Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

Freeing the net in Vancouver

Friday, October 5th, 2007

The other night I went to a Free the Net meeting at Bryght in Gastown. I hadn’t been there since two BarCamps ago, when they’d barely moved in and everything was primer white. They’ve pimped their space fo’ sho’…. Flourescent apple green walls, obnoxious red chairs and sticky notes offering moustache rides, $1. It’s a cool space, despite its efforts; across the plexiglass divide is another Drupal shop, Raincity Studios. I’m guessing it’s a fun place to work.

Anyhoo. About 15 peeps, including usual suspects (and hosts) kk+, Boris and Roland, plus a variety of geeks about town. SFU was in tha house, with Richard Smith, Jéan Hébert (see his post about the event here) and yours truly representin’. I did my usual gender check: 12 nerdy boys to 3 geeky girls. The more things change the more they stay the same etc. etc…

So what is this business about freeing the net? Isn’t it free already, sorta? Well there’s this idea of mesh that’s going to blow things apart, sorta. It evolved out of MIT’s roofnet project, which developed the protocols for mesh networking on PCs. According to Wikipedia, mesh networking “is a way to route data, voice and instructions between nodes. It allows for continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths by ‘hopping’ from node to node until the destination is reached.” There is no longer a need for base stations; instead an arrangement of short p2p connections evolves as more users join the network.

Basically mesh routing technology increases range and network capacity, enabling one internet connection to go a long way, perhaps unwiring an entire neighbourhood. The more nodes that connect up, the broader the reach. The coolest part is that people hopping on to the mesh network don’t need to have an Internet connex; they basically share the host’s bandwidth.

At this meeting, I bought a Meraki Mini, a small wireless mesh repeater. I’m just like that. It has plug ‘n play setup and configuration (thank goddess) so when I eventually take it out of the box I’ll become the host node for my ‘hood’s meshwork – no fuss no muss. The idea is to hook up to other nearby nodes to extend and strengthen Vancouver’s emergent wifi system. According to Meraki, its hosted back-end system automatically configures every router as part of each individual network; the company’s web-based centralized management shows how things are working through an allegedly simple, intuitive interface (I’ll let you know) that can be securely used from anywhere in the world.

Boris wrote about community wireless a year ago. He wasn’t sure about Meraki then but the other day he was the guy handing out the nifty gadgets for $60 a pop. The big deal is this: Meraki’s mesh networks supposedly cover significantly more geographic area and users than earlier wireless networks.

This is how the company explains it: “Instead of relying on a single large antenna to cover every user, each radio in a Meraki network cooperates to find the best path to carry a user’s traffic to the Internet. As they operate, every network re-evaluates thousands of routing paths every minute, resulting in amazing reliability and network capacity. Meraki’s intelligent mesh routing means every repeater you add extends the reach of the network and makes the mesh more reliable by adding additional links.” So intelligent traffic queuing and packet prioritization plus the capacity to add unlimited network gateways enables demand-based growth of the network.

This works well for unwiring a low-income housing project, or an entire city. Again, supposedly, hundreds of neighbours can share a robust and reliable network supplied by only a few broadband connections. One Mini has a range of between 30-50 metres. Because it’s relatively cheap and apparently idiot-proof, networks can be built with a high density of repeaters; obviously this leads to better coverage and a more robust mesh.

According to MIT’s Technology Review, Meraki “is using San Francisco as a testing ground to see if a user-driven mesh network can connect a large urban area.” Where Google and Earthlink have thus far failed to install a free city-wide wifi system in SanFran, Meraki has had some early success, with 6000 users able to access the Internet thanks to their “Free the Net” program. The company has plans to expand its initial giveaway of 200 routers by a few thousand. The system will be built from the rooftops, balconies, and windows of anyone who wants to participate.

Some important points about mesh networking that came out of the meeting:

1. It provides low cost access based on a business model.
2. It is user driven (no bureaucratic/political red tape etc.)
3. It enables a community to connect to itself
4. It can facilitate critical mass through mobile on demand wireless for events
5. It reduces the digital divide within “developed” nations

Some community wireless projects:
1. BC Wireless
2. Montreal’s Ile Sans Fil
3. Wireless Toronto

Some mesh projects:
4. Wireless Nomad
5. NetEquality

Richard Smith summed up the importance of mesh networking: “People who own and operate a mesh node contribute to the overall health and vitality of the network.” On the one hand, this seems an unlikely form of community activism; on the other hand, maybe that’s just what being in a community is about.

Calling all radical bloggers

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

My friend, Steve Anderson, a cool cat and fellow grad, is helping organize Media Democracy Day in Vancouver this year. One of his ideas is to set up a table where local bloggers could provide a description of their blog and maybe flyers promoting their community and work.

This year the Media Democracy Day event will coincide with the Union for Democratic Communication conference, titled “Enclosure, Emancipatory Communication and the Global City”. Featured speakers include Dan Schiller, Nick Dyer-Witheford (may I recommend his excellent book, Cyber-Marx?), Dorothy Kidd, Mike Davis and Dee Dee Halleck. Of course, you will likely want to attend my panel, “Communicative practice online: The quest for “technical democracy”, where I will present (casestudy: Rococo) along with Steve, Roy Bendor and my would-be collaborator Michael Felczak.

You have to register for the conference, but the MDD event is free. Contact Steve at for more info, to get involved or to help develop the radical bloggers idea. Or you can sign up to the list.

As Steve says, keep moving.

Who killed the electric car?

Tuesday, December 5th, 2006

I watched the most amazing documentary this weekend – Who Killed the Electric Car? I wanted something light (lite, really); something along the lines of You, Me and Dupree (which I admit with the appropriate amount of shame). It was the end of a long day, full on kids, you understand. When My Friend returned with what I imagined to be the driest possible thing to ever be put on dvd, I was not thrilled. But at this point my options were severely limited – nothing on but CSI reruns till SNL, and I’d be sleeping by then.

Anyway. Who Killed the Electric Car? is one of the most amazing films. It’s not your typical “eco-crazy’s” conspiracy theory. It actually happened. It reminds me of all those dystopian visions of the future, you know, where everything is Taco Bell. Fucking scary. People who believe that “those in power” are benevolent, benign, just doing their jobs are not just painfully naive; they are dangerous. Ignorance is not bliss; it is the path to ruination. You absolutely must see this movie.

On another note, throughout the entire film, I thought, wow, this would make an amazing SCOT case study. All the relevant social groups were discussed (fine, “actants”, if you must be Latourian about it) and their interests in electric car technology (mainly the battery, but also supporting infrastructure) revealed. By tracing these groups throughout the short life of the electric car, it became clear how this new technology came into existence, and was then “disappeared” just a few years later. The powerful economic interests that hovered unseen just below the surface are exposed in this doc in the most chilling way – its not just the automakers, or their partner, the State, or even Big Oil (is there any other kind?). It’s literally a world economy based on the delicate interleaving of practice (car driving), technology (combustion engine), fuel (oil) and infrastructure (roads, gas stations), all of which creates the facade of a self-generated, sellf-sustaining culture. And you can’t fuck with the economy. Apparently.

Things are going to change, I can feel it

Friday, September 1st, 2006

Oh there is shit going down on Burnaby Mountain! Simon Fraser University grad students are restless, agitated, and organizing like hell. Since I can rarely sit still when abuses of power are afoot – underfoot, really, as is the case with the Simon Fraser Student Society – I have gotten involved….again. It’s all too complicated and, frankly, boring in too much detail. But the important thing to note is that various and sundry “student politicians” in the SFSS are behaving in a largely autocratic, evidently undemocratic fashion, clearly unperturbed by such minor details as bylaws, policies and oh, I don’t know, human decency. They might be conspiring to ditch the grad health plan – and as uninteresting and apolitical as that might sound – you don’t fuck with a grad student’s health plan. Something the SFSS Exec is learning the hard way.

Grad caucuses from upwards of 10 departments have passed motions of non-confidence in the SFSS and there is a petition circulating to impeach members of the Executive Board. Suffice it to say, SFU grad students are not taking the apparent assault on their grad plan (the ultimate cause of this dog and pony show) lightly. You can get up to speed on the farily complex issue(s) at the blog SFSS Democracy Now. You can also read the Georgia Straight’s coverage. Matthew Burrows wrote the initial story, found here, and Charlie Smith followed it up last week with this article.

Another group has mobilized in order to force some accountability at the SFSS. Students for a Democratic University – and I didn’t know this till I googled it – was first started at SFU and McGill in 1968. Part of the radical student movement of the late ’60s, and a precursor of sorts to PIRGs, SDU played a prominent role in the Administration Occupation in ’68, and the student strike the next year. Read more here.

The recent incarnation of SDU is organizing to have a special AGM in order to begin the impeachment process. I’ll be helping out on that campaign, mainly on the media committee, as a contact person. So far I’ve written letters (unanswered by SFSS president Shawn Hunsdale to this date) and attended a meeting. I’ve gone from testing the waters with my toes (not too chilly) to stepping in ankle deep (a bit unsure about the water lapping up my legs). I’m supposed to be studying, among other things…

On a tech note, one of my committee members, Richard Smith, is sponsoring me to go to Web of Change. I’m excited; more later…