Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hollywood still doesn't get it

The Dutch Anti-Piracy organization "Brein" has decided to sue ISP's UPC, KPN, T-Mobile and Tele2 after their recent victory in court. I really don't understand why. First of all, blocking a handful of IP addresses hasn't had any effect at all.

But most of all, if you really want to fight piracy you got to have support from the public. And that support is crumbling with each and every effort to enforce compliance to that 10 minutes of pesky messages you get when you insert a "legal" DVD. Yeah, you name them all: SOPA, PIPA, ACTA or whatever they may be called. Crowds are cheering on the streets and can't wait to have them ratified.

Metallica, once one of the most fierce fighters of piracy, has seen the sign on the wall and radically changed its position. These guys are not stupid. They know their stand on piracy affected their popularity, so they took the only decision they could take.

I've never been a downloader. I simply don't like the hassle that comes with it. But I have friends who are. One of them is a gray haired hippie, who also happens to be a record collector. Consequently, a burned CD has little value to him. But he is also a great fan of vintage science fiction movies. You hardly find those movies in the local stores and when you do the prices are outrageous. So every now and then he ordered one at Amazon. When you add all the additional costs they're not quite cheap either.

So when he wanted "to go on the Internet" in the early 2000's I told him to buy a Mac and get XS4ALL. A whole new world opened up to him. One night when we were having an beer and he told me how hard it was to get a decent copy of "Jason and the Argonauts" for a reasonable price. So I introduced him to the world of torrents, clearly stating that although downloading wasn't illegal in the Netherlands, it wasn't quite legal as well.

"Unlawful" isn't black and white down here, but has quite a few shades of gray. E.g. contrary to popular belief marijuana isn't legal here, it's just not.. completely illegal. It's - as we Dutch say - "condoned", which means you aren't prosecuted.

We quickly found a viable torrent and started downloading. It trickled down at about 10 kB/s, but he wasn't in a hurry. And a day or so later it was there. The weeks that followed he went into a kind of download frenzy, but then it settled down. I mean, they don't make movies like that anymore and the more recent ones you can get in the shop.

We met on the street a few weeks ago and we quickly landed on the subject of the recent Ziggo/XS4ALL verdict. He was furious. "Who are they to tell me where I can or cannot surf?!" he said. I told him he still could. I told him to take a look at my blog and simply follow the links.

That evening he phoned me to say everything worked fine and he was currently downloading "Captain America, the first avenger". "I'm gonna boycott them!" he said "I spend about 20 Euros a week on DVD's and if this is how they're treating me, they're gonna lose a customer! That thing is in the store for about 15 Euros - that's too expensive for my taste, but I'm gonna watch it tonight! You won't believe the download speed I'm getting, about 500 kB/s!! It's even got Dutch subtitles!"

I wasn't surprised. Everyone knows that the more popular a title is, the more seeders and leechers are offering it, which really helps to speed up the download. He had already downloaded "The Thing 2", "The Green Lantern" and I'm sure more were coming. So that is in effect what Mr. Kuik, spokesman of "BREIN", achieved. And he's making himself more popular by the minute.

The point is that the entertainment industry seems to be unable to listen to their best customers. They want the world to play by their rules, but every enterpreneur knows that's a very bad business model. Studies prove that the entertainment industry can survive and even make money, but they simply have to start to use their brains ("BREIN" means "BRAIN" in Dutch).

One of these pioneers is "Iron Sky", that partly uses "crowd funding" to raise money. And they will offer the movie for download once it has been in the theatres. Now that's creative thinking. I won't say it will work, but at least they're trying. Most importantly, they have the support of the community.

In contrast, the music industry have tried to tie down their customers with DRM. Needless to say they failed miserably - as I predicted - and nowadays it is very hard to find a CD or download with DRM. It simply doesn't work that way, despite state-of-the-art technology and elaborate schemes to "hide" the disadvantages from DRM to the public.

Now they're relying again on technology to fight piracy, but this time the technology is not in their hands, so it is even easier to find a way around it. Technology has always been a double edged sword for Hollywood. The introduction of the TV almost brought it to its knees, CGI on the other hand, produced some of its most famous blockbusters.

However, it has to realize that the Internet is nothing more than the 21st century equivalent of the TV. It can't be controlled and you can't legislate it away. Hollywood will have to change its game. Mikhail Gorbachev once said "Those who come too late will be punished by life itself".

Hollywood may not realize it, but the Internet is not the last challenge it has to face. In 15, 20 years, may be sooner, every kid with a computer will be able to create his own Hollywood grade movies. There will be digitilized Marilyn Monroes, James Deans, Humphrey Bogarts, landscapes from all over the world, cars from every era. Of course, most of these movies will be very, very bad. But some of them will be great. Most important of all: they will be free. And when they're not ready for the Internet, they aren't prepared for that.

With the turn of the millennium I expected "20th Century Fox" to change its name. It didn't. Now I understand why.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My life with Coherent, part 1

In the early 1990ies my company switched from an S/36 system to a Unix system. No one had any knowledge of that "alien" platform, so I became the expert to be. It was not entirely voluntary: I either made it work or I was fired.

Needless to say I spend lots of time behind the terminal, but it just wasn't enough. Working behind a $100,000 machine on a root account while barely knowing what you were doing was kind of intimidating. I was simply too reluctant to perform the necessary experiments.

In order to get more time and a less intimidating environment I started looking for alternatives, but I quickly found out there were few options. There were some MS-DOS based products that allowed me to write shell scripts, but that just wasn't the real deal. Xenix and SCO were too expensive. And then I found out about Coherent.

Coherent is a full fledged Unix that runs on a simple 386 with a few megabytes of memory - incredible, but true. The kernel is just a few hundred KB, so it boots in an instant. It lived happy together with MS-DOS in its own 40 MB partition. But the best thing was its price: only $100. Needless to say I spend a lot of hours with that little beast, porting my C programs and UUCPing with that "monster" machine back at work.

But every machine comes to a grinding halt at some moment in time. Getting a new PC wasn't a problem, but when I tried to reinstall Coherent I found that it didn't support my new IDE drive. Too bad, but since I had become a proficient Unix system admin I really didn't need it anymore.

Still, with every new release of QEMU or VMware I tried to reinstall it - with little result. That is, until QEMU 0.14 was released. After the arduous task of installing Coherent it bombed out just before the final reboot. But the Dutch don't throw away things that easily. I didn't delete the image, instead I simply waited for the next iteration of QEMU.

When I started it, it seemed it hang right away, but the QEMU monitor told another story. It was still alive. It was reading the disk, but very, very slowly.

Hours later the login prompt appeared and I logged in. The whole thing worked, but it was very sluggish. After having worked with it for a little while it became a bit more responsive. It didn't take me too long to figure out it was the IDE emulation that was slowing it down, reading about 1K a second. But once a file was in cache there were hardly any performance issues.

However, when starting up Coherent performed an 'fsck', which made booting a bit tiresome - I assure you that reading 7 megs at 1 KB/s is no fun. The easiest thing was to remove the 'fsck' check, which was easy enough. A quick edit of 'brc' was sufficient. Now I could login after Coherent had read only 150 KB, which was a significant improvement.

But I still wasn't happy. Every time I rebooted I had an empty cache. There had to be another way. Yes, there was, but for that I had to turn to QEMU. QEMU allows you to make a snapshot of the whole virtual machine - memory, CPU, the whole shebang. That not only allowed me to "boot" instantly, but also with the disk cache intact. Ok, now we're talking!

Since the standard Coherent C compiler only supports K&R C, almost all my C programs have a "-DARCHAIC" switch, which enables K&R prototypes. Even after 15 years I still maintain them, so porting my 4tH compiler shouldn't be very difficult. It wasn't. In these 15 years after more than doubling the code base I had only made about 10 syntax errors, which were quickly fixed.

But still there was a problem. Sure, I could use a raw floppy image to exchange files between the host and the VM, but since you can't make a snaphot of a raw floppy I had to reboot the VM after each and every transfer, which kind of defeated the sense of making snapshots.

The solution was to startup the VM with a QCOW2 floppy, which served no other purpose than to define a floppy device in the VM. You can not easily mount a QCOW2 image and so it is consequently not very well suited for file transfer.

Once the VM is up and running you can exchange this virtual floppy for a raw version by switching to the QEMU monitor and issuing:
change floppy0 fat16.img
When you want to take a snapshot you simply return to the dummy floppy by issuing:
change floppy0 dummy.dsk
And subsequently save the snapshot by issuing:
savevm test0
After that I was ready to rock 'n roll. It took me about an hour or so to port my compiler and transfer the executables back to the host. Furthermore, I installed another more modern kernel, applied some Y2K patches and customized my Coherent 4.2 installation.

In the next part of this series I will describe this in more detail and - even better - give you the opportunity to try it for yourself. All perfectly legal, that is..!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Venn diagrams: the intersection of morons and judges

Few people know it, but the Internet as we know it, has its roots in military technology. It's predecessor was called ARPANET, which was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States Department of Defense. Some of its design objectives were:
  • Providing for host-to-host "pipelining" so that multiple packets could be rerouted from source to destination at the discretion of the participating hosts, if the intermediate networks allowed it.
  • Gateway functions to allow it to forward packets appropriately. This included interpreting IP headers for routing, handling interfaces, breaking packets into smaller pieces if necessary, etc.
  • Each distinct network would have to stand on its own and no internal changes could be required to any such network to connect it to the Internet.
  • Communications would be on a best effort basis. If a packet didn't make it to the final destination, it would shortly be retransmitted from the source.
  • There would be no global control at the operations level.
During the Gulf war the US army wondered why it was so difficult to take out the Iraqi network. What were these guys using? Later they found it were just off the shelf hardware and software components, stuff any ordinary consumer could get his hands on.

A few years later politicians thought it was a good idea to unleash this military grade technology onto the world, just like they thought it was a good idea to introduce the Euro. In both cases, without thinking about the consequences. The impact of a decentralized, open architecture has become clear now - and they don't like it. And worse, they are unable to keep up.

Yes, Pandora's box is wide open and they are struggling to contain the monster. But they try and manage to make themselves ridiculous and less credible with every step of the way. You can't complain about states censoring the Internet - for different reasons, agreed - and proposing similar legislation at the same time. In the US you have SOPA, PIPA and ACTA and in the Netherlands we have judges like mr. P.H. Blok, mr. R. Kalden and mr. M.P.M. Loos.

They decided not only that IP addresses, and had be blocked by ISP's, but also gave BREIN (the Dutch equivalent of the MPAA) the authority to add any IP address they want to that list, which means that in principle they can take out any website at will without ever having to go to court again. Needless to say that these judges not only proved they are completely clueless about the nature of the Internet, but they also violated every rule in the book.

Imagine there was a bookstore selling counterfeit books, would those same judges give a plaintiff the authority to simply close up any bookstore he wants? Of course not! As a matter of fact, they gave BREIN the possibility to change the verdict of the court. Which - by the way - is in conflict with European jurisdiction. Speaking of Europe, Neelie Kroes, the grand lady who got Microsoft on its knees, commented: "Speeding is illegal too: but you don't put speedbumps on the motorway".

That the court came to this decision was no big surprise. One of the judges, P.H. Blok, is also employed (for a fee) by Wolters Kluwer, one of the largest publishing companies in the world. Why he was wasn't substituted by another judge is anybodies guess. If this isn't a conflict of interest, what is?

But we cloggies don't take such violation of our rights laying down. In the days that followed, tutorials popped up on how to install TOR and VPN networks or use proxies and anonymizers. Mirrors were created, proxies installed, by the time the "offical" site went on black there had never been so many ways to reach the Pirate Bay.

Tim Kuik, spokesman of BREIN, commented: "Smart hackers will always find ways to circumvent measures like this." So according to Tim Kuik, if you're able to click this link, you're an accomplished hacker.

What were these guys thinking? Either they knew that their measures were ineffective and consequently merely symbolic or they were completely ignorant of what the Internet is and how its community acts on threats. Either way, it is unworthy of a judge who considers himself to be an expert on the field of IT and law.

So what's next? Outlaw links to proxies and anonymizers? Outlaw access to proxies and anonymizers? Outlaw sites who offer proxies, anonymizers, TOR or VPN? Outlaw technologies like proxies, anonymizers, TOR and VPN? Outlaw writing about proxies, anonymizers, TOR and VPN? Maybe I should emigrate to North-Korea or China. As long as you leave politics alone, you can at least blog about technology!

Of course it doesn't stop there. The weakest link in the current torrent architecture are the centralized torrent repositories. However, other technologies will emerge that eradicate this flaw as well and become completely decentralized. All that is left then is deep packet inspection, a technology that ironically has recently been banned by that same juridical system.

End of story.

Update: One of the blocked IP addresses: a list of computers. The other one: the word "Yeah". This proves how little the verdict has to do with the actual content of a site. There is nothing illegal down there. It has just been taken down because they are in the IP range of the Pirate Bay. And yes, you XS4ALL and Ziggo subscribers can click too..

Update: This almost forces me to change the title of this post: it turns out that we're dealing here with blatant corruption. Read this and this (Dutch).

Update: I wondered several times why the lawyers of the ISP's didn't try to substitute the judges. Well, as a matter of fact, they did! But they were turned down, because "there just aren't enough judges". Go figure.. (Dutch).