empty holes of my time in jail. Were there any books at the San Francisco prison perhaps? There must be bibles at least - I'd been looking forward for some spare time to read the bible carefully. Yes, but only for prisoners after they have seen the judge. I suppose they want us to socialize. Why not. After all one can read books anywhere. If I was going to be in Jail, I might as well make the best of it: there are few occasions in life where one can meet so many characters at such turning points in their lives.

The older man was happy that a day in court would be nearing where he could have a chance to get out. He did not want to end up loosing his house for not paying rent. The time he was in jail he had counted as vacation time.

We were given lunch - a small fistful of peanut butter, 4 slices of bread, 3 overly sugary biscuits, some carrot sticks and a small carton of milk. It must have been close to 11am. My cell mate had some spare food that he had amassed over his month in jail, and kindly offered me a few biscuits. All his food had to be eaten before leaving. The cell was a bit of a mess after he ate, as he left everything on the floor, papers, some nut remains, orange peels ... Later, in San Francisco, as someone pointed this out to him, his answered that this created jobs for the inmates who cleaned up afterward. Well, in my view there is infinite amount of work to do, so there is no need to create absurd work. But this was not the right time for such a debate. He had experience in Jail, and he could help me work the ropes.

From his sock he took out a little bundle of papers. Phone numbers, case papers, even a pencil I think. I was surprised he could have anything at all with him. A pencil was like gold in jail for those like me no longer used to remembering phone numbers by heart. Those were his court papers he said, and he was really keen on keeping them with him. I understand. Without documentation things can get very difficult. As we later were to go, and the officer found those in his sock, he had to argue passionately with the officer to be able to keep them. The officer was lenient, and tied the little bundle to the exterior of the box containing the man's possessions, and told him he could get that back in San Francisco. That sounded good. So one could have papers with one...

I was led out of the cell, asked to lean against the wall. The Sheriff took out a huge handcuffs, locked my hands together, asked me to turn around, lift one foot, locked that up, then lift the other, and locked that up too. We were now both ready to walk, slowly, very slowly, limited at each step by the chains tying our feet together, inching our way to the van waiting for us. Then stepping into it with great care. A slight mistake and one would fall straigh on one's face. There were three benches. My companion sat on the middle bench, me on the back one. The door was shut behind us. The van left to SF. Someone switched the air conditioning on, and I was freezing.

Halloween Orange

halloween pumpkin

In San Francisco we followed the same procedure. We were placed into a cell, where we could make phone calls. The policy was a bit more generous here: local calls were free. Then we were taken out for hand prints again, photographed, given a new wrist band, an orange one this time. Then moved back to the cell and made to wait. The procedures for entering and exciting jail are very slow, designed to make sure nobody gets lost in the system. Papers are moved from one desk to another. Information entered into a computer. Physical identity verified.

On the right occasion my cell mate asked if he could have his papers back, as he needed them for court. I used the opportunity to ask if I could get access to my cell phone, and retrieve a few phone numbers, so that I could try to contact some people at Sun. I was told I could do that later. And indeed much later I did succeed in getting 5 more phone numbers from my iPhone. Sadly most of them were for phones that did not permit collect calls, and others were very rarely answered.

We were then transferred to a changing room, where we each received orange underpants, orange trousers, orange socks, an orange t-shirt, orange sandals and an orange pullover. A great pumpkin disguise for Halloween, as I had just been reminded it was.

And yes, it was going to be hot out in San Francisco someone who joined us said. He had heard of gangstas that were going to go on Halloween with real guns disguised as play toys. "-Hand over the money. - No problem. Here have it all." one joked. And indeed quite a lot of the newcomers of the next few days were Halloween related cases.

Calling the consulate

An older white man, in for shoplifting, who turned out to know a lot about ecology, and had been fighting that cause for a long time, but had lost his job a couple of years ago now - too old to work - suggested I call the consulate. Very good idea, and I thanked him for it. I used the first opportunity to get hold of an officer to explain my predicament. He allowed me out, and helped me make a call on one of the external phones, as that number could not be reached from the phones in the cell. The consulate wrote down my details and told me they would send me some information. I felt somewhat relieved.

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.

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!

Tuesday Sep 29, 2009

Another great Bar Camp in La Cantine

Today, well yesterday (Tuesday) I was at a Bar Camp on Cloud computing, social networks, the Open Stack and Geolocation in the very friendly La Cantine organized by Silicon Sentier in Paris.

La Cantine is a great place to meet lots of people anytime. You can just stop by and drink some coffee while hacking a project on the web. But today with guests from Google, Mozilla, Sun (me and some others) and a very enthusiastic and technical audience the place was full of energy.

As it was a Bar Camp the timetable organized itself. A track on social networks appeared, and so of course I presented foaf+ssl as I had done 10 days before at the Social Web Bar Camp, except that we had to do this without projector this time as we, 20 or so people, were gathered around the bar. So for those who were there who would really like to get a better overview of what this enables, I recommend the following links:

  • The second video of the blog "FrOSCon: the Free and Open Source Conference in Sankt Augustin, Germany", (best viewed in Firefox 3.5 at present)
  • The essential foaf.me web site, where one can put together in a few clicks a foaf file and on browsers other than Internet Explorer, get a certificate in one click, (Firefox and Opera are recommended)
  • The foaf+ssl wiki which contains the links to all the papers and howtos, including the essential mailing list.

This was also the occasion of meeting a lot of very knowledgeable people from Google such as Patrick Chanezon for example, and from the European Mozilla team, such as Tristan Nitot. I was so busy answering questions sadly that I missed quite a lot of the other talks. But I did make a lot of good contacts, that I will now be following up on.

Monday Sep 14, 2009

Freiheit statt Angst - Freedom, not fear

Freiheit statt Angst photos

This weekend in Berlin, 20 thousand people, from most political backgrounds, came to protest against increasingly intrusive and worrying surveillance measures of all kinds, made possible by modern information technology, under the banner Freiheit statt Angst. As governments and businesses automate the collection of information about individuals, worries are starting to grow about how that information could be used. In Germany for example the request by the government that the ISPs keep records of the mail headers of all the communications between people for 6 months, was among one of the major motivators bringing people out. The growing use of video surveillance cameras - not as bad as in the UK here, though they were clearly lining the street along the road of the demonstration - is another vector of resentment. Electronic RFID enabled passports containing personal information readable at a distance and being put into operation soon, generate a lot of worries, quite understandable, especially after listening to Chris Paget's RFID cloning presentation. The German Chaos Computer Club has further pages undermining the use of these technologies, such as the article "How to fake fingerprints" where you can learn how to capture fingerprints left over on a glass, make a copy of it, and duplicate it anywhere you choose. Others are worried about the creation of centralised medical data banks, citing the cases where massive amounts of data have been lost by companies directly involved in telecommunication infrastructure, such as when the information of 17 million T-mobile customers was stolen. If telecoms companies can't secure their data, who will be able to do it? These and many other cases bringing issues of privacy, security and data ownership are fueling a debate that is strong enough to move 20 thousand people to the street: quite a feat, considering the abstract nature of the debate.

The following video covers the issues from a German perspective very well (an english version will be available here soon)

If these issues sound remarkably like those arising in France, the UK, and other European Countries, it is that the movement for internet rights is a global phenomenon, reacting to technological problems that span borders as the July/August issue of Internationale Politik argues. Clearly these topics need to be debated in much more depth and with much more seriousness, by involving much larger sections of the community. One just cannot magically solve complex problems with misguided laws, however comforting it may seem at first to be. Bad solutions introduced in a climate of fear, can only grow the insecurity and mistrust between citizens, governments and business. With Germany's historical proximity to both fascist and communist surveillance regimes, these issues of trust are alive and healthy here. Hopefully other countries won't be misled by their distance to such horrors into thinking that it cannot happen to them. The only solution is active participation in the debate.

Here are some photos I took from the roof of the Green bus which gives a good idea of the size of the protest. You can clearly see the large Pirate Party bus at the back, with their Orange banner, the Red Left convoy, the CCC bus covered with video surveillance cameras, and their Federal Trojan Horse, with the sign "watch the watchmen!"

Schauble-Freie Zone Start of "Freiheit Statt Angst" demo CCC camera truck Pirate Party Pirate Party

IMG_0413 Noch kein terrorist "überwacht die überwacher" on the Federal Trojan horse green drum beat

The Green party was escorted by some of the top Green politicians

Ströbele and Claudia Roth at "Freiheit Statt Angst" IMG_0419 stasi 2.0: Vollbeschaftigung durch vollüberwachung

The large Anti-Fascist convoy was ironically the most escorted by the police. Perhaps the use of face covering masks, illegal in Germany for citizens, though not it seems for the police, was what attracted the security forces. Their presence certainly formed a good symbol of the problem between privacy, public statement, anonymity, and surveillance.

Break out of Control

Add to that the fact that there were close to a thousand police officers for a demonstration the police claimed had attracted only 10 thousand individuals, and we have a police to demonstrator ration of 1/10, which goes only to increase the surveillance message. As the following photos show quite clearly the demonstration was peaceful. Put 20 000 geeks on the road on a sunny day, and you get something like this:

Nur Diktatur braucht Zensur you will wish we were apolical potentially troublemaking citizen IMG_0428 Sammel album 2.0
IMG_0430 IMG_0431 IMG_0432 My info belongs to me todo list IMG_0436
Löschen statt sperren who watches the watchmen freiheit statt angst It is your feat, but it is our freedom Freiheit Statt Angste - Die Linke Fretiheit Statt Angst
The data tentacles Big Boss is watching you Against the state of surveillance

The result in the press was quite positive. Here are some of the articles I gathered from following Twitter #fsa09 tag for a few minutes:

One story that made the round of Twitter, the blogosphere and the news was the following incident of police brutality captured by a demonstrator on video:

[Update Tuesday 15 September: It seems this incident was provoked by a demonstrator asking the police for their Identification number, which they are obliged to give, but which they don't like handing out, preferring to treat those who ask for it as troublemakers. This is a long standing issue as the following article "Anonymität schützt Polizisten" - Anonymity protects the police explains. So in short the police themselves and the state by extension are very keen on anonymity, but refuse the same for the demonstrators and the public which is being placed every day under increasing surveillance measures. Luckily the attack was caught on High Definition video by a member of the Chaos Computer Club, helping identify the police who committed the excess. This resulted in the CCC publishing the following press release "Chaos Computer Club fordert bundeseinheitliche Nummernschilder für Polizisten": CCC calls for nationwide number plates for Police.]

Clearly then the same tools that can be used to create a surveillance society, can also be used when distributed to the citizenry as a means of watching the watchmen. Perhaps that is the lesson of the demonstration: the need to reduce the asymmetry of surveillance technology. It should be understood that Kant's Categorical Imperative - "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" - applies especially to legislation. If you want to watch others don't be surprised if they then watch back. If you want anonymity, don't refuse it to others.

Update

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.

Monday Jul 20, 2009

two months of foaf+ssl talks

For the past one and a half months I have been traveling through Europe giving talks on foaf+ssl, the RESTful authentication protocol for the Social Web. Here is a short summary of where I have been.

18 May 2009, Salzburg Research
On my way cycling from Fontainebleau to Vienna, I stopped by in Salzburg, Austria, where the offices of the organisers of the EU sponsored KIWI (Knowledge in a Wiki) project, which Sun is participating in, are located. I introduced the group there to foaf+ssl, and they are now working on an implementation for their award winning semantic wiki.
20 May 2009, Semantic Web Company
Right after arriving in Vienna, I met up with Andreas Blumauer, editor of the recently published Springer Book "Social Semantic Web". Hopefully my presentation will make its way in some form or another into the next edition :-). Andreas also gave me an overview of the powerful yet easy to use thesaurus management system named Pool Party, they are developing.
1 June 2009, European Semantic Web Conference, Heraklion
Ian Jacobi who had come to Crete for the occasion, helped me present the paper FOAF+SSL: RESTful Authentication for the Social Web in the SPOT track. The other papers presented in that track all fitted together very well, giving a very good overview of the topics that need to be covered in this space. I will be rereading them soon. The ESWC conference was also a great opportunity to do a number of quick one to one presentations by demoing it working on the iPhone. ( Sadly the latest OS release broke the SSL stack, making my iPhone so much less useful )
18 June, Vienna University of Technology
In Crete I met Christoph Grün who helped organize a slot to present at the Institute of Software Technology & Interactive Systems. Christoph is working on Online Tourism web services, which would be a great use case for foaf+ssl. Imagine a group of people deciding to organize an outing on a tourism wiki site, where all members of the group would get access to that outing after a simple drag and drop of a foaf:Group URL onto the outing project console.... No account setup required.
23 June, Metalab Hacker's Club, Vienna
While in Vienna I gave a presentation at the Metalab, an open meeting space for hackers of all walks of life. As it happened a journalist from the well known French newspaper "Le Monde" happened to be present and wrote up an article "Les nouvelles tribus du Net" (now paying) on the lab, mentioning my presentation en passant.
2-3 July, Sun Microsystems Kiwi Meeting, Prague
The Kiwi group met in Prague for a couple of days to synchronize their work. After having won the best semantic web application prize at the European Semantic Web Conference in Crete, the mood was very positive. This was a good place to introduce the rest of the group to the potential of foaf+ssl, which is currently being implemented in Kiwi by Stefanie Stroka.
13 July, University of Leipzig
I spent a whole day with the excellent Agile Knowledge Engineering and Semantic Web team at the University of Leipzig. After an update on their latest work with DBPedia, Ontowiki, xOperator, ... I presented foaf+ssl. After lunch we then spent the afternoon on a very helpful hands on session. There are still enough rough edges in the different implementations of foaf+ssl that a bit of guidance can save a lot of time. End result, a few days later Sebastian Dietzold notified me that Philipp Frischmuth had written a first implementation available publicly at http://trunk.ontowiki.net/. During our session we also discovered a bug on http://foaf.me/, which was soon fixed.
15 July, University of Potsdam
Hagen organised a very well attended meeting at the University of Potsdam. The questions following the talk were very good, and showed a large interest. Sadly we did not have time for a hands on session, as my next meeting was just a few hours later. Hands on sessions are still very important, as they help turn a talk into an experience. It helps a lot that Melvin Carvalho enhanced foaf.me to make it very easy to create both a foaf file and a linked certificate, so with time these hands on sessions should be easier and shorter to do.
15 July, New Thinking Store, Berlin
I finished the day with a presentation at the New Thinking Store in Berlin, organized by Martin Schmidt. This was an opportunity again to present to Web 2.0 and more directly practical people.

Thursday Jun 11, 2009

The foaf+ssl world tour

As you can see from the map here I have been cycling from Fontainebleau to Vienna (covering close to 1000km of road), and now around Cyprus in my spare time. On different occasions along my journey I had the occasion to present foaf+ssl and combine it with a hands on session, where members of the audience were encouraged to create their own foaf file and certificates, and also start looking into what it takes to develop foaf+ssl enabled services. This seems like a very good way to proceed: it helps people get some hands on experience which they can then hopefully pass on to others, it helps me prioritize what need to be done next, and should also lead to the development of foaf+ssl services that will increase the network value of the community, creating I hope a viral effect.

I started this cycle tour in order to loose some weight. I still have 10kg to loose or so, which at the rate of 3kg per 1000km will require me to cycle another 3000km. So that should enable me to visit quite a few places yet. I will be flying back to Vienna where I will stay 10 days or so, after which I will cycle to Prague for a Kiwi meeting on the 3rd of July. After that I could cycle on to Berlin. But really it's up to you to decide. If you know a good hacker group that I can present to and cycle to, let me know, and I'll see how I can fit it into my timetable. So please get in contact! :-)

Tuesday May 12, 2009

Some Feedback on the Garmin Edge 705 cycle GPS

Garmin Edge 705 GPS

After close to 500km of cycling with my new Garmin Edge 705 I think I have enough experience to be able to bring the community some valuable feedback on this device.

Improvements since previous model

Compared to my old Garmin Etrex Legend, which I blogged about in July 2005, the Edge is a huge improvement.

  • The old Etrex had a ridiculous limitation of 24MB of memory, which was ok for loading up maps for a circumference of 100km of your neighborhood, but not enough for cycling long distance across Europe. The Edge 705 can take 2GB extension memory cards and is able to load the road maps of all of Europe. That is great: It means I don't have to carry a computer everywhere I go - even though I do currently - and I don't have to load up maps onto the Edge once every day.
  • The price has fallen dramatically. The GPS + the maps of Europe came to €400, half the price nearly of the previous model.
  • The Edge can better calculate cycle roads. I noticed this last Friday when having carefully used my laptop to draw out the road from Troyes to my destination I found myself on a two way road which would have been very pleasant had it not been for the 20 ton trucks passing me every minute in both directions. I stopped, asked the Edge 705 to calculte the road free of any of my interferences, and it immediately found a little dirt track to get me off that road (even though I had specified that I'd rather wish to avoid dirt tracks). The dirt track punctured my tire, which I found then was in a pretty bad state anyway. But rather have the tire punctured, than my head...
  • The Edge 705 comes with a heart rate monitor
  • It knows the elevation one is at, and the rate at which one is climbing
  • It can calculate the calories spent: it added no calories when I was zooming downhill without pedaling

Compared to Cell Phones

Before buying my Etrex I had inquired into whether a cell phone could have done the job. I did the same this time, and I have to say that it very nearly did. I found quite a number of iPhone add ons for cycling (listed on my delicious account) and I think for something close to the same price as the Garmin Edge, I could have put something together. It would have required

  • an extra battery pack (or two) to extend the battery life (perhaps Mophie's Juice pack Air
  • a cycle mount (such as this one perhaps)
  • some protection against rain. The Otterbox iPhone armor series would have been nice, but is no longer produced it seems. But perhaps Mophie's juice back with a waterproof bag would have been enough.
  • a heart monitor which is really important when out for some serious exercise. such as smhearlink perhaps?
  • Some turn by turn navigation software. Google Maps is really amazingly good, much better and faster than Garmin's software available on PCs amazingly enough. It has a pedestrian and a car mode, but not a cycle mode which is a pity. Still this would need to be tied up with the heart rate monitor, some visualization tool to tell you how fast you are going, some way of giving you directions, etc... This may come with a release of the next version of the iPhone, and I have seen some impressive demos of software called xGPS that provides turns by turn navigation on a jail broken iPhone.

All of this was perilously close to being possible. With a bit of energy I could have gotten all of this to work. What stopped me, was the data costs in Europe. I was going to leave France, go to Germany, Austria, the Czech republic, and Greece at the very least. And of course as soon as you leave your country of origin, data rates are simply not affordable: 9€ a Mega Byte. So that was clearly not an option. So the Garmin by allowing me to carry all the maps on the device and not requiring any internet connection is just the only solution for the international cyclist.

The bad

The Garmin software is also meant to work on OSX now, which it did not a few years ago. But it still does not work very well. I expressed my annoyance publicly after spending 8 hours trying to install the maps on the 2GB SIM card, and failing to. I had to do it from Windows in the end. That is a very very bad initial experience. It was a sunny day, and instead of being out on the road, I spent it trying to install and re-install software. I very nearly gave it all back there and then.

The Garmin software for OSX and PCs is dead slow. Google whose servers are on the other side of the world, has much faster responses. My feeling is that Garmin, being an MS-DOS company, does everything through disk access, because I could swear that it is not much faster on my dual 2.33Ghz Intel than it was on my 1.3Ghz Power Book.

Also the Garmin software does not have a cycle route calculation mode. It is only designed for cars. So you can't really sit down on your PC and calculate your route in advance there, because it won't be the same as what your GPS comes up with.

The cycle calculation mode on the Edge could do with a lot of improvements:

  • Cycles are not cars. You can do a U-turn on a bicycle in an instant - you don't have to find the next intersection to make a turn. If on a cycle I don't turn after being warned, it is probably because I don't want to turn.
  • In Germany and Austria, I noticed that Garmin does not seem to have such a good idea of where the cycle paths are. It would be really helpful to the GPS to know those.
  • The Garmin path calculation algorithm is very slow. I think it recalculates the whole route whenever one makes a wrong turn. It should really just make a quick adaptation, and find the shortest smallest change required to stay on the same route.
  • I am just about to check, but one very important list of shops the Garmin Edge should have are the cycle shops.

Conclusion

The Garmin Edge holds a good advantage over the onslaught of cell phone options, but if I were them I'd be watching the cell phones very carefully. They are not at all far from being able to offer some very decent, or equivalent solutions. (How far that is depends on your ideas of how quickly roaming rates will fall in Europe)

Sunday May 10, 2009

why I bought the Michelin Guide

As the issue of copyrights and intellectual property are moving up the public agenda (see this Economist article for example), I thought I'd write a few posts on what I do buy and work out why I did buy it, rather than say pirate it, to use the emotional term of the day. Let me start here with the Michelin Guide for the iPhone.

The Guide Michelin, as it is known in France, is famous world wide as a very professional database, sold until recently as a book, of the best restaurants in Europe. The Michelin Guide sends highly qualified inspectors anonymously to restaurants to evaluate the quality of their cuisine. They also check the cleaniliness of the kitchens, evaluate the service, the decor, and much more. The result is a reliable guide to restaurant quality.

So why did I spend €10 for the iPhone application for the database of French Restaurants? A search on the internet gives a lot of free restaurant evaluation services. I could have used those instead, right?

It's really all about dating. When you are out with a sophisticated girlfriend, or even on a business lunch, it just won't do to pull out your notebook, and spend 10 to 20 minutes searching on Google through reviews of restaurants, that might have closed a few months ago. It takes a lot of time to sift through open reviews simply because tastes differ massively. To be able to evaluate the quality of a restaurant through online reviews requires assesing the taste of the reviewer from the very limited information available to you from the text -- reviews that could furthermore easily have been faked or sponsored somehow by the owner of the restaurant himself. So when you are on a date or with your wife and she wants a good quality restaurant close to where you happen to be right now, you don't have more than 3 minutes to come up with an answer. You are going to spend easily €30 to €100 on the meal. And a bad meal can spoil a day or a business meeting. So compared to that, what is €10 for the Guide Michelin?

What is important here is that you want quality information here and now. The quality is provided by the inspectors of the Michelin Guide, and the system they put in place to do the tests and verifications. It is confidence in their methodology that gives confidence in their results. Perhaps something similar could be done using crowd sourcing, but I have not yet found such a site, and my guess is that this could be very difficult to put together (not impossible mind you: it is up to Michelin, to keep the cost of their information low enough that building up a parallel database remains uninteresting).

So here are a few reasons I can think of for paying Michelin directly for the information:

  • The information from old guides has no more value. The latest information is what I am paying for
  • by not giving money to the source I'd be reducing my chances of having good information in the future
  • if I got information from someone who did not claim to be using the info from the Guide even though they were, I'd have a lot less reason to believe their results
  • if they did use the info from the guide but sold it to me as a copy that was not respecting the policy of the guide, I'd have reason to doubt the honesty of the company giving me the info, and so of the quality of the information itself - trust is an essential ingredient in an information economy
  • The time it would take me to find a pirated version of the guide, and the nuisance of constantly finding updated versions, would be worth a lot more that €10 of my time.
And I am sure there are a lot more reasons to explain why buying directly from the source is important. In an information economy the current truthfullness of information is key to its value. I will pay for information I need that I can trust and have now.

An analogy with medicine is illuminating here. You can read up in libraries all about a physical problem you may have. But it could take you months to read up about it, and a lot more to get to the point where you felt that you were knowledgeable about the subject: ie that you could diagnose sympotms correctly and prescribe the best medicines for it. If the disease was about to kill you in a few months then you just clearly won't have time to learn. This is how we get scarcity in an information/knowledge economy. The information may be free to reproduce, but tracking the truthfulness of the information is very costly. Learning it takes time. Perhaps we need to replace the notion of the price of a good depending on the offer and the demand for it, with one of the price of a good being related to the accessibility of the good and the need of it. Learning is the procedure to aquire a knowledge resource. Learning takes time, and that has a cost: in other options that are no longer available, for example. Using the knowledge of others is a short cut to having to learn, and the value of this is reflected in its price.

Sunday Nov 30, 2008

Independent Artists in Paris, 2008

On Saturday I went to "Salon des Artistes Independants" in the Grand Palais in Paris. In a huge space one could find a mish mash of paintings and sculptures from thousands of artists. The majority I did not find interesting at all. But that may just reflect on me more that on the artists. The ones that caught my eye as I walked quickly through the vast corridors of this space I took pictures of, and put them on flickr. So here are my favorites:

In another section of the Grand Palais they were simultaneously holding a retrospective of the works of Emil Nolde (wikipedia), a painter whose work was inspired by Vincent Van Gogh and who was member of the german expressionist group "Die Brucke". The color of the Emil Nolde's pictures is as strong as Van Gogh's. Irreproducible. If you are in Paris, go and see the exhibition.

Tuesday Sep 30, 2008

video iChat to flight 59 from JFK to SFO

snapshot of iChat session with Rinaldo DiGiorgio in plane

I just got a instant messaging call from Rinaldo. He was (and as of writing this still is) in an American Airlines flight from New York to San Francisco. They recently added internet to some flights for a $13 fee. We wanted to try out what could be done with this. We tried Skype, but that did not work for some reason. This was too cool to give up, so we also tried iChat, which as you can see from the picture did work - after a few false starts. I could not hear Rinaldo very clearly as the airplane makes a lot of noise. For a conf call one would clearly need a head set, and good lighting too (I had to add a bit of exposure to the picture see here).

I am writing this from Fontainebleau, France. At Sun we really form a distributed team. :-)

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