Archive for October, 2007

Chinese with Ward Cunningham

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

I met Ward Cunningham the other day and had lunch with him at an innocuous Chinese restaurant in Montreal’s Chinatown. I am just finishing up at WikiSym, the only academic conference dedicated to wikis. On Day 1, he dropped in on an open space session I was in, where the discussion centered on the viability of wiki communities. I realized (sometimes I can be slow) that this was the perfect chance to meet and talk with the guy who’s work got me interested in wikis in the first place.

So I introduced myself after the session, briefly contextualized my interest in his work and asked if I could interview him. He agreed and we began chatting, waiting for lunch plans to materialize (as they inevitably do in open space conferences). What interests me mostly about Ward (everyone here calls him that) is his self-conscious effort to build what he calls “humane” software. In particular, he writes on his wiki (WikiWikiWeb – the very first wiki!) that trustworthiness is a principle that inspired his initial wiki design: “This is at the core of wiki. Trust the people, trust the process, enable trust-building.” (See here for more about Ward’s wiki design principles).

Ward decided to build a type of software that would essentially force people to work together – wiki’s don’t function without collaboration.This broke from the traditional approach to proprietary software development, where a manager divided a project into a number of tasks and then assigned them to individuals, who then worked on their task individually. This was just “silly”, according to Ward.

Ward seemed to take a real advocacy approach and I asked him if he considered himself an activist. Now, as you know, most of this hardcore computer types tend toward libertarianism. So I was shocked when he said yes. Turns out, Ward thinks users should be able to easily use software – not just the experts. So he designed a piece of software (wiki) to facilitate collaboration in order to engender better software design. What I think is interesting – and perhaps it’s just serendipitous – is this: the process that enables software engineers to design “humane” software is a humanizing process: working together. This goes beyond simple sharing or cooperation as it is creative, and requires skills that nurture community. Wiki, as a software, concept, method, has turned out to be profound.

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.