Friday, October 11, 2013

Society's Bullies Hide Behind Secrecy

This week I had the privilege of being present at a discussion with Ladar Levison at a meeting of the North American Network Operators' Group (NANOG), his first public appearance since the court documents related to his fight with the FBI were made public.

For those not familiar with the case, Levison is the owner of Lavabit, a web-based email service designed to be secure against eavesdropping, even by himself. On August 8th this year he suddenly closed the service, posting an oblique message on the front page of the Lavabit website. The message explained only that he had closed the service because he had been left with a choice to "become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit."

There has been much speculation over the last couple of months that he had closed the service over a subpoena related to Edward Snowden's use of the service, and that an attached gag order similar to a National Security Letter (which were found to be unconstitutional in 2004) prevented him from speaking out about it.

Much of that speculation was confirmed last week when the courts unsealed the documents relating to Levison's appeal of a July 16th court order, which required him to turn over cryptographic keys that would allow the FBI to spy on all of the service's traffic, not just the information specific to Snowden's use of the service, which was specified in the original warrant. Wired Magazine published an article last week with most of the known details of the case, so I won't go into much more detail about that.

What I'd like to highlight is the danger to information security, consumer confidence, and the technological economy as a whole, should Levison lose his fight with the FBI.  The keys being requested by the FBI would allow them access not only to all of the information related to the individual targeted by their warrant, but also every other customer's data, and the data of the business itself.   This is highly reminiscent of recent revelations regarding the NSA and the scope of their data collection.  If that sort of wide net is supported by the courts, the fight for any kind of personal privacy will be lost, and consumers will never be able to trust any company with ties to the United States with any data at all.

This isn't just a problem in the United States.  Many of our online services eventually have dependencies on US companies.  In Canada, a huge percentage of our network traffic crosses into the US in order to cross the continent rather than remaining in Canada when moving between cities.  In other countries consumers rely on some of the more obvious US-based services (Facebook, Twitter, Google) but also many other services have less obvious dependencies, such as with services hosted by US-based data centres or on so-called "cloud" services with ties to the US.

As Andrew Sullivan comments during the Q&A, overreaching orders such as these are an attack on the network, as surely as any criminal trying to break a network's security.  Our personal privacy and the security technologies that guarantee it face attacks by those who want easy access to everyone's information, under the pretence of protecting the very people whose privacy is being violated.  It is vitally important that other business owners, like Levison, step up and fight orders such as these, so that a real public debate can happen over whether we still feel personal privacy and personal freedoms still trump the government's desire to have it easy.

At this point it is impossible to know whether any similar services have been compromised in the way the FBI has attempted with Lavabit.  I applaud the principled stance Levison is taking against this intrusion, and hope that, should I ever be in a similar position, I would have the strength to endure the long fight necessary to see it through.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Using Subversion With the Kobold2D Game Engine and Xcode

I've been messing about with some basic MacOS and iOS game development lately, and at the moment I'm working with the Kobold2D game engine, which is (mostly) a refinement of cocos2d.  I've found however that in Kobold's quest to make initial setup of a project easier, it sidesteps some of the normal setup that Xcode does when you add a project or file.  Some of this, such as Project Summary info like the Application Category and Bundle Identifier is easily fixed after the fact.  Version control setup, on the other hand, is marginally more complicated than normal (at least with Subversion).

With a bit of trial and error I think I've got a working procedure to get a new Kobold project to play nicely with Subversion.  Here are my assumptions for these instructions; the more you deviate from these the less this will be relevant, and I'll leave variations as an exercise for the reader:
  1. You're running Xcode 4.6 (I'm testing with 4.6.3)
  2. You've got Kobold2D 2.1.0
  3. You already have a repository set up and waiting at version 0 (zero)
  4. We're creating a pong clone called  -- oddly enough -- "pong"
Any text here in fixed width is intended to be cut and pasted directly into your Terminal if you desire.  However, I won't be held responsible if anything goes awry... I'm trusting that you're using your head and paying attention before you run any of these commands.

Create a Kobold2D Project

Run the Kobold2d Project Starter app.  Select the appropriate template (I'm going with Physics-Box2D) and set the project name to 'pong'.  You can also set your own Workspace name here if you want.  Make sure you uncheck "Auto-Open Workspace" because we don't want to have that open quite yet.  Click on the "Create Project from Template" button.

Import the Project into Subversion

In Terminal, set ~/Kobold2D/Kobold2D-2.1.0 as your current directory
cd ~/Kobold2D/Kobold2D-2.1.0
Make a new directory structure with the usual 'trunk', 'branches', 'tags' directory structure in it
mkdir -p pong-import/{trunk,branches,tags}
 Move your new 'pong' project into the new trunk directory
mv pong pong-import/trunk/
Change directory into pong-import and import the project and directory structure into your repository
cd pong-import; svn import . -m "Initial import"
Now delete this directory structure
cd ..; rm -Rf pong-import
That's it for the Terminal.

Add The Repository to Xcode

This is the only step that's exactly as it would usually be.  Go to the Xcode Organizer (menu Window -> Organizer) and select the Repositories tab.   Click on the + in the bottom left corner of the window and select Add Repository.   Follow the prompts to name the repository, give it the URI to the repository, add your authentication credentials, etc..  For the purposes of the example, let's say the URI for your repository is "".

Check Out a Working Copy

While still in the Xcode Organizer Repositories tab, click on the expander arrow to the left of your 'pong' repository.  It should show four folders:  'Root' in purple, and your 'Trunk', 'Branches' and 'Tags' directories in yellow.  Select 'Root' and then click on "Checkout" in the button bar across the bottom of the Organizer.

This will open a standard Save dialogue.  Browse your way to ~/Kobold2D/Kobold2D-2.1.0/, type 'pong' into the Save As field, and click on Checkout.

Clean Up Your Workspace

Return to your Kobold-2.1.0 folder in the Finder.  Open the "Kobold2D.xcworkspace" workspace, or your custom workspace if you created one.

You'll see your pong project listed, but it'll be in red.  That's because the files aren't where the automatically-created workspace expects to find them.   Right click on that and select Delete.

Then, right-click again and select Add Files to "Kobold2D" (or whatever the name of your workspace is).  Browse to ~/Kobold2D/Kobold2D-2.1.0/pong/trunk/pong, select 'pong.xcodeproj' and click on Add.

You're Done!

You should now have a functioning Kobold2D project with all of the usual Xcode internal Subversion support available.  You should be able to pick a random file from your 'pong' project files, right click it and go to Source Control -> Update Selected Files and cause Xcode to check if there are updates available for that file.  

Good luck, and good gaming.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Patronage in the Modern Era

Jack Conte, probably best known for popularizing the VideoSong music format with his catchy, clever songs, has launched a new service that might change the way artists of all kinds bring home the bacon.

For years now, the issue of easily copied and distributed data has been plaguing artists and other copyright holders.  The arrival data and media sharing systems like BitTorrent and YouTube have been alternately heralded as the death of the music industry as we know it, and as field-levelling tools that would allow new artists of all kinds to connect with their fans.

Either way, many people in film and music have been struggling with the problem of creating new funding models that don't rely on every fan paying a fixed fee for a CD or DVD, and that allow for fans to freely share media (because they're doing that anyway) while still letting the artists pay the rent.

I've often thought one potential solution, however amusing it may sound, is to return to the centuries old practice of patronage.  In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and earlier in Japan and other Southeast Asian countries, it was common for a wealthy individual to support an artist (or two) allowing them to produce plays, music, books, poetry, or paintings that wouldn't otherwise generate an income for the artist.  The model worked because artists could create art for art's sake without having to worry about whether it could be easily sold, the the patron received recognition for supporting a vital part of society.

Conte seems to agree that this could work again, and has built a service to make it possible.  Patreon allows fans to pledge an amount of money they choose, to be paid to their favourite artists every time the artist produces a piece of content.  It's crowd-sourced patronage that Conte likens to an ongoing Kickstarter for smaller projects, and several artists are already using it to get funding that would have been difficult or impossible to get before.