[image of a Brave GNU World]
Brave GNU World - Issue #59
Copyright © 2004 Georg C. F. Greve <greve@gnu.org>
Permission statement below.

[DE | EN FR | JA | ES | KO | PT]

Welcome to another issue of the Brave GNU World. This month with more projects and less politics or philosophy, although these will also be included. But more about that towards the end of this issue.

"Ambient Computing"

The topic "Ambient Computing" has taken a central role in debates about the future of information technology for some years now. The vision behind the term is one of interlocked media and appliances which in their combination form an intelligent and supporting sphere around the user.

The protagonists of this approach dream of coming into the living room and automagically find their current project -- which they were editing on the laptop on their way home -- on their wide screen tv for further editing. Should the IP telephone ring, the text will automatically shrink into the background while the conversation will occupy most of the screen and disappear again after the conversation to bring the text back up.

As for instance Prof. Weizenbaum, author of the Eliza program and one of the leading critics of unreflected use of computers, [5] has predicted for years, it is the omnipresence of information technology that will make it invisible. Making it as omnipresent and invisible as the air we breathe is in fact goal of the proponents of ambient computing; "Oxygen" is even the name of an ambient computing MIT project. [6]


The "home automation" project MisterHouse [7] by Bruce Winter implements this as Free Software under the GNU General Public License (GPL) in form of an "intelligent house."

Bruce and his family are living in a "passive solar, earth bermed house." These "earth bermed houses" are a design that came up in the late 70s and early 80s. They are underground homes, but unlike the "chambered" houses, they are not entirely undeground. Instead, the sides of the house are covered by earth, a berme.

One advantage of these houses are the heat regulating properties of earth, which keeps the house comfortably cool even in summer and with very little energy. During winter, the earth prevents cooling down below a certain point, although it can become a tad chilly without active heating.

The original motivation for Bruce to start working on MisterHouse was to automate the window blinds of their home. But after its initial publication 1998, an active developer and user community has found itself around the MisterHouse project. Nowadays, the mailing list has over 600 more or less active members and roughly 250 people contributed source code or bug fixes. Because of this, over 80 new versions have been released since the first release of MisterHouse and there is about one update per month.

The design of MisterHouse is modular -- almost any kind of input- or output-modules can be connected. On the input side, it is event oriented with events being generated by time, data from files, sockets, serial ports or voice recognition software. The output end allows output to files and sockets, the serial port and "text to speech" (TTS) synthesis.

MisterHouse can be used from implementing a security system or climate control (heating, cooling, ventilation) to announcment of incoming mail or calls. Of course it also allows more humorous applications like funny announcements or haunted houses. Just imagine putting your house into "Halloween mode."

The modular flexibility on the one side and the necessity of hardware counterparts on the other side don't make it easy to come to a "turn-key solution" quickly, though. So the project will most likely only be immediately useful to technically adept readers.

If you are looking for inspiration, the Winter family demonstrates with their own house what is possible. In their home, MisterHouse controls the lights, heating, ventilation and window blinds. It monitors the driveway camera, warns when the front door is left open at night, informs about the current weather and earthquake forecasts and also provides a home entertainment system with music, mail, news, current cartoons and tv guide with connection to the VCR.

On top of this, it entertains the family with funny remarks it pulls off the internet and allows finding the position of the family cars by Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS). These functions are of course accessible via computer, tablet PC and X10 remote control, but thanks to the internet connection, they can be remote-monitored [8] and -- provided you have the password -- even controlled from anywhere in the world.

Many readers will probably face conflicting emotions when reading this. Many geeks will most likely be amazed at the "toy factor" of this project and think about their own possible implementations. Some will probably ask themselves how Bruce managed to find a wife that is willing to cooperate with such a project. As a German journalist recently wrote, it is often the low "WAF (Women Acceptance Factor)" that quickly terminates such projects.

Also, as this is under development, one has to assume that sometimes things won't work as planned -- as the home page of the Winter family suggests when linking to "Our (sometimes not-so) 'smart' house."

Others will most likely raise their eyebrows at the percieved careless way of dealing with personal data and privacy -- although one has to recognize that the understanding of this is different between the United States and Europe, for instance. The author of APRS info page also has no problem publishing his motion profile of the past 1000 hours into the internet, for instance.

As MisterHouse runs both on GNU/Linux and Microsoft Windows, security aware readers might ask themselves why the server connected to the internet seems to run on Microsoft Windows, which could inspire some jokers to enjoy themselves with puns that -- literally -- may give the Winter family some sleepless nights.

Thanks to the internet and his job, the author of this column is a rather transparent person himself, already, so I'd have to say that I prefer to not have my private life so publicly available, although the gadget factor is definitely making my fingers tingle.

But since MisterHouse is Free Software and can run on a Free Software platform, each user him- or herself can decide whether and how far the privacy shall be upheld.

When considering proprietary platforms, though, one could immediately get a strange feeling. Especially when trying to understand what the platform really does besides what it claims to be doing will immediately constitute a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) or European Copyright Directive (EUCD) and therefore result in prosecution. Although -- getting into that conflict will be increasingly impossible if the "Trusted Computing" (TC, real meaning: "Treacherous Computing") advocates get their will, because then it will be made technically impossible for you to control what your own computer does.

In such a scenario, users have no control over giving up their privacy and no information about how far and towards whom this is given up. With the increasing pervasiveness of cameras in public spaces and the decreasing possibilities to participate in society without digital technologies, not even a general boycot of such technologies offers an answer to these issues.

Viewed in this light, MisterHouse being Free Software allows each person to take personal and full control over the highly sensitive area that is their home -- which, along with the toy factor and besides all possible concerns, makes it a very positive project.

Technically, MisterHouse was implemented in Perl with many expansions available in the Perl CPAN archives and directly from many other MisterHouse users. Also, getting to a fully Free solution may require some more effort in those places that Bruce himself uses proprietary modules for.

The event language to program the house logic is an expansion of Perl. So besides a computer with about 10-40MB free memory, knowledge of Perl is another prerequisite to be able to start automating your own home.

Loading Linux

The diversity of GNU/Linux distributions available by now is remarkable -- starting with the regularly installed "all-purpose distributions" for every task to the live CD distributions in many different flavors and for different jobs.

"Loading Linux" [9] is a GNU/Linux distribution for client/server oriented networks without local administrator.

Several GNU/Linux distributions allow choosing between client and server installation, but Loading Linux goes one step further. Clients and server are installed preconfigured to work together without further manual configuration. So even without knowing much about network and system administration, people can use this distribution easily.

Although the full complexity is still available by means of an "expert mode," it is usually hidden from the users unless they request it specifically. In fact it seems that a teacher would normally only have to know that the files are located on the server and are available in the "home" directory of each client. How exactly that NFS server is configured is more or less secondary, it is the functional aspects that matter to the teacher.

Thierry Wonner had the idea for this project and presented it end of 2002 to some other students of the EPITECH [10] computer science university in the southern part of Paris. When Nicolas Fortier, Nicolas Perez, Sylvie Truong and Francois-Philippe Il Grande (who also answered the Brave GNU World questions) joined the project, work started in 2003 and towards the end of 2003 the first bootable CDROM release was finished.

The distribution is based upon standard components: Shell-Scripting for the CD installation routines, PHP for web administration tools, PERL, C and "trace elements" of other languages. NIS, NFS and SAMBA are interoperationally preconfigured just like OpenOffice.org, a file manager and other preinstalled and preconfigured components. For package management, the distribution is based on RPM, since that is quite common and makes it easy to find other packages.

All people involved also take great care to uphold the independence and continuity of the project. Being a noncommercial university project and publishing the distribution itself under the GNU General Public License (GPL), making it Free Software, are both cornerstones for the future freedom of the project.

In order to ensure the continuity of the project after their studies have been finished or while they are busy doing internships, they are currently looking for younger students to bring into their team as well as people from outside the university.

There are plenty of ideas for further development. They would like to replace the ASCII windows of the installation routines by true graphical interfaces to further reduce the threshold. Their web administration tool also needs further work and the graphical installation of additional packages is something a group of students is currently working on.

But such projects can not only benefit from developers, using distributions and giving feedback is a very important factor to help such projects along. So if you are interested now, you should maybe give it a try.


When the network is installed, there are usually many things that need to be done by hand, and these things need to be done on each client in the network. To avoid monotony, tools like ClusterSSH [11] by Duncan Ferguson exist to allow "bundling" of SSH consoles.

Any number of computers can be grouped into a cluster by the administrator who can then use a single terminal window on her desktop to execute the shell commands in parallel on all these machines. The terminal windows, which can be (de)activated individually, then transmit all inputs via SSH to the active machines of the cluster.

A comparable, non-Free tool with similar functionality is for instance the SUNWcluster by SUN, which only works in clear text without SSH and SUN informed Duncan it had no intention changing that. Given that the security model of his company was incompatible with that, Duncan wrote ClusterSSH to do the job.

The project definitely runs on SUN Solaris (x86 and Sparc), as well as RedHat and Debian GNU/Linux. His further plans are to make sure it is also tested on other platforms. Only having access to the aforementioned platforms, Duncan is seeking help for that task specifically.

ClusterSSh was written in Perl and Tk and is published as Free Software under the GNU General Public License (GPL). Therefore it should be easy to use for administrators -- the classic target audience of this project.

Indigenous Peoples and "Intellectual Property"

As written in the previous issues, many discussions took place around the UNO world summit on the information society. [12] Often these discussions took place between people one would usually not meet easily, like the representatives and advocates of the Indigenous Peoples.

According to the UNESCO definition, [13] Indigenous Peoples "are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them."

Since Indigenous Peoples are non-dominant in their regions and generally have very little formal political influence on the local as well as global level, they are usually found among those who cannot effectively defend themselves against the side effects of a globalization pushed forward by large multinationals.

In particular in areas like the so-called biopatents, some pharmaceutical companies have launched initiatives to obtain traditional medicine and market it globally. As part of that process, they often employ both their significant economic and legal powers to make use of their traditional resources impossible, an onslaught Indigenous Peoples usually find themselves defenseless against.

One well-known example of such activities is the "Basmati Patent" of the U.S. company RiceTec, which obtained a patent on Basmati rice September 1997. The following legal struggle turned more and more into the question who should be entitled to farm traditional Indian Basmati rice. Even though this conflict ended essentially in favor of India, it shows the mechanisms at work. And you should ask yourself about the difference in political power between a small group of Indigenous Peoples and the huge country of India.

This phenomenon is often referred to as "biopiracy," although "bioprivateering" would be a much better term, as Richard Stallman explains very well in one of his articles. [14]

But it cannot be denied that these developments -- independent of their terminology -- create problems, although the question should be raised what exactly is the root of that problem. Usually, Indigenous Peoples and their advocates ask to be given "full ownership and control of all their cultural, intellectual and so-called natural resources" in this context.

At first sight, this demand sounds logical, reasonable and fair. But it will most likely increase the problem should it ever be fulfilled.

The forms of limited intellectual monopolies (see issue #56 [15]), like patents and copyrights, are generally geared towards a single person as the "owner." So the demand translates into the creation of a new form of "heritage/genetic intellectual property" in which the peoples are given the only right to decide about certain cultural and intellectual aspects.

If you take this demand and apply to it the equality principle of the universal declaration of human rights, you immediately get the demand that -- drastically said -- only Bavarians may brew beer, only Fins may build saunas and only Sicilians may serve pizza. Not only does this create the moral legitimation for the North to withhold its accumulated knowledge, one should also ask whether such a social monopolization is in the interest of any society worth living in.

At close sight, the problem mostly manifests whenever legal attempts are made to outlaw use of traditional knowledge by Indigenous Peoples. As long as they are free to use their resources in the traditional and historic way, they neither lost nor won anything.

So the core of the problem is overzealous monopolization and its enforcement. The request above tries to solve a problem created by too much monopolization by asking for more monopolization.

As a social effect, this turns the cultural roots of a society into a trading good, which is primarily to be respected for its economic value and for which profit should be maximized. The cultural value disappears behind the financial, a mentality we're passing on to our future generations.

And for many trading that "property" will be the only way to get food, water, education and medical care. But making a fair contract is usually very dependent on your ability to not make that contract when you don't like the conditions. So Indigenous Peoples may find themselves even more in the situation to negotiate for their bare life.

Unfortunately this column should be closed by now, so the question can't be dealt with in more detail, but if you are interested in deeper discussion you can find an article on the topic on the FSF Europe web site. [16]

Enough again

So much for the Brave GNU World for this month, as usual I'd like to encourage everyone very much to write questions, comments, ideas and project suggestions via email to the usual address. [1] Until next time.

[1] Send ideas, comments and questions to Brave GNU World <column@brave-gnu-world.org>
[2] Home page of the GNU Project http://www.gnu.org/
[3] Home page of Georg's Brave GNU World http://brave-gnu-world.org
[5] MIT LCS pages: Prof. Weizenbaum http://www.lcs.mit.edu/people/bioprint.php3?PeopleID=480
[6] Projekt "Oxygen" home page http://oxygen.lcs.mit.edu/Overview.html
[7] MisterHouse home page http://misterhouse.net
[8] The house of the Winter family http://misterhouse.net:8080
[9] "Loading Linux" home page http://loading-linux.sf.net
[10] EPITECH home page http://www.epitech.net
[11] ClusterSSH home page http://clusterssh.sourceforge.net
[12] FSF Europe WSIS pages http://www.germany.fsfeurope.org/projects/wsis/
[13] UNESCO: Indigenous Peoples http://portal.unesco.org/culture/admin/ev.php?URL_ID=2946&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201
[14] Richard Stallman: "Biopiracy or Bioprivateering?" http://www.stallman.org/articles/biopiracy.html
[15] Brave GNU World, issue #56 http://brave-gnu-world.org/issue-56.en.html
[16] Georg Greve: "On 'Intellectual Property' and Indigenous Peoples" http://www.germany.fsfeurope.org/documents/iprip.html

[ previous issue | Brave GNU World home ]

Return to GNU's home page.

Please send FSF & GNU inquiries & questions to gnu@gnu.org.
There are also other ways to contact the FSF.

Please send comments on Georg's Brave GNU World (in English or German) to column@gnu.org,
send comments on these web pages to webmasters@www.gnu.org,
send other questions to gnu@gnu.org.

Copyright (C) 2004 Georg C. F. Greve

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this transcript as long as the copyright and this permission notice appear.

Last modified: Fri Jan 16 13:31:34 CET 2004