Review: Ghost in the Wires

The US Day of Rage

For those who have missed it, (and since the mainstream media is more or less ignoring it, you probably have) there's currently a large number of people protesting against the increasing social inequality in the United States. There are thousands of people protesting on Wall Street and the rest of Manhattan, protesters in Chicago, and protesters in other major cities.

Much of the movement was spawned by a movement for the "US Day of Range". Some of this movement was spawned by a group called US Uncut, whose primary goal was to highlight that the largest banks in the country pay less in income taxes than most of the individual taxpayers in this country. Some of this movement has spawned out of the group "Anonymous", which seems to be a loose-knit group of individuals that may have some common foundations. Others seem to have just joined as the movement reached critical mass, identifying only with the core views of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

These groups have come together in order to demand that the government protect individuals rights and recognizes that the people of the United States must come before the desires of big business. Congress must take steps to halt the progression we have towards a two-class society: rich management riding the backs of the under- and un-employed. With our current trend, we will quickly be eclipsed by the societies of China, India, and other states.

Anonymous has done many things I don't agree with. I don't support the Anti-Sec movement, and I don't believe that hacking servers, leaking information, or defacing websites is a productive activity. I do believe in peaceful protest, in the 1st amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Most of the activities associated with the Occupy Wall Street are protected 1st Amendment activities.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

A week and a half ago, only 12% of Americans approved of the job being done by Congress. Police Officers in New York are assaulting and battering peaceful protestors with chemical weapons. How much more of the status quo are the people of America prepared to stand?

I can only hope that the change here will come about through informed discourse, peaceful protest, and democratic processes. In Syria, Egypt, and Libya, we have seen less peaceful revolutions when the people of those states reached a tipping point. Civil disputes in this country have a long history -- whether it was the civil rights movement or the civil war. Out of the latter, we got the Gettysburg Address with its timeless words "government of the people, by the people, for the people." We must return to government of the people, by the people, and for the people before American society is destroyed.

Lying to Google (a.k.a. SEO)

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) comes in two basic forms.  The first really is optimization: ensuring that your site has good links, that the content is relevant, and that the site adheres to good structural practices all fit into true optimization.  With the ever-growing complexity of websites, taking steps to help search engines understand your content and the structure of your site makes good sense.  With the new notion of a "semantic web", this will grow to a new level and become a key part of web development best practices.

The second form of search engine optimization basically amounts to lying to Google.  I say "Google" and not "search engines" because Google's market share has made it so that most SEO amounts to efforts to get the highest Google page rank.  Take, for example, the practice referred to as "Google bombing".  Creating many misleading links to a page in order to have it appear for keywords that have nothing to do with the content is clearly misleading to Google, and misleading to consumers.

A few days ago, Matt Gemmell posted an article entitle "SEO for Non-dicks" where he described the positive world of SEO.  But he also highlighted the unethical practices presented at a SEO conference.  Several companies offering SEO services feature practices like buying links, setting up link farms, and embedding hidden links in pages.  Other practices include hidden (same color as background or underneath other parts of the site) text that may have little or nothing to do with the site.

Because these techniques are designed to mislead search engines (and consequently the consumers using the search engines), these seem to me to amount to a "bait and switch" advertisement.  This is gaming the system.  Fortunately, search engines are making great strides in penalizing the sites that use these misleading practices.

To paraphrase Field of Dreams, "If you build good content, they will come."

Tablets, Free Software, and You

Tablets are the current 'big thing' in computing devices -- so much so, in fact, that many believe tablets will replace most of the uses of laptops and desktops.  This aligns closely with the trend to put "everything" on the web.  While making everything browser-based certainly has its conveniences, it also has risks.

Users are continually placing their privacy and their data in the hands of others, while ignoring the risks posed by these actions.  Look, for example, at the terms of service and software licenses associated with the iPad.  Apple can remotely "kill" software on your iPad.  If that software was storing your data, too bad, it's gone.

What if all your images are stored in a "cloud storage" solution and your provider suddenly decides to increase rates (or decrease your free storage quota)?  Will you pay whatever it takes to get your images back?  How about your email, the videos of your children, or your personal documents?

I'm sure you believe that this won't happen, or that you can just move your data.  If you believe this, take a look at where your data is stored today.  Do you use Microsoft Outlook archives?  I hope you'll never want to load the archive files when you don't have access to Outlook.

While Richard Stallman has pointed out that even Android, based on the open source Linux kernel, probably does not qualify as free software, that's probably not nearly as important as whether or not your data is free.  Even if you chose to use proprietary software, keeping your data free and open lets you move it when you need it.

Tablets and cloud services are two sides of the same coin -- while they might be convenient in the short term, their true costs are well hidden.  For the ease of use, you are giving up substantial amounts of control.  Maybe this is something you're okay with, but you shouldn't be.  I'm not.  Users of the iPad and iPhone routinely "jailbreak" their devices to wrestle some control of their device back.  Why buy a device that requires circumventing the license agreement to use how you want it?  Demand open devices.

Use open, standardized formats that are not encumbered by patents.  Make sure you have access to your data -- its best if you keep your data somewhere to yourself (your own computer, flash drive, or other device).  Don't let companies who care only about their bottom dollar tell you what you can do with your data.

Take control of your devices, take control of your software, and most importantly, take control of your data.

Migrating an Access Database to MySQL

I'm currently taking a Database class as part of my requirements for my M.S. in Computer Science. Several of our assignments are based on a database provided to us as a Microsoft Access Database. While I have a Windows 7 Virtual Machine, and could install Office in it, I prefer to use free software whenever possible, so I looked for a way to use this database with free software.

Fortunately, the database is in the earlier .mdb format, and not the newer .accdb format. I first found a glimmer of hope in an article by Niall Donegan describing the use of the MDB Tools package.

While the steps posted by Niall worked, and worked well, there are a couple of quirks in MDB Tools that took some working around. Additionally, the steps are kind of repetitive. So I decided to write a small wrapper script for mdb-tools to export the data as a MySQL script. The script takes one argument (the name of the mdb file you're working with) and outputs the SQL script on standard output. So, for example, you might use it as: mdb2mysql students.mdb|mysql students. Here's the script (I call it mdb2mysql) itself:

if [ $# -lt 1 ] ; then
        echo "Usage: $0 [mdbfile]" > /dev/stderr
        exit 1
# Extract the schema/DDL
mdb-schema $MDB mysql | sed 's/DROP TABLE/DROP TABLE IF EXISTS/'
# Extract table data
mdb-tables -1 $MDB | while read TABLE ; do
        mdb-export -I $MDB $TABLE | sed 's/$/;/'

Hopefully this helps others who just need to extract their data from an Access Database. It should be noted that this only gets the schema and data, and does not include foreign keys, views, etc.