Urban mesh networking

One fascinating dimension of software-defined radio is the ability to establish mesh networks: distributed data sharing systems where each computer involved is a node which can carry traffic on behalf of others. That means that as long as you have solid radio links you can establish a network that can transmit information independently from the commercial internet, run by the kind of telecom companies that provide home internet connections. If you then connect some parts of the mesh to high-quality internet connections, you can share internet access over the mesh network.

This is all part of the plans of Toronto Mesh, a group that meets at Robarts Library and is planning to set up such a network in Toronto. NYC Mesh is much father along: with Manhattan and Brooklyn ‘supernodes’ in place which provide internet access through the mesh.

There are numerous advantages to a mesh network. It can free people of all the bad behaviour from local telcos: charging monopoly prices, slowing down traffic from some sites, engaging in surveillance themselves or supporting government surveillance, etc. It also holds the promise to create more resilient networks which are better able to cope with societal disruption. Building infrastructure of that sort will be important as climate change continues to destabilize human and natural systems.

I’m collaborating with Toronto Mesh to propose a hardware and software development partnership with the Campus Co-Operative Residence. They have a large number of houses within 1.5km of each other, share many of the values of Toronto Mesh, and would likely value the ability to control and enhance their internet access in the ways mesh networking would allow. The proposal is circulating for comments and for people to start getting familiar with it now. Soon we will develop a formal version with cost estimates to go to the Co-Op board.

AI + social networks + unscrupulous actors

Charlie Stross’s talk at the 34th Chaos Communications Congress highlights risks associated with artificial intelligence technologies in combination with factors like geolocation, the engineering of content online to produce emotional responses, and people with malicious objectives from manipulating elections to harassing women seeking abortions.

It’s worth watching, and starting to think about what sort of regulatory and technological barriers might be erected to such abuse.

Google’s Advanced Protection: no support for old mobile devices

Google has warned me that: “We believe that attackers backed by certain states may be attempting to compromise your account or computer”. There’s a good chance this is because of the Stratfor hack, though it may also be for anti-pipeline/activism related reasons.

For a couple of years now, I have been using the two-factor authentication (2FA) option they offer, in which you need to enter your password as well as a rapidly-changing passcode from a smartphone app in order to access your account. I also keep a close eye on the access logs they provide under “Last account activity” and “Details” at the bottom of the GMail screen. Having 2FA turned on means someone with just your password cannot access your account. This is valuable for many reasons. If you recycle passwords between different accounts, a breach in one place might spread to another. Attackers may also use phishing (setting up a real-looking login page and tricking you into entering your login credentials) to steal a password.

Since the security of my Google account is so important, I bought two physical access tokens and joined their free Advanced Protection Program. Now to login I need my password and one of the keys. It also adds other security enhancements, like a more complex process for recovering an account which you have been locked out from. The keys aren’t Google-specific, so I may eventually be able to use them to authenticate myself to other important accounts as well.

Advanced Protection has already involved some headaches. I generally prefer Firefox because of its open source community and because it seems to have the most extensions for blocking ads, controlling which scripts run on websites, and protecting privacy. With Advanced Protection, I can now only use Google services through Chrome.

Even more of a hassle is that Google Calendar no longer works on the Apple-made Calendar app on my iPhone and iPad. I can’t even use the Google Calendar app because my iPhone is too old to run a version of iOS new enough to be supported. On my iPad, I installed the Smart Lock app which is meant to log me into the GMail, Google Calendar, and YouTube apps. Unfortunately, it produces only an endless loop. A login window comes up, I enter my username and password, I authenticate using the Bluetooth token and… it kicks me right back to entering my username. It’s a fairly old iPad and not running the newest iOS either, so perhaps that’s the problem.

Calendar sharing across devices including my phone is pretty essential for me, but I also want to do everything possible to protect my GMail account. For that reason, I have switched to Apple’s iCloud calendar-sharing system, which works on both my Macs, my iPhone, and my iPad. Maybe when my ancient iPhone 4 finally dies and I replace it with something that runs a modern version of iOS I will be able to get Smart Lock to work.

Breaking loops

As an experiment in living and in an effort to protect my sleep I have set my router to disable internet access from all my devices between 2:00am and 7:00am seven days a week.

Especially when I am feeling down and wishing I could avoid things, there is a temptation to just keep clicking through YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, or news stories.

Contrary to the pervasive idea that being well-informed is all about being apprised of the latest information, there is good reason to think that the newer information is the more likely it is to the incorrect, incomplete, or useless. Over time, we filter information by quality, put things together, and benefit from additional context. That makes the news from a weekly or monthly magazine more likely to be informative than the news from the current Google News page or a social media feed, and it means reading a book which society has determined to be important almost certainly carries more lifetime value than reading the same number of words from breaking news stories.

There are other self-harming loops I have been working to disrupt in myself and better understand in other people. Despite a lot of anguish and turmoil, the overall experience of the last couple of months suggests that improvement is possible.

What3Words

In an illustration of combinatorial mathematics, what3words.com will represent any location on Earth as a set of three simple English words.

It’s intended to help in cities that lack formal maps and street names.

The points it distinguishes are close enough together that for a building of any size you get various choices.

The Toronto Reference Library could be journals.nuggets.nipped.

Toronto’s best kite-flying spot: agree.rewarded.lasts.

High Park’s labyrinth? hatched.alarm.riding or drainage.draining.kitchen or playing.training.achieving.

Concept for a portable computer device: the Triple Pi

I have been curious about picking up a Raspberry Pi one board computer.

They are the standard hardware for nodes on the Toronto Mesh network, so with a suitable USB radio transceiver I could use it in small areas as a bridge to their network via the IPv6 Hyperboria network.

I could also use it to run Linux-based software-defined radio (SDR) software in combination with my USB radio receiver dongle. I could set up software to locate digital signals and then decode those which are not encrypted, or use it as a portable radio scanning rig.

At the same time, there seems to be awesome game emulation software which can be run on a Pi. With two USB-interface SNES-style controllers, I am told it has enough processing power to make a great SNES emulator.

I don’t have a screen with an HDMI input, so it might be worth getting a small portable display to use with the system. One neat idea would be to make the whole thing capable of running on its own batteries.

To start with, I will try to get a working setup that runs with the Pi and the display plugged into the wall. If it seems useful enough to be made portable, I’ll start thinking of battery hardware and case and transportation options for the whole system.

The hardware to get started will be about $100 plus the cost of the display. ToMesh has an installation party later this week where they will install the operating system and software stack necessary to use your Pi as a node.

genre experiments

For two years I have been working on an art project.

I’m not sure whether the concept predated when I first heard James Allard’s lecture on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the lecture is a great demonstration of how labeling does interpretive work when it comes to art.

Presented with a digital file, we may struggle to decide what it is in both a technical and artistic sense.

Perhaps it’s an HTML file with embedded image files being displayed in a web browser, or the raw data from the sensor of a digital camera. In either case, it’s also an object within a software and operating system-defined architecture and also bits physically written to some data storage medium.

From an artistic perspective, it may be a line from a play quoted in a piece of art which has been photographed and posted online (or a screenshot of a cell phone app displaying a tweet of a digital photo posted online of a print of a photograph taken illicitly in an art gallery, on display in that art gallery).

The multiple presentations of the same data are the idea of interest: like all the exposure and white balance modifications that can be applied to a raw file from a digital camera, meaning that every photograph arising from that process is an interpretation.

These experiments are also intriguing insofar as they concern cybernetic relationships between individuals, organizations that archive data (like search engines), algorithms nobody fully understands, and governments. The location of a data file on the internet does everything to establish its visibility and significance.

The idea of the project is that every distinct work within it is presented to the viewer with multiple possible modes of interpretation, whether they are based on data architecture, metadata, or the cultural and political content of the human-readable image.

Pros and cons of Google’s advanced protection

I see enormous appeal in Google’s new advanced protection system for accounts. It requires a physical token to access your account, adds further screening of attachments, and has a much tougher account recovery process for anybody who legitimately loses access to their own account. It augments the security provided by their two-factor smartphone app by reducing the risk of someone using an attack against your phone as a way to steal the second factor.

Two problems are keeping me from signing up right away. First, it requires that you buy a Bluetooth token as well as a USB token. I much prefer to avoid wireless communications if possible, and I don’t want a delicate device that needs regular battery charging to carry around. The two tokens together cost about $50, and as an extra pain the Bluetooth token seems to be a pair to order via Amazon in Canada. Second, it forces you to access your account through Google’s Chrome browser, which seems unnecessarily restrictive and monopolistic.

Communications anxiety

I suppose it’s at least as old as the letter, but communications anxiety (COMANX) has some notable features. Whenever one feels it is possible that a psychologically difficult message will arrive via any medium — whether it’s by mail, telephone, email, text, or Facebook — it sets up the mind to be constantly apprehensive. Every moment of time that passes is either one where such a message is received, or where you’re still waiting.

One option, which I think is frequently healthy, is to limit the time periods in which electronic messages can become known to you, especially when it comes to asynchronous forms of communication like email and Facebook. There is still anxiety associated with the knowledge of being disconnected and the apprehension of the waiting message queue, but to my mind it’s way less stressful than trying to do other things when a message could literally make itself known to you in a fraction of any passing second. (This is one reason why the ‘phone’ part of an iPhone is very stressful, and airplane mode is a blessing for the anxious.)

In the end, even going to live in the Burmese jungle (“You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”) is only a partial remedy to living in fear of the message that could come: the rejection, the admonishment, the confirmation of bad news, the doomed appeal for help.

As is so often the case in modern life, each of us is left with Margaret Atwood’s six options for dealing with the apocalypse: Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life.

When you decide to protect yourself, please ask: “At what cost to others?”

We can all destroy ourselves by abandoning self-care activities, but check mentally that your “partying” activities are mitigating rather than multiplying your stressors.

Blame can be important in two ways. One is for the historian, and it’s the eventual recognition that something which was done was a great evil. The other has the power to avert the evil if it is applied with speedy effectiveness. Using blame to control people is complicated and risky, you may harm them for no reason, and you may not make them behave as you wish.

Helping others is a universal good as far as I’m concerned, but you must be mindful about what is help and what isn’t and the limits of your understanding. The other night, I saw a raccoon up in a tree in the park north of Ontario’s legislature. A bunch of gawkers with lights and cameras were watching this raccoon and discussing what they ought to do to help it. This is a creature that lives on garbage, dodging terrifying bright-eyed fast-moving lethal monsters (cars), but which is nonetheless in no need of human help in a tree. Short version: don’t assume that what would seem like “help” to you in your imagined version of another being’s situation as definitely being the thing that should be done. Humility is important, especially in the apocalypse.

Bearing witness is inevitable, at least if you are emotionally sensitive enough to have any understanding of what I mean by communications anxiety. The day you start to catalog forms of anxiety is a bit of a watershed moment. Anything in your life that has led you to develop a sophisticated catalog system is probably something that will be important to you for as long as your consciousness holds together.

Go About Your Life: but how?

COMANX is a form of fear of the future, of what’s still in the darkness ahead of you. Trying to stay awake, eyes peeled, looking ahead will unmetaphorically and entirely really kill you until you die and very quickly. If anxiety is something present enough for you to categorize and you live in the modern world, you already have strategies for dealing with the challenges of constant connectivity through multiple means.

Aside to people currently worried about me: a flipside of our society’s attraction to what is happening right now can be an inability to have appropriate compassion for people describing events long-past. It seems urgent and pressing to you because it’s new information, but you shouldn’t necessarily dramatically reinterpret how you see a person or dramatically change your behaviour. It would be much better to find someone currently in distress and give them loving, compassionate, nurturing attention. (Not me please! I would prefer to have some space for a while.)