To Serve Users

My honourable friend Bradley Kuhn thinks Mozilla should serve its users by refusing to give them what they want.

[Clarificatory update: I wrote this post before I'd seen the official FSF position; the below was a musing on the actions of the area of our community to which Bradley ideologically belongs, not an attempt to imply he speaks for the FSF or wrote their opinion. Apologies if that was not clear. And I'm a big fan of (and member of) the FSF; the below criticisms were voiced by private mail at the time.]

One weakness I have seen in the FSF, in things like the PlayOgg and PDFReaders campaigns, is that they think that lecturing someone about what they should want rather than (or before) giving them what they do want is a winning strategy. Both of the websites for those campaigns started with large blocks of text so that the user couldn’t possibly avoid finding out exactly what the FSF position was in detail before actually getting their PDF reader or playback software. (Notably missing from the campaigns, incidentally, were any sense that the usability of the recommended software was at all a relevant factor.)

Bradley’s suggestion is that, instead of letting users watch the movies they want to watch, we should lecture them about how they shouldn’t want it – or should refuse to watch them until Hollywood changes its tune on DRM. I think this would have about as much success as PlayOgg and PDFReaders ( 821 results).

It’s certainly true that Mozilla has a different stance here. We have influence because we have market share, and so preserving and increasing that market share is an important goal – and one that’s difficult to attain. And we think our stance has worked rather well; over the years, the Mozilla project has been a force for good on the web that other organizations, for whatever reason, have not managed to be. But we aren’t invincible – we don’t win every time. We didn’t win on H.264, although the deal with Cisco to drive the cost of support to $0 everywhere at least allowed us to live to fight another day. And we haven’t, yet, managed to find a way to win on DRM. The question is: is software DRM on the desktop the issue we should die on a hill over? We don’t think so.

Bradley accuses us of selling out on our principles regarding preserving the open web. But making a DRM-free web is not within our power at the moment. Our choice is not between “DRM on the web” and “no DRM on the web”, it’s between “allow users to watch DRMed videos” and “prevent users from watching DRMed videos”. And we think the latter is a long-term losing strategy, not just for the fight on DRM (if Firefox didn’t exist, would our chances of a DRM-free web be greater?), but for all the other things Mozilla is working for. (BTW, Mitchell’s post does not call open source “merely an approach”, it calls it “Mozilla’s fundamental approach”. That’s a pretty big misrepresentation.)

Accusing someone of having no principles because they don’t always get their way when competing in markets where they are massively outweighed is unfair. Bradley would have us slide into irrelevance rather than allow users to continue to watch DRMed movies in Firefox. He’s welcome to recommend that course of action, but we aren’t going to take it.

Using Deja Dup (Ubuntu Built-In Backup) with

This is one of those posts which is trying to save other people the hassle I’ve had.

Ubuntu One is shutting down. So I want to switch some backups over to use my account. With U1, I used Ubuntu’s built in backup system, which is based on a program called Deja Dup. I would like to use that program with too.

However, Deja Dup auto-prepends a “/” to the beginning of the path you give it. (There’s a bug on this behaviour.) And I don’t have root on the server. (A good thing.)

So, in order to use Deja Dup with a server where you don’t have root, you need to find and give it a full path. Execute:

ssh pwd

(where 42 is your user number, and ch-s001 your server name) to find out the path to your home directory, and then, in the Deja Dup settings, prepend that to the name of the directory you want to store your backups in. You’ll also need to set up passwordless login.

Why Is Email So Hard?

I want programs on my machine to be able to send mail. Surely that’s not too much to ask. If I wanted it to Tweet, I’m sure there are a dozen libraries out there I could use. But sending mail… that requires the horror that is sendmail.rc or trying to configure Postfix or Exim, which is the approximate equivalent of using an ocean-going liner to cross a small creek.

Or does it? I just discovered “ssmtp“, which is supposed to be a program which does the very simple thing of accepting mail and passing it on to a configured mailserver – GMail, your own, or whatever. All you have to do is tell it your server name, username and password. Simple, right?

Turns out, not so simple. I kept getting auth failures, whichever server I tried. ssmtp’s verbose mode seemed to show no password being shown, but that’s because it doesn’t show passwords in logs. Once I finally configured a mailserver on port 25 (so no encryption) and broke out Wireshark, it turned out that ssmtp was sending a blank password. But why?

The config file doesn’t have sample entries for the “username” and “password” parameters, so I typed them in. Turns out, the config key for the password is “AuthPass”, not “AuthPassword”. And ssmtp doesn’t think to even say “Hey, you are trying to log in without a password. No-one does that. Are you sure you’re not on crack?” It happily sends off a blank password, because that’s clearly what you wanted if you left the password out entirely.

<sigh> There’s 45 minutes of my life I won’t get back.

Living Flash Free: Part 2

I’m trying to live Flash-free on my desktop. In Part 1, I got YouTube and Vimeo working (although the addon I use to make YouTube work seems to make the player bigger than the video sometimes).

The Flash-based Vidyo doesn’t work, of course. When using Vidyo (which Mozilla uses quite a lot), I need to use the Vidyo client. This is not free software, so I’m trying to avoid installing that on my main machine too. Instead, at home, I have a tablet which I use almost exclusively for Vidyo. That’s fine (and also allows me to see and type on my main machine at the same time), but it doesn’t work when I’m on the road, as I was quite a bit in December. So I had to scramble to find some other machine or room with Vidyo support.

I can’t watch Air Mozilla streams live very easily. There are rumours of changes in the works, but for now AirMo live streaming requires Flash. And Flash seems not to be working in Firefox or the stock browser on my tablet, although it is installed. The only workaround is (ironically) if it’s also connected to a Vidyo room, when I can join that. But because Vidyo have not yet implemented our long-open feature request to allow rooms to have participants muted automatically when joining, doing that leads to everyone hearing a “ping!” and getting a brief flash of my face. Which is not ideal.

Some things, I can watch later – AirMo’s archived streaming uses HTML5. But if I want to interact with the presenter or the audience, that’s not an option.

Video doesn’t work on the BBC either, and I’ve not figured out how to make that work yet. The mobile site does UA sniffing to keep out desktop browsers; if you spoof, you can see it, but video won’t play (perhaps it’s using some mobile-OS-specific mechanism). Any ideas welcome.

Living Flash Free

I’ve just got a new laptop, a Thinkpad X230 running Ubuntu 13.10, and I’m going to try living Flash-free. (I know, I know – James Dean, eat your heart out.) I know there are free software Flash implementations, including one from Mozilla, but I’d like to see how much stuff breaks if I don’t have any of it installed. I’ll blog from time to time about problems I encounter.

Location Services and Privacy

Mozilla is building a location service. This is a server to which you can send details of your (radio frequency) environment and it will respond with its best guess at where you are. The advantage of this is that it’s much quicker and more power efficient than spinning up GPS hardware (which takes a minimum of 30 seconds from cold). It can be fairly accurate; and even if it’s not, a rough location is much better than no location. For example, it lets you get a rough set of driving directions, and then reroute when your exact location is found. Due to AGPS, it also speeds up your GPS lock acquisition, getting you to an exact position faster. Lastly, GPS doesn’t work indoors, whereas this does. Google and other providers (such as Skyhook Wireless) already have such a service, and it’s built into e.g. the Android platform.

Such a service depends on having good data about what is being transmitted where, with what identifiers – mobile networks and WiFi, and maybe even Bluetooth. Our data set is created, at the moment, by people running MozStumbler, which records the RF environment, linked to actual positions obtained from GPS. Download, install and use the app today :-)

Now, as Mozilla, our initial impulse as an open organization would be to release all the raw collected data to the public so people can build awesome things we haven’t even thought of yet. However, it turns out that this data comes with some interesting privacy challenges. And I don’t only mean the privacy of the person stumbling or the person retrieving their location, I mean the privacy of the owners of the transmitting stations (e.g. WiFi access points or mobile phones acting as hotspots).

For example, let’s say someone moves a long way and doesn’t want to be found in their new location (for example, because they are escaping some sort of violence). If they take their wireless access point with them (and many non-technically-minded people might not think that was at all dangerous) then as soon as a stumbler drove by, a public database of raw data would reveal their new location to those who should not know it. Raw data may also contain the location of mobile phone hotspots (and therefore their owners). Other scenarios can be found, for the interested, in the bug report and security forum discussion.

The only way we know of so far to solve this is to tie bits of data together, such that you can only get a location when you submit, as part of your request, the IDs of two or more transmitting sources which the database already knows are close to each other – which means that you must be at that location. This is what Google’s location service does. The disadvantage of this is that if you are in an area with very little RF transmission around – e.g. just one access point, or just a mobile phone signal – the service can’t help you. The team experimented with hashing schemes to try and encode this restriction into a published data set, but we were unable to come up with anything workable. It means that basically, the data needs to be hidden behind an API which enforces this – which means we can’t publish the raw data.

There are other groups who are producing entirely open data of this type; it would be interesting to hear their views on such privacy questions. It would be good if we could make our data available to people who were willing to respect privacy constraints and encode those restrictions in their servers, and hopefully one day we’ll be able to do that. But at the moment, we can’t see any way to make the data set completely public :-( Interesting mathematical suggestions welcome…

Ubuntu Full Disk Encryption

Dear Internet,

If you search for “Ubuntu Full Disk Encryption” the first DuckDuckGo hit, titled “Community Ubuntu Documentation”, says: “This article is incomplete, and needs to be expanded”, “Please refer to EncryptedFilesystems for further documentation”, and “WARNING! We use the cryptoloop module in this howto. This module has well-known weaknesses.” Hardly inspiring. The rest of the docs are a maze of outdated and locked-down wiki pages that I can’t fix.

What all of them fail to state is that, as of 12.10, it’s now a simple checkbox in the installer. So I hope this blog post will get some search engine juice so that more people don’t spend hours working out how to do it.


GSoC 2013 Successes

We’ve wrapped up another GSoC, with 20 of 21 projects passing – our highest pass percentage ever. Not all students emailed me the URL to their wrap-up status report (you might find some more by following the links in the original announcement) but I know that we have:

Which is a pretty awesome set of achievements. Well done to all the students, and many thanks to all their mentors.

I’m also pleased to announce that Florian Quèze, who has been administering the program alongside me this year, will be in the driving seat for next year’s GSoC – which will be the 10th anniversary edition. Wish him luck! :-)

Watching European Parliament (EPTV) Video Streams on Linux

(This is a blog post I wished someone had already written so I could have found it quickly yesterday.)

The European Parliament TV site’s streaming system, used on pages such as this one, triggers the Totem plugin on my Ubuntu, which promptly crashes. :-| I’m fairly sure it uses some Windows codecs.

There is a mobile site for their main TV channels (video and audio streaming) which works a bit better – you can extract the rtsp stream from the links, and pass it to VLC. But if the session you want isn’t on TV, you’re out of luck. (Worse is if part of it is, and then it switches to something irrelevant in the middle!)

Fortunately, André Loconte has written a script which finds the right URL in such pages and passes it to mplayer with the right options. Thanks to him. Note that you may have to try various values for the “language” constant defined near the top until you find the one which is right for you. (It seems they do not allocate languages to channels consistently.)

Are We Meeting Yet?

Tracking Mozilla meetings across time is a thorny problem. People send out meeting reminder emails, but often they forget to update a URL or a date or a time, or they update it wrong due to a DST change, or they update the local time but not the UTC time, or vice versa. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was one URL which pointed you at the next occurrence of a weekly meeting?

Enter Dirkjan Ochtman’s “Are We Meeting Yet?“.

Construct a URL like this:

Pretty obviously, the first bit is the timezone (not sure why it’s half-a-timezone), the second is the date of the first instance, the third is the time of day, the fourth says “repeat weekly”, and the fifth is the title. Visit the URL and see what sort of display you get. Note that it gives you the time of the upcoming weekly meeting even though the time directly encoded in the URL is from two weeks ago. That’s the “weekly repeat” part.

The upshot of this is that you can construct one URL for your meeting (defined in the timezone in which the meeting is fixed, which is Pacific Time for most but not all Mozilla meetings) and put it in your reminder email, and you’ll not have to change it unless the meeting time actually changes :-)

People who click the link can see the time in the timezone of definition, the time in UTC, and the time in their local timezone, all in one link. No more arguments about which form of the time is more important!

It would be nice to have a form to construct such URLs with a timezone picker, a datepicker and a timepicker. Anyone feel like coding one up? (HTML5 input controls would make such a thing easy to write, but sadly we haven’t implemented them yet :-( )

TEMPORAl Distortion

The UK’s General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has a system called TEMPORA. TEMPORA is the signals intelligence community’s first “full-take” Internet buffer that doesn’t care about content type and pays only marginal attention to the Human Rights Act. It snarfs everything, in a rolling buffer to allow retroactive investigation without missing a single bit. Right now the buffer can hold three days of traffic, but that’s being improved. Three days may not sound like much, but remember that that’s not metadata. “Full-take” means it doesn’t miss anything, and ingests the entirety of each circuit’s capacity. If you send a single ICMP packet 5 and it routes through the UK, we get it. If you download something and the CDN (Content Delivery Network) happens to serve from the UK, we get it. If your sick daughter’s medical records get processed at a London call center … well, you get the idea. … As a general rule, so long as you have any choice at all, you should never route through or peer with the UK under any circumstances. Their fibers are radioactive, and even the Queen’s selfies to the pool boy get logged.


Cheaper Data Centre Power

Evening out demand to match supply is a big problem in the energy industry. One way is differential pricing – charge more at peak times. Another way is energy storage, so you can supply more at peak times. One method of storage is to store the energy using compressed air. The disadvantage is that compressing the air gives off heat, and re-expanding it requires heat. Not supplying heat during re-expansion makes the storage much less efficient.

So which industry has large and fairly constant power costs it would like to reduce by buying some of that power at off-peak prices, equipment which can be placed anywhere, including where land prices are cheap, plus a lot of waste heat it doesn’t know what to do with?

Someone should come up with a gas compression power storage system for data centres.

Cost of power, ballpark: $0.06 per kWH peak (say 8am – 6pm), $0.03 off-peak
Power consumption of server: 1KW
Current cost of power per server per day: $1.02
Potential saving per server per year if all power used were priced at the off-peak price: $110

One issue is that a 5l bottle can store 500kJ of energy (0.14 kwH), so you’d need 500l per server. That’s a lot, so you may not be able to get the full saving unless you use an underground cavern rather than surface storage tanks. But if land is cheap, you could make a dent in your power bill.

Believe it or not, this post was half-written before I saw this Slashdot article.