LJ Archive

Cory Doctorow—Linux Guru?

Dan Sawyer

Issue #175, November 2008

Cory Doctorow has “open sourced” every one of his books, so to us, he seems like the perfect candidate to use Linux. He agrees, and tells us about it.

Cory Doctorow's history and credentials would take the space of this entire article to list properly, so I'm going to do a decidedly improper job, and I hope you'll bear with me.

Cory Doctorow

An internationally sought-after activist on copyright and DRM issues, Doctorow is an ardent proponent of the Creative Commons, releasing all his own work under CC licenses on the Internet, regardless of their primary publishing format. A lifelong Mac devotee, a bit more than a year ago, he switched to Linux. I caught up with him on his Little Brother book tour and arranged an interview to talk about his experience with Linux. What follows is an excerpt of the conversation.

Note: to those of you who have never met him or who plan to interview him on your podcast, be aware that I caught him on an off day. When we talked, he was jet-lagged and exhausted, and he still spoke at a consistent 148 words per minute. And for him, that's slow!

DS: What's the deal with your Linux switch? You used to be a Mac guy, right?

CD: Yup, I mean, obviously, always Linux on the server, yeah, but I was always Mac on the desktop for a long time, starting with Apple II Plusses in 1979, and then Macs all my life—one or two a year minimum over the years.

DS: What prompted the switch, and what do you think so far?

CD: Well, there are a couple things—the DRM stuff keeps getting worse and worse. It seems like every time I turned around, Apple is doing something with its OS to add more bullshit to it. More DRM, more controls on how users use it....They're anti-features. There's no customer who woke up this morning and said, “Gosh, I wish there was a way I could do less with my music this morning—I hope there's an iTunes update waiting for me.”

So, it just seemed to me, increasingly, that Apple wasn't making computers to suit my needs; they were making computers to suit the needs of some theoretical entertainment giant. And, you know, I think that's their business if they want to do it, but they're not a charity, so if they don't want to make the stuff I want to buy, I don't have to buy it. Which is exactly what I did—I stopped buying it.

DS: And this despite the noises that Steve Jobs keeps making about removing DRM from the iTunes store?

CD: ...they keep saying that. Meanwhile...Audible...has the exclusive contract to deliver audiobooks to the iTunes store—and is now actually the largest audiobook seller in the world by far (they're owned by Amazon now), and Audible won't turn the DRM off on their audiobooks, even when the authors and the publishers ask them to. And, it's not just when it's a weird little indie. With my latest book Little Brother, the audio edition is published by Random House audio—they're the largest publisher in the world; they're part of Bertlesmann....So, you know, if Steve Jobs really felt like he didn't want DRM, he would be setting things up so there were competitors of Audible in the iTunes store who were offering stuff without DRM.

...Meanwhile you have Steve Jobs running around saying—at one point he made this big speech—how you should never allow your videos to be available in HD if you're a movie studio executive, unless you are assured that no one is going to make an HD burner or ripper that will be capable of making your DVDs....So it seems awfully mealy-mouthed, basically.

So [the switch to Linux] just seemed like the right idea. And then the other thing that happened was that I wanted a computer in a “color other than black”....There is a certain elegance to going into an Apple store and saying, “well, I want a Pro machine”, and they say, “well, this is the Pro machine and you can get it in fast, faster or fastest”. But at the same time, it was awfully refreshing to walk into the EmperorLinux Web store and have this incredible variety of CPUs to choose from. And Emperor's been pretty good to me. I'm on my second machine from them now. They have very, very responsive service. Every once in a while, I run into some problems that I think are endemic to Linux—where, I think in hindsight I made a mistake. I bought the next model up from the tiny, little ThinkPad I've been loving. I had an x50 and decided I wanted an x51 for the additional speed and power. And, frankly, the drivers weren't there and still aren't entirely there.

DS: Other than driver issues, what other problems or good points have you run into so far?

CD: Well, for the good stuff, it's all around Synaptic for me—and it's not just Synaptic as a package manager, but it's just the idea that there is a suite of tools that are guaranteed to work with your machine (more or less), where the cost of pulling the wrong tool is zero, and where they're open—so, if there are problems you can get them fixed. So that's really nice.

Let's say I need vector graphics—well, let's just go into Synaptic and type “vector” and see what comes up. All right, there's nine packages—let's try them all! Okay, this one's good.

That's pretty cool—that's actually really, really cool.

The downside has been that, especially for larger projects, the process by which you submit bugs—especially hard bugs—is way beyond my ability as a user to fiddle with....

...If I want to submit a bug to OpenOffice.org, and it forces me to do an e-mail loop to the Bugzilla, and the e-mail loop success takes 14 hours to go through, and the e-mail loop confirmation message goes to my junk-mail folder, so I have to spend 14 hours checking my junk-mail folder, remembering over and over again that I have to check it. And then when I'm through it, actually filing the bug against Bugzilla is crazy. It's just not an easy procedure.

DS: I've gotten taken to task a lot with reader feedback for the reviews I write, because I don't always submit bugs when I bitch about things, but it's for exactly this reason. I'm not a coder.

CD: Yeah. And I totally understand why they want a membrane between submitters and programmers. I have a membrane between me and people who want to submit stuff to BoingBoing, which is the “submit a link” file. The fact is that the “submit a link” page—when we've turned that off and we've given people easier ways to send us feedback and send us posts—the proportion of good stuff we got barely changed, but the proportion of bad stuff we got went way up. And by “bad stuff”, I mean spam, stupid suggestions and so on....So I think it's kind of a truism that “fools and wreckers look for easy targets”, whereas people of good will tend to hunt around. The problem is that it's very frustrating when you're experiencing a bug, and it's often nearly impossible to really get to it.

...And The GIMP too. I use The GIMP every day, all day long, and there's a persistent bug...that shows up when if I open a file, edit the file, and then delete the file, The GIMP crashes. And, that's my actual standard work flow, which is, take a screenshot of a Web page that I'm going to put on BoingBoing, open it in The GIMP to edit it. Save it. Upload it to my server, then delete it. And then The GIMP crashes. So basically, every time, I have to wait for The GIMP to load up.

It's kind of a dumb bug, and my guess is that it has to do with the “recent files” menu, but it's just a general pain in the ass, and I've never figured out how to submit bugs up to The GIMP. So yeah, it's that kind of thing I find very, very frustrating, but I understand why it's there. And I also have problems with drivers or proprietary hardware—which I understand is not Linux's fault—but that lack of driver stuff is very, very frustrating at times. Like I have a Wi-Fi bug with my Wi-Fi card that's apparently well known....So it doesn't work properly with B networks. I was staying at a hotel all last weekend in Los Angeles that had a B network, and...after about five minutes, the machine would lose the ability to route packets until I rebooted it....And then, if I tried to open too many sockets at once—like to get my RSS reader to run—then it would just crash entirely. The machine would hard-freeze.

So this was unbelievably frustrating. I've encountered bugs of that gravity in the Mac OSes. At least with this stuff, I was able to call up someone I know at Canonical and say I had this problem, and he said, “Yes, that's a well-known problem and we don't know how to fix it.” But at least it was a well-known problem...

DS: And you know not to spend your whole day banging your head against the wall trying to fix it.

CD: Yeah, that's it exactly.

DS: You got into Linux because Apple squeezed you out with the DRM shit. Beyond just giving us an operating system that's not governed by that kind of crappy politics, what other significance do you think Linux has in the copyright and patent and IP wars?

CD: ...In every DRM negotiation...there's always, at some point, some coercive mechanism by which the manufacturers and the consortium get together and require of the implementers that they implement in a way that is resistant to user modification. It's kind of easy to see why you would want DRM to be resistant to user modification, because the point of DRM is that you're designing a computer that's adverse to its user. So, if you're going to be adverse to the user, it doesn't do to have the user be able to modify the system, because the user is the attacker in that model.

This is the opposite of FOSS....There's no such thing as open-source DRM for that reason—and to the extent that there is, it involves things like code signing, which is really outside the spirit of open-source software—it violates the Four Freedoms if not the letter of the license....So wherever you have a DRM consortium you have a conspiracy to fight open source, and wherever that happens, you have a really good, chewy policy argument, because open source is generally considered by most IT ministries and policy-makers and so on to be of really important value to national economies, national autonomy, national security and all of that stuff. So, creating a mandate, as they tried to do with the Broadcast Flag, requires that the government would require of hardware designers that they design their hardware to resist user modification is such a nonstarter when put in those terms. When put in the terms that “well, you realize that this is a prohibition on FOSS”, that really gives us a lot of power to derail those DRM mandates. DRM always involves some kind of mandates....

DS: There's no market demand on it.

CD: Right. Some manufacturers might have an incentive to do it because they'll be offered some kind of special privilege by the entertainment industry...but when that happens, it has to be everybody. It has to be all the manufacturers that go along with it; otherwise, you wind up with a situation like you had a couple years ago where the big “legit” manufacturers were abiding by the Region Controls in DVDs and all the little guys weren't, and the little guys were clobbering the big guys because everyone wants region-free DVD players.

DS: Yup. I literally walked down to Wal-Mart and paid $30 for a region-free player.

CD: Yeah, and then what you end up with is that the big guys turn around and say, “Look, I know we agreed that we'd implement this region coding stuff, but we're not going to implement this region coding stuff”, because tiny, little two-man outfits in garages in Asia are kicking Sony's ass and Sony can't be having that.

So, you end up with this kind of Prisoner's Dilemma.

DS: Particularly in a situation where you have Sony owning movie studios as well, you've got an internal fight going on at the vertically integrated companies.

CD: Absolutely. So Sony or whoever needs an assurance that everyone's going to play ball, and without a mandate, that doesn't happen. So that means that wherever the mandate is arriving, if you can show the policy-makers who will be making the mandate stick that they're about to ban FOSS, it can often sway the debate, so that's kind of a big way in which DRM and FOSS kind of interact with each other, and in which FOSS is so vital to that debate.

I'm sure there are other ways. Obviously, between CC and FOSS there's the kind of QED—the demonstration that you can do it a different way, that there isn't just one way of doing it. And so wherever people say, “we need higher fences and stronger laws, otherwise no one will invest and no innovation will take place, and there will be no good equipment—no good software, no good hardware and so on”, then to the extent that you have FOSS in the marketplace that eschews that and CC licenses that eschew that, you've got something very powerful as well.

[Note: Doctorow then went on to tell of successes in this area, such as the defeat of Informem in Europe. The discussion is too lengthy to reproduce here.]

...So the last thing is, that where you have this stuff available at a low cost and low barrier to entry, it creates in users a set of expectations of what they can and can't do with media, so I think that it doesn't necessarily naturally occur to people that, for example, you can record a television show to a DVD. That doesn't always naturally occur. You kind of have to see it being done and then have it taken away from you to get worked up about it....

DS: It's human nature to expect “now” to last forever, despite the fact that we're used to an incredibly rapid rate of change and development.

CD: Exactly. So FOSS tends to be more richly featured, and so as a result it creates new expectations from users about what they can and can't do with their equipment.

DS: To swap tracks again to your other big advocacy area—privacy. What privacy tools and techniques can you recommend for beginning Linux users?

CD: I've been using GPG for a while now, and I'm actually finding it very easy to use, once I got it up and running. Although, again, it's not the best integration I was hoping for. I've got GPG running with Thunderbird, and I want it to sign every e-mail I send automatically, and I actually have to mouse over and click an icon every time I want to sign an e-mail, so if I don't remember, it won't sign all my e-mails, so it's just kind of a pain in the ass, and I can't believe there isn't a switch in an obvious place for that.

...TOR was incredibly useful to me when I was in China last year. It just seemed to me like, over and over again, the sites I wanted to visit were being blocked by the firewall, so I was able to get to them that way. And, I use TOR in other ways too—I mean, there are plenty of times when I try to get on-line, and I just find myself not able to access one site or another, and TOR just fixes it, which is great. I have FoxyProxy on Firefox, which allows me to turn on or turn off TOR automatically when I need it, and my friend Seth Shoan helped me with a little script to tunnel my mail over TOR....so I'm sending SMTP over SSH over TOR, which is great.

DS: One of the things I run into with GPG or with encrypted IMs or SELinux, which ships with almost every distribution now, is that they're all commonly available, most of them are easy to use, and the vast majority of people don't. Why?

CD: Yeah. We undervalue our privacy because the cost of losing it is so far in the future, and again very speculative, so we tend to assume that because it doesn't cost us anything to lose our privacy today, it won't cost us anything to lose our privacy tomorrow, and that's generally a bad bet. So we don't worry about encrypting our hard drives until we lose our laptops—oh, and that's the other thing I do. I encrypt my hard drive, and I also just figured out how to use Cryptix with SD cards as well.

DS: So, tell us a bit about Little Brother. What's it about, why the title, and how does it tie in to your other advocacy?

CD: Little Brother is a novel about hacker kids in the Bay Area who, after a terrorist attack that blows up the Bay Bridge, decide that there are worse things than terrorist attacks, which, after all, end. Those things include the authoritarian responses to terrorists, which have no end, which only expand and expand. When you're fighting a threat as big and nebulous as terrorism, there's virtually no security measure that can't be justified. And so they find themselves caught inside an ever-tightening noose of control and surveillance, and they decide that they're going to fight back. They do so by doing three things: they use technology to take control of their technology, so they jailbreak all of their tools and use them to build free, encrypted wireless networks that they can communicate in secrecy with. The second thing they do is get better at understanding the statistics of rare occurrences so that they can control the debate. So they start to investigate how, when you try to stop a very rare occurrence with a security measure, the majority of things you end up stopping won't be the rare occurrence because the rare occurrence happens so rarely. So they start to show how automated surveillance and automated systems of suspicion and control disproportionately punish innocent people and rarely if ever catch guilty people.

DS: Yeah, you're actually having this problem in London now, aren't you?

CD: Oh, well, absolutely. We've got massive surveillance networks here, but it's in the US as well. You've got the hundreds of pages of no-fly-list names. People who are so dangerous that they can't be allowed to get on an airplane but so innocent that we can't think of anything to charge them with....And then, finally, they get involved in electoral politics, because no change endures unless it can be cemented into place and shellacked over with law. You might be able to convert this year's government to the cause, but...in order to make it endure, you have to make it into a law that every government that comes afterward has to abide by. And so for these three measures, they end up changing society and changing the whole world.

The novel is very explicitly didactic. Every chapter has instructions and information necessary to build technology that can help you fight the war on the war on terror. So, from setting up your own TOR node, to building a pinhole camera detector, to disabling an RFID tag, it's in the book. We did a series of “instructables”—little how-tos for building this stuff with kids that can be used as science-fair projects or home projects, and people have taken some of this stuff to heart. There's a notional Linux distro in the book called Paranoid Linux that's kind of an amalgam of all the different security-conscious Linux distros out there, and there are people trying to build a Linux distro based on Paranoid Linux, which is pretty exciting.

DS: Thank you very much for the interview Cory.

Dan Sawyer is the founder of ArtisticWhispers Productions (www.artisticwhispers.com), a small audio/video studio in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been an enthusiastic advocate for free and open-source software since the late 1990s, when he founded the Blenderwars filmmaking community (www.blenderwars.com). He currently is the host of “The Polyschizmatic Reprobates Hour”, a cultural commentary podcast, and “Sculpting God”, a science-fiction anthology podcast. Author contact information is available at www.jdsawyer.net.

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