Category Archives: Internet

A plea to Optusnet sysadmins: Usenet

There must surely be some system administrators from Optusnet who read Planet Linux Australia. If there are, could one of you please drop a comment (anonymously, if you need to) into my weblog about your news server?

The Optusnet Usenet news server has mysteriously stopped receiving new posts a number of times this year. Every time it has gone down, it has been off the air for at least a week, sometimes two. It has now happened again.

There is rarely any acknowledgement of the problem to customers, and dealing with the Optusnet helpdesk is an exercise in futility; take for example the response given to a user on the Whirlpool forums:

“I got a reply from technical support about this. They recommend power cycling my modem.”

Those two sentences indicate to me that the person on the helpdesk probably doesn’t even know what Usenet is.

I’ve sent in a note to the helpdesk also, but from previous experiences, I know I won’t get a response for several days and I have my doubts that it will even get to the right place.

Now, I know it’s likely not to be your fault. I’ve worked for a big ISP myself, and I understand the pressures and the lack of interest that management have in Usenet and the hardware that goes with it. But I’d just love to know what is going wrong with it so often, and whether the helpdesk messages ever even make it to the sysadmin section…

How to bypass Australia’s forthcoming internet filter.

Just so that it is blindingly obvious how easy it will be to work around Australia’s impending ISP-level internet filter (which, I might add, is expanding its blacklist ever further), I thought I would sum it up in three simple steps. It’s not the cheapest way to bypass a filter – and the information below isn’t going to be new to my blog’s regular readers – but from where I stand (as someone who has access to an offshore Linux server), it certainly beats messing with Tor.

  1. Obtain an account on a Linux or similar Unix-like system in a country outside Australia, preferably one without reactionary politicians who are trying to curry favour with a conservative religious party that shares the balance of power in parliament. If you can’t get access to a server for free, then there are plenty of low-cost virtualized hosting sites such as Mythic Beasts (User Mode Linux) in the UK and Linode (Xen) in the US.
  2. Use ssh’s application-level port forwarding and log in to your new remote system. ssh will act as a SOCKS server on your local machine:
    ssh -N -D 1080

    Under Windows, you can do this with the ssh client provided in Cygwin. I would imagine that Putty provides a similar feature.

  3. Configure your web-browser to talk to the ssh socks proxy on your local machine. For Firefox users, this would mean going to Edit -> Preferences -> Advanced -> Network -> Settings, choosing “Manual Proxy Configuration” and putting localhost and 1080 in the SOCKS fields, and then selecting SOCKS version 5. You can now browse as you would normally, and all HTTP requests will be sent from the remote host, and all Australia’s internet filters will see is a stream of encrypted ssh traffic.

Of course, I am assuming that the Australian government doesn’t plan to block ssh connections out of the country. It would be almost amusing to see the smouldering ruins of Australia’s IT industry if they tried.

I’m intrigued…

…as to just how the UK government’s Communications Data Bill is going to work, and how it might affect my own server, which is a slow little user-mode-linux installation, sitting in a London datacentre.

Are they just going to snoop all SMTP traffic, and suck the From and To headers from that? Good luck with TLS-SMTP…

Will they by requiring everyone who runs a mail-server to keep their logs for later inspection? Logs are easily faked or changed, so there wouldn’t be much point in that.

Perhaps they will only target ISPs, and ignore small-fry individuals running their own mail-server? That’s not going to achieve much; I’m sure that it is not beyond the capabilities of the average terrorist organisation to run their own mail-server.

Or maybe anyone running their own mail-server will be obligated to install a closed source mail filter that submits logs to a central server somewhere? Easily overridden, of course … and I hope they provide me a binary for my future mail-server, which I intend to be running NetBSD on an SGI Indy.

Maybe mail-servers will just be declared too dangerous for the average peasant to operate, and will be legislated out of existence, forcing everyone to sign up to a mass-mail provider somewhere (yes, I’m getting silly now, but then, so is the notion that this legislation is workable).

Whatever option they take, it strikes me as a very large invasion of privacy, which is more likely to affect the innocent than those who may be planning on committing crimes…

Overreactions: banning bikes on trains and Australian internet censorship.

2007 closed with a couple of government overreactions, which mostly escaped scrutiny because the governments involved announced them at a dead time when no-one really gave a bugger:

  1. The Victorian government has banned bicycles on peak-hour trains in Melbourne, and on any V/line service which originates or terminates in Melbourne during peak hour. Now, I hate bicycles on trains as much as the next person (probably more so, given the number of bikes I had to squeeze past on the crowded Amsterdam metro, while I was living there) – but a complete ban seems overly heavy-handed.

    Wouldn’t it be more sensible to remove a few seats from the end of each train and restrict bicycles to the final carriage? It’s not like our public transport operators haven’t stooped to removing seats in order to cram more passengers aboard, in the past.

  2. The new Federal government is channelling the ghost of the old Federal government, dredging up a discredited internet access policy to appease a small group of Christian fundamentalists, who are too irresponsible to monitor what their own children are doing. ISPs in Australia will be compelled to supply a “clean” internet connection (read: no pr0n, violence or anything “inappropriate”) to all customers, and anyone who does not wish to be subject to this must explicitely opt-out (whereupon their ISP may well decide to charge a fee, and presumably flag the connection for easy targetting by Australia’s security services).

    Our new Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, then went on to show he comes from the same fine pedigree that produced our previous Communication Ministers, by deliberately confusing pornography (which is legally available) with child pornography (which is already, as it should be, illegal):

    “If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree.”

    Apples and Oranges. As mentioned earlier, this is all being done to appease the Fundies First party, because the government may well need their one vote to kill off Workchoices. A saving grace may be that the government hasn’t got the ISPs on side, as Paul Montgomery notes. The previous government announced these plans several times, and never did anything about it; with luck, this will be just more bluster – because if it’s not, then either their plan will be unworkable, or Australian internet connections will become unusable.

Combatting trolls on Usenet

Despite its bad reputation, I still read Usenet regularly. It’s far more convenient to use than web-based forums (and their invariably over-zealous moderators – we can’t possibly have two threads on the same subject!), and it’s much easier to subscribe to and unsubscribe from newsgroups than to sign up and remove oneself from individual mailing lists.

Usenet has gained much notoriety as being a haven for spammers. This is a tad unfair; while newsgroups certainly do get a little bit of spam, I believe that my email spam-filters catch more spam to my own personal email address each day than I would see on all 30 newsgroups that I read, combined.

No, Usenet’s biggest problem isn’t spammers; it’s trolls and children (often one and the same). Most Usenet readers tend to ignore spam – or report it, occasionally getting the spammer shut down. Trolls create a problem because otherwise sensible people cannot seem to stop themselves responding, and after a short period, you have newsgroups filled with off-topic rubbish. is a prime example. This was once an interesting newsgroup, but as the internet became mainstream, and the death-by-one-thousand-cuts of children was inflicted upon Usenet, has become a wasteland, inhabited by what one regular poster has described as “sockpuppet armies”, one or two people posting nonsense, under a variety of different names. The problem becomes noticeably worse around school-holidays. Add to that cross-posted political arguments from aus.politics, and it becomes rather difficult to see the signal amongst the noise – and yet, despite all of this, the signal is still there. Other newsgroups have similar issues; for example, American nationalists seem unable to keep themselves from crossposting anti-European material to

The biggest problem with trolls is that they cannot simply be killfiled; other people respond to their posts, so all that killfiling achieves is to remove the first post from a trolling thread. Killfiling the entire subject line of a post by a troll doesn’t work either, as sometimes they will respond to an on-topic thread, and this would have the effect of killfiling legitimate posts, too.

The best way to clean up trolling posts in a newsgroup is to killfile any thread that is started by a troll. I haven’t seen any newsreader with this feature yet, so I threw together a quick, kludgy method for doing it, although it is fairly specific to my newsreading setup, which uses Leafnode to spool newsgroups on my laptop and nn to read them.

The killfiler program consists of a perl script called threadkiller, which reads through the spool, searching for posts from people listed in a blacklist and then checking them to see if they are the first post in a new thread. Currently this is determined by looking for the absense of “Re: ” at the start of a subject line, but obviously a better test would be to check for the presence of a References header. Once completed, the script spits out a list of subject lines in nn’s killfile format, onto stdout, which can be appended onto $HOME/.nn/kill. The script keeps track of which newsgroup posts it has already read, so that it isn’t continually rereading hundreds of posts each time it runs.

A future enhancement that I plan to add is one to automatically killfile any thread that is crossposted to newsgroups that are completely off-topic; nn already has a method for doing this, but its operation is quite cumbersome and doesn’t always work. That, in itself, would probably remove around 30%25 of the rubbish in

Seven reasons why embedding media players is bad.

I often wonder who it was that thought it would be a good idea to embed streaming media players into web browser windows. I can’t imagine that the public beat on the doors of software designers and told them, “You know, we like this internet radio thing, but hey – put it in a web browser!

Back in the days when streaming audio on the internet was just starting to become a commercial proposition (and don’t we all remember Xing), radio stations would put a link on their webpages, which, when clicked, would spawn a separate application to play it (based on the link’s mime-type).

Somewhere, along the way, this changed. Stations started embedding their players into web pages – hiding the url, in most cases. These days, I’d estimate that probably 70%25 of online radio stations make their listeners use embedded media players, and those who want to listen to the station with a dedicated application have to go hunting through the javascript source code for a link.

Here’s why I dislike them so much:

  1. It’s annoying for the user. Who wants a hulking great web-browser window on their screen, just to play music? The audio should be going on in the background, not sitting prominently on their screen, forcing the user to iconify it. Just let them run a separate application in the background, minimised.
  2. Most web browsers are unstable. Browsers are big, complex applications. They tend to crash, or hang, a lot. When this happens, embedded media players – which are generally just a bunch of shared libraries, dynamically linked at runtime, will die in sympathy. There’s nothing quite like having the White Stripes halt mid-chorus just as you accidentally click on some tweenie’s all-singing, all-blinking Myspace page.
  3. Most media players are unstable. They’re not big and complex like web-browsers, but I’ve found media players to be, by and large, pretty bloody awful. A bit of network lag, a stream pumps out something the player didn’t expect, and bang, that weblog entry you’ve been working on disappears with the player’s plugin.
  4. Not everyone uses a graphical browser. Good luck getting your javascript monstrosity in lynx – which probably rules out most visually handicapped users from accessing your stream. While most commercial radio organisations probably don’t care about this (although they should), government-funded broadcasters – who need to provide equal access to all – certainly should be taking it into account.
  5. Embedded players are often difficult to bookmark Want your listeners to return again and again? Well, they can’t, if your web pages launch a javascript window without the browser’s menubar on it. Let them bookmark the stream in their favourite media application instead.
  6. People want to use an interface that they are familiar with. I don’t care about that snazzy interface your web design team has dreamt up. My media player of choice is gxine. It’s small, light, and with libxine behind it, it works for the vast majority of radio stations I want to listen to. I have no desire to use any other application to listen to audio, certainly not one with your radio station’s logo plastered over it … and people who aren’t IT-minded will be confused with all the millions of different interfaces that these web-designers waste money putting together.
  7. Hiding the url makes life difficult for people with streaming appliances. There’s a bunch of products coming to the market that are effectively internet radios. It’s probably not far off from the day when mobile internet rates are cheap enough that people start listening to internet streams in their car or while jogging as frequently as they’d listen to a normal radio; as it is, I tend to use my wireless PDA as a portable radio, around the house. If you’re a radio station hiding your url behind a huge web of indecipherable javascript in an embedded player, you’re going to be bleeding listeners. Just provide a damned link.

Furthermore, should any radio station managers or CTOs read this article, please use an open codec, such as Ogg Vorbis for your station’s stream. There’s no good reason to be using a proprietary player – it’s as ridiculous as the sealed set scheme, which was used early in Australia’s radio history, where radio sets that could only be tuned to one station were sold to listeners. Needless to say, it wasn’t particularly successful. By using a codec that people are free to use without restrictions or patent fees, it will open the market to a wealth of new applications and devices, and allow your station to be accessed in ways you might not have considered. Consider how far radio would have gone if it had stuck with the sealed set model…

(And as an aside, there’s just no excuse for publically funded organisations like the ABC, the BBC, CBC, Radio New Zealand and RTE to be using proprietary streaming systems. I really don’t see why government money should be going to prop up one or two software vendors, thereby forcing the public to use proprietary products to listen to programs that their taxes have paid for).

Cafepress won’t print random hex numbers

It looks like printing random hex numbers is too much for Cafepress. After this week’s digg fiasco, I created an image to put on t-shirts, and they’ve now taken it down. Come on, it’s just a number!

I suppose it could just have been an overzealous staff member, too eager to hit the censor button, so I’ve now created a larger image, and purchased a t-shirt, to see if I can get my hands on one before they get jumpy again.

You watched it, you can’t unwatch it.

Today’s Digg user revolt should be a lesson to the various DRM interests in how not to handle bad news on the internet. Their heavy-handed attempts to block the publication of a 16-digit hexadecimal number have now resulted in it being distributed far more widely than it would have been if they’d just ignored the issue; and as an added bonus, there’s probably quite a few more people educated about the evils of DRM.

Governments have this problem too, especially the all-singing, all-dancing and all-censoring Australian government. If they hadn’t censored the 2002 film “Ken Park”, I probably wouldn’t have even heard about it. The resulting shitstorm that the censorship caused brought the film to my attention, and I made sure that I saw it – legally, while travelling in Norway, a country with a considerably more liberal attitude to its citizens’ abilities to make up their own mind about what they may see or do, than Australia is. And of course, the film was available via bittorrent, so the government’s banning of it did nothing to stop most people with decent broadband access from getting it.

So, some advice to anyone who’s had some bad news leaked onto the internet: don’t bother trying to suppress it. You’re only going to make it worse for yourself.

Oh… and naturally, I couldn’t help but contribute to today’s chaos myself 😉

School bans Myspace … at home

While I don’t exactly understand the point of Myspace, this is just stupid:

St. Hugo of the Hills Catholic School students were informed recently that under a new school policy, Think First, Stay Safe, the use of will be prohibited at school and at home.”

It’s bad enough that certain employers are starting to tell employees what they can and can’t do at home, but schools?

What planet is Senator Ron Boswell on?

You’d think a National Party senator would be aware of how bad internet access is in regional areas in Australia. My parents live only 30 minutes away from an ADSL-enabled area, but have no access to it themselves. The phone lines are terrible for dialup net access, and cause regular drop-offs, which forced them onto satellite broadband, which is about as close to being broadband as a dirt track is to being a freeway. And they really do need good internet access, in order to work. This situation is repeated all over the country.

But no, Senator Ron Boswell, from Queensland, has said “We’ve got adequate broadband out there”, in response to the Labor party plan to build a country-wide high-speed network, using money from the so-called Future Fund.

The Liberals and some Nationals, of course, believe that government should have nothing to do with infrastructure and that the free market will provide what’s required. Of course, if this were the case, then we’d already have high-speed internet access to the home across the country – but we don’t, and we’re lagging well behind. When I left Amsterdam two years ago, the company I was working for was already rolling out IPTV across the Netherlands.

In reality, high-speed internet – and particularly IPTV – threatens the Coalition’s best friend – the Australian commercial TV industry, which is one of the most profitable TV industries in the world, due to the government’s considerable protection through licence rationing. Our capital cities, especially Melbourne and Sydney, are easily big enough to support a fourth and fifth commercial station, yet the government – despite its free market rhetoric – artificially keeps the number of licences at three.

I suggest anyone in the country whose modem has just dropped off the line yet again give Ron a call and congratulate him on the wonderful network that his government has provided.

Update: Apparently Senator Boswell was misquoted. Thanks to Paul Leven from the Senator’s office for this information.