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Distributed Social Networks (And Other Means of Decentralization)

AsteriskIt’s an era of uncertainty for the Internet. While the technology behind it improves, the laws surrounding it are poised to suck out its lifeblood. SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, CISA, the TPP: The powers that be seem intent on subjecting the public to a nonstop barrage of threats against online freedom and privacy until we’re too exhausted to fight back.

There is, however, one proposed means of ensuring online communications remain uncensored and private (or as private as the content creator intends): Decentralization. Rather than having all Internet traffic managed by ISPs, which are hardly dependable as guardians of the First and Fourth Amendments, every Internet device is directly interconnected to form a “meshnet.” Encrypted content makes its way around the globe by jumping from node to node.

Needless to say, of course, the logistics of this proposal mean it will take some time to come to fruition. There needs to be a number of people, living in the right places, who are willing to invest their time and money into making a meshnet a reality. There have been a number of promising-looking plans mapped out, such as Hyperboria and MaidSafe, but few are counting on their becoming a reasonable replacement for ISPs any time soon.

However, there’s one thing everyone, even the not particularly computer literate, can do in the meantime to stymie the forces that aim to restrict what they can speak about and search their digital papers and effects. They can join what is known as a distributed social network.

Most social networks have a few things in common. First, all the content that is shared within the network is routed though a choke point: The network’s servers. Second, they are for-profit companies that rely on ad revenue.

Therefore, it is in the best interests of the social networks to trawl through the content that is posted by its users, in order to tailor their ads to them… Or sell the information to third parties. Furthermore, as they are businesses who have brands to protect, they may succumb to demands to censor content — from customers complaining about “offensive” content, from other corporate entities worried about content that threatens their own business (such as negative reviews of their products), and from governments looking to suppress information. Finally, all that content collected onto a single set of servers makes it a ripe target for governments out to snoop on their citizens.

A distributed social network is different in those key aspects. It is not owned, furnished, and maintained by a single corporation. Anyone can set up an account on their own server, or join a preexisting host. The accounts can communicate with others on different hosts, just as users of two different email providers can email each other. Most of these hosts are funded by their users’ donations.

The user can choose from a wide variety of such hosts, or create their own. This competition means that the user can select a host that has a reputation they find agreeable, in terms of their policy on privacy and what content is allowed. One that relies on donations rather than ad revenue will mean it has little impetus to collect users’ personal information. The user can share any content, so long as it’s not illegal. (And if their host does censor anything, the user can simply move to a different one.)

Right now, the most prominent distributed social network is Diaspora*. You can read more about it here, and find your “pod” here. And yes, many Diaspora pods offer you the option to post content simultaneously to other places such as Facebook, if you’d prefer to wean yourself off them rather than going cold turkey.

Join and tell your friends. Or just tell your friends, if you yourself aren’t interested — you might be surprised at who else is. And, of course, you can share with me here (or here).

One small step at a time, we can pull ourselves apart from the pillars that comprise the present Internet, and form the Internet as it was meant to be.

Sharing the Crazy in a Box With a Side Order of Fries: The appeal of Freeman’s Mind

The original Half-Life, released over fifteen years ago, was a milestone for first-person shooters on the level of Doom. When it first came out, many predicted it would set the standard for shooters to come and its features would be copied by countless other games, and history proved them all right. Concepts such as a narrative that stayed with the point of view of the playing character (not even an opening cutscene) is now a staple of the genre today.

Of course, another way the game proved innovative was the character it assigned to its protagonist, Gordon Freeman — or lack thereof. The player only knows what he looks like from the box cover art, as he’s never seen in the game itself due to the first-person perspective (and odd absence of reflective materials). Information about his professional background could be inferred from a letter from his then-future employer regarding his new position, shown in the manual. And in the opening of the game itself, there is some superimposed text about him, though that focuses on such data as his education, job title, security clearance, the ominous-sounding “Disaster Response Priority”… All minutia within the realm of some bureaucrat. (Or, perhaps, some sort of outside observer? But that’s another story.) As opposed to, say, Doom‘s space marine, who as the manual notes “assaulted a superior officer for ordering his soldiers to fire upon civilians,” no background information provided for Gordon sheds any light on his morals, actual personality, or unspoken goals outside of his career.

This, of course, allowed gamers to have their own ideas for who Gordon really is, what he makes of the mess and the violence that he in a sense started himself, and where he hopes to be at the end of the ordeal. Was Gordon a classic hero, who immediately takes the initiative to rescue his coworkers and set things right by any means necessary? Or is he merely a common working stiff who just wants to live another day and escape the situations into which he is thrust?

The player was free to think of Gordon in any way they saw fit. However, it seems unlikely that any of them had a concept of him that was anything similar to how he is as portrayed on Ross Scott’s web series Freeman’s Mind.

Freeman’s Mind is a series of videos showing a playthrough of Half-Life, complete with a narration purportedly comprising Gordon’s inner thoughts. According to this inner monologue, Gordon is still the Gordon as presented by the game: A young theoretical physicist with a doctorate from MIT, now working at the “Anomalous Materials” department of a sprawling government research facility in the New Mexico desert. After being in the middle of an experiment gone horribly wrong, he must now must face off against extradimensional aliens and soldiers assigned to purge the facility of any witnesses.

But as for his character and personal life, the narration goes into further detail: Gordon’s pastimes include recreational use of prescription opiates and hitting on unwilling coworkers. After the ill-fated experiment, he never once considers the fate of the other personnel or the outside world with the aliens teleporting in, instead focusing on his own well-being (something he clearly holds in very high regard) throughout. After discovering that the hostile military forces know him by name, his plans shift to hijacking a ride to Massachusetts, grabbing a stash of gold he’d buried in case he was caught embezzling, and making his way to India. Meanwhile, he still makes his way around the facility, as one is forced to do by the game, although he sometimes gets distracted by the occasional supply of tranquilizers or morphine.

This version of Gordon is different than a usual gamer’s conception of him primarily because he’s not aware that he’s in a video game, and therefore does not take cues as a gamer would. He doesn’t pick up a highly powerful weapon because he takes seriously a warning that it’s still unstable. He takes his time coming to the conclusion that the marines have been orders to kill personnel as well as aliens, and mistakes their shooting at him as sheer incompetence. (“I’m on your side, you [expletive] idiots! How many of you do I have to kill for you to understand that?”) He is concerned about things a gamer would know is not an issue, such as aliens teleporting into the walls and support structures as well as out in the open, which would presumably explain why it’s falling apart. (“We’re turning into the Swiss Cheese of the Damned!”) In later episodes, however, Freeman seems to have learned the unspoken rules and language of video games to some extent, even though he wouldn’t consider it as such. (“It’s glowing. Therefore, it must be important. I think that’s how the hierarchy works around here: Whatever glows has more status.”)

Scott also lends credibility to Freeman’s character by giving him an appropriate level of scientific expertise — the one area in which his astronomical self-worth is actually warranted. This leads him to point out inaccuracies in the science of the game, both in terms of his colleagues’ knowledge (Why would they need to keep something as pedestrian as the equation for gravitational force written on the whiteboard?) and the new scientific frontiers invented by them (How can a teleporter not preserve momentum?). Freeman often takes time out to ponder how such things work, while a gamer would of course accept it and move on.

But all the nerdy, self-aggrandizing humor doesn’t fully explain its success. What appeal do gamers see in watching other people play what they’ve already played?

With Freeman’s Mind, Scott has spawned a long line of “Mind” series, all videos of playthroughs accompanied by the playing characters’ interior monologues. They have a structure similar to that of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, with a middleman commenting upon source material in real time, both presented to the viewer.

But MST3K tackles film, a medium that is traditionally viewed by many people at once in a large room, and discussed among them afterwards. And if that discussion of the artwork isn’t enough, there is no end to more critiques and observations of it in the media — as it is, after all, a Legitimate Work of Art. By contrast, video games, at least single-player games, are consumed one isolated player at a time, with nobody with whom to share their experience and analysis of the artwork afterward, save for some nooks and crannies in the Internet.

And Half-Life certainly has its memorable experiences: Being at Ground Zero during the disastrous experiment; seeing the supposed rescue team gunning down a fellow scientist; watching another scientist grabbed by a massive tentacle that smashes through the window; suddenly falling in a shark cage, then dropping into a body of water containing something that necessitates the shark cage; being left for dead in a trash compactor that’s just started compacting; carefully navigating a room filled with trip mines, rigged to start a chain reaction ending with nuclear warheads. Such moments set it apart from previous shooters, which usually lacked any truly striking moments outside of cutscenes and boss fights. After playing Half-Life for the first time, many a gamer sought out others to share their experience of innocently pressing an elevator call button, only to cause the elevator to plunge down the shaft, carrying a few screaming scientists with it.

It is only natural, then, to be curious about how this incarnation of Gordon Freeman would react to such moments, fighting new enemies, picking up new weapons (“Now I can solve up to eight hundred problems a minute!”), and noting other interesting features of Black Mesa Research Facility and the Xen “borderworld.” Video games deserve dissection as much as any other art form; for entertainment’s sake, why not have it performed by a megalomaniacal manchild?

Freeman’s Mind, which will soon finish its run unless Scott tackles the sequel, succeeds mainly due to Gordon’s constant off-kilter musings. But the overarching draw to the series is the opportunity for gamers to gather in a common space where their experiences are shared, and see how one alternative take on their playing character would handle them.

The appeal is guaranteed, of course, when Scott’s Freeman reacts to his inadvertently causing his aforementioned colleagues to fall to their deaths by thinking, “Oh man, I hope at least they were jerks.”

It’s here

I have finally received my invite to join Diaspora, the distributed social network. Rather than Facebook or Google+, Diaspora isn’t controlled by a large corporation looming from above in a windowless black tower — and it never can be, as the data is controlled by its users. Users select which ‘pod’ in which their information is stored, perhaps on their own home server. Diaspora is a solid alternative for anyone wary of the control Facebook and Google have over their networks and the information provided to them by their users.

If you wish to join Diaspora, you can sign up for an invite at joindiaspora.com or sign up at a different pod. If I know you personally, or you know of any other reason why I would want to invite you myself, you can ask me to via email (my address can be found on my website).

In Memoriam

“A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted, and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?”

– Mark Twain

Dave, in his cave.

Is this thing on?

Mood: Insouciant

Music: Napoleon XIV, “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”

Welcome to the inaugural post of my new ‘blog. Right now I’m just deciding on the placement of the furniture and making sure the garbage disposal works.

If you’re feeling optimistic, you can expect to see more posts in the future, perhaps a bit more insightful than this one.