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Posts Tagged ‘digital freedom’

Synthetic Biology

Posted by Patrick on November 30, 2012

Last week, Quirks and Quarks had a segment about synthetic biology [1]: a new branch of science whose goal is to design and construct new biological functions and systems not found in nature. [2]

The explicit assumption of this branch of science is that DNA is a kind of computing code.  Indeed, Canadian researcher Andrew Hessel says that DNA is a “tremendous medium for encoding information: it’s far more robust and compact than even electronic data storage, and it’s really the code of life.  So we’re looking at it through the lens of computing […], which I think is a remarkable shift. [1, 2:17]  Seen through this lens, these researchers want to reprogram living organisms to make them do new and useful things.  Imagine, for example, “bacteria that breath CO2 and pee straight diesel fuel” [1, 2:58].  These researchers believe that this technology could save the world.

Whether or not you get excited by the possibilities that we may finally live in harmony with nature (by controlling it even more drastically), two things concern me.  The first is implicitly outlined in one of Hessel’s comments:

“I think this is the most powerful technology we’ve ever made.  The only thing that I think compares to it is electronic computing.  And really, we’ve seen how electronic computing has revolutionized and continues to revolutionize the world.  I think this is even more powerful because now we’re talking about programming not electronic processors, but living processors.”  [1, 3:48]

This technology is the most powerful we’ve ever made… Are we wise enough to foresee all the consequences of reprogrammed organisms?  At one level, DNA works like computer code and new (and better programs) can be written, but biological organisms also interact with one another and evolve.  Do we seriously think we’re smart enough to understand all these interactions?  Taken as a whole, this new field would be orders of magnitudes more complex than the entire Internet, which is by no means simple.  This time though, programming “bugs” may be more dangerous than simple computer glitches.

Maybe you think that spreading FUD is not the most compelling line of reasoning.  After all, the same has been said about other fields of science before.  Nuclear physics was supposed to lead to global planetary destruction, and we’re still here.  Fair enough.  Maybe we are (or will become) smart enough…

My second concern is not so much about the technology itself but the legal infrastructure surrounding it: we live in a world where companies like Apple Inc. patent things like “rectangle with rounded corners”. [3]  Patents on software are just as ridiculous and detrimental for innovation since:

[They] block individuals from taking part in […] development and distribution […]  This may not seem relevant to most people but it’s the same as the freedom to write a book. Most people will never write a book, but some people will and society as a whole benefits from what is made by the few […]  [4]

If the evolution of synthetic biology is inevitable, I hope it doesn’t follow the insane route that commercial software and electronic devices have taken.  Exploring such a powerful science requires openness, collaboration, and governmental oversight, not secrecy and commercial control.  If we are going to engage in geo-engineering and massive biological reprogramming, the legal model of the Free Software Foundation [5] is probably the best place to start, if not the only one that will be safe and sustainable.


  1. Quirks and Quarks: Using DNA to Save the World,
  2. Wikipedia: Synthetic Biology,
  3. The Verge: Apple finally gets its patent on a rectangle with rounded corners,
  4. End Software Patents,
  5. Patrick Truchon, Free Software,

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Digital locks picking

Posted by Patrick on March 22, 2012


This week on Search Engine, Jesse Brown interviewed Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran, who believes that the Canadian Copyright Bill C11 (now in its 3rd reading) is a step in the right direction. [1] Jesse tried to explain that one of the big points of contention about this bill is that it would make it illegal to break a digital, lock even for lawful purposes.

I’m no lawyer, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s where I think I found this in the bill:

  • Section 41.1 says that it would be illegal to break a digital lock. [2]
  • Section 29.22 says that it would be legal to make copies of the work you own for your own use, provided that doing so doesn’t require to break a digital lock.  [3]

So there you have it.  One one hand, the bill gives reasonable bounds on what is legal or illegal copying based on intent: personal use is legal, distribution to others isn’t.  But then, it allows media corporations to collapse this distinction through the use of digital locks: no matter what the intent, you can not break a digital lock.

It means that (according to sec. 29.22) if I buy a CD, I can copy it to my computer or my phone, but I can’t give the files to my friends.  But (according to sec. 41.1), if I buy an audiobook encrypted with DRM that will only play on iTunes (as I unfortunately did once), I can’t remove the DRM to listen to it on my phone.  Same intent, different legal consequence.

Jesse tried to explain that distinction to his guest.  As it is often the case with computer-related technologies, they used a “real-world” analogy (a painting) to help their discussion.  I’m not sure how effective that particular analogy was, but I think I might have another one to offer:

My front door has a lock on it.  It is illegal for others to break and enter into my apartment without my consent, but it is not illegal to pick locks (as a hobby for example).  If I lose my keys, it would be legal for me to pick the lock of my own door (if I have the skills).  In fact:

“In Canada, possession of lock picking tools, with the exception of key duplication tools, is legal. Lock pick tools fit in the same category as crowbars or hammers, meaning they are legal to possess and use unless they are used to commit a crime or if it is shown there was “intention to commit a crime” in which case “Possession of tools with the intention of committing a crime” applies […] Some provinces require a license to carry lockpicks.  [4]

It should be the same with digital locks.  The legality of breaking them should be based on intent: personal use versus distribution.  Notice that this is completely separate from the issue of whether file sharing should be legal or not.  All we’re talking about here is the legality of picking locks, not the legality of sharing files.

There is one huge difference between a door lock and a digital lock however:  A door lock is meant to keep others out, unless I invite them in.  I can open my door for them, even lend them a copy of my keys.  A digital lock, on the other hand,  is meant to keep others out–always–since “inviting them in” (distribution) is illegal.  So the technical problem is this: how can I have a key that allows me to copy my own audiobooks to any of my devices, but not to my friends’ devices?  It’s like asking: could we design a door that only lets me in and no-one else, whether I want them in or not?

Maybe I’m not smart enough to figure that one out, but so far, it seems that no one else has either.  That’s why we’re not given the keys to our own digital locks: because who knows what we might do with them.  Instead, the key is given to particular media players (yes, the box has the key) in the hope that we won’t be able to find it.  But as Cory Doctorow explained in 2007, that scheme is intrinsically flawed.  Not only that, but it kind of blows back up in the face of the those who put the lock there: If I can’t listen to the audiobooks I legally buy on the devices I own because of digital locks, I might as well just torrent an illegal copy that I’ll be able to use on any device. [5]

And so, now we have locks that can be picked by those with enough know-how, but we legislate against picking them (regardless of intent).  The logical conclusion, of course, is that digital locks are the wrong tool for the job, and maybe no other systematic modes of control exist. It is an interesting technological puzzle to solve, but the law, as it is currently being proposed, is flawed: the legality of picking locks–digital or not–should be based on intent so that lawful use should be permitted.


  1. Search Engine, Digitally Locked,
  2. Parliament of Canada, Bill C-11 Section 41,
  3. Parliament of Canada, Bill C-11 Section 29.22,
  4. Wikipedia, Lock Picking,
  5. Cory Doctorow, Pushing the impossible,
  6. Brent Matthew Lillard, Lock Picking,
    <> under CC By-Nc-Sa license.

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Wiki Notes on Free Software

Posted by Patrick on March 3, 2012

Almost four years ago wrote a series of blog posts about free software.  About a week ago, I found myself returning to them with the urge to update them with some of the latest development.  Instead of editing the posts directly, I decided to combine them all into one wiki page that I’ll be able to keep current more easily as I make more connections regarding this huge and important topic.

The topics are:

  • What is free software?
  • Why is it important (specially to education)?
  • How to go about switching to free software?

I’ve also installed a basic comment plugin to the wiki so feel free to comment there (instead of here).


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Can iBooks do … ?

Posted by Patrick on January 28, 2012

Since the iBooks app [1] came out a few days ago, it’s been hard not to read about it. One thing is for sure, there’s a lot of varied opinions about it, particularly, about the impact (or lack-there-of) that it could have on education if used to its full potential. Personally, I didn’t get a chance to see it first hand until yesterday when one of my colleagues showed me a physics textbook she had bought, and a book she started writing to experiment with it. I have to admit, I thought it was pretty cool. The idea that students could finally ditch bulky textbooks and carry gigabytes of information with them in their tablet, or that teachers could customize and make media rich textbooks for their students, is very exciting. In some geeky way, at least for me, it taps into the utopian ideals of the treky universe: “Computer, what is …?” Now, I know that in the end, books are just books; they don’t (in themselves) revolutionize education (at least, that’s my opinion). I have a few questions, though, about the iBooks app that I think are important (for education).

Looking at the book my colleague is writing, the first string of questions that popped to my mind was : can this be exported as a website? Can students read this on their laptop or their phone? Can I read it on my Android tablet? Or is this just for iPads. In other words : is the format platform agnostic or does it bind us (or worse: our students) into a “vendor lock-in” [2] relationship with Apple? There are different degrees to this question.

At one extreme, programs like Apple’s iWork office suite (Keynote, Pages, etc), produce files that are completely incompatible with other office suites. Documents can be exported as PDFs or other more open file formats, but at the cost of loss of functionality or formatting. In the middle, programs like Apple’s iWeb produce work files that can only be edited with iWeb, but the “publishable” output they produce can be viewed by any web browser on any computer or mobile device. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum are Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) like LibreOffice [3] or NeoOffice [4], which use open file formats [5] that any program (no matter the operating system) can fully support.

In the past, I have argued that as educational institutions, we have an ethical responsibility to use the latter kind of software [6] with our students. For computers, this isn’t so hard anymore since there’s a lot of very good (and arguably better) FOSS out there. For tablet, though, the selection is a little slimmer, which is why I think we should at least regect apps that use closed file formats in favour of those that use open file formats that are platform agnostic. My question about the iBooks app is: where does it fall on this continuum?

I am not a software developer, so please correct me if I’m wrong here, but it seems that something like the iBooks app could easily produce a “book” that any web browser (or modern e-Book app) could read without loss of formatting. Maybe it already does (I don’t know). But I guess to me, the whole point of producing a book is that anyone can read it, no matter what kind of device they use.

The second string of questions that later came up in my mind was: Could iBooks be used by students to produce work collaboratively? At the most basic level, could students easily share their files with each other (like an office document for example)? But to take it one step further, what would it take for a group of students to work on the same project at the same time a la Wikipedia or Google Doc? How difficult would it be to have a wiki-like editor that would allow groups of people to write a book collectively?

But maybe that’s not what iBooks is about in the first place. Maybe it’s about the publishing industry clumbsily trying to survive in the new landscape of digital media. Or maybe, it’s another step closer to the big brother state [7]. Maybe, it’s not about openness and education.


  1. Apple, iBooks,
  2. Wikipedia: Vendor Lock-in,
  3. LibreOffice,
  4. NeoOffice,
  5. Wikipedia: Open File Format,
  6. Patrick Truchon, Free Software (Part 2: In schools),
  7. Copyfight, Stallman on E-book Evils and Privacy,

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Posted by Patrick on January 19, 2012

To oppose SOPA and PIPA, today’s xkcd cartoon is very serious.  It can be found at   but for some reason,   (the encrypted version) doesn’t work for this cartoon only.  Part of the message?  Also, using the instructions found on  , I opened the picture in GIMP, and increased the intensity and the contrast of the picture to their maximum values to find this:

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A 30-day trial of

Posted by Patrick on March 14, 2011

Here’s a chain of event that recently got me thinking (and worrying) about Twitter:

Last month, Twitter suspended some mobile apps for policy violation. [1] Ok, so it was annoying.  I had to go and download the official Twitter app for my phone, and move on…

Last week, Twitter told developers to stop building clients. The rational, apparently, is that “consumers continue to be confused by the different ways that a fractured landscape of third-party Twitter clients display tweets and let users interact with core Twitter functions” [2] Ok, now I’m getting a bit more annoyed.  First of all, I’m not a “consumer”, I’m a contributor to a community of like-minded (and not so like-minded) people.  Second of all, as a teacher, I really hate the one-size-fit-all philosophy.

A few days ago, Twitter took away @girlgeeks (Moran Simpson’s a two-year-old twitter name with thousands of followers) to give it to “an organization called @GIRLGEEKS [who] had registered trademark for the name and wanted the @girlgeeks account for themselves.” [3] Although the matter has apparently been resolved, here are screenshots of the cached and live google search results for “girlgeeks”:

The current page:

Here, I’m just speechless.

I understand that Twitter is a business and it’s not breaking any law by doing all of this.  Like most businesses, it’s in it for the money.  I get that.  For society, however, social networks are increasingly being used as instruments of social change and mobilization.  At the very least, they are spaces where complete strangers can learn from one another.  Case in point, here’s a tweet that just came up from an educator I’ve never met but have been following for over a year [4]:

The essence here is that social networking tools are too important to be controlled by profit-driven entities and should be viewed as public goods.  The good news is that there are alternatives.

Both of these were designed to us in power of our social spaces.  Sure, they feel a bit different, but they’re as functional as the closed systems they try to replace.  Only one essential part is missing: YOU!

To help others make the transition from Twitter to, here’s what you can do:  Sign up to and only post there.  At the moment, can’t import tweets from those you follow on Twitter into so you’ll have to continue reading your Twitter feed in addition to your feed.  However, you can set up so that all tweets written from are also sent your Twitter feed.  By only posting to, you will slowly make it easier for your communities to migrate to this freer space.

This weekend, I committed myself to trying this for at least a month and I’d really like you join me.  In fact, I’ll send a diaspora invite to the first 8 people who want to give and diaspora a try.  Just send me your email address on at @ptruchon


  1. Twitter Suspends UberTwitter and twidroyd for Policy Violations, Now What?
  2. Twitter Tells Developers to Stop Building Twitter Clients,
  3. So you think you own your twitter name ?
  4. @brasst Tweet <!/brasst/status/47070057217523712>

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Posted by Patrick on May 11, 2010

A few weeks ago [1], I read an article about the importance of decentralizing the social web so that each of us can have control over our online identities.  In his talk, Eben Moglen [2] outlined how easy it would be to create cheap mini-servers (no bigger than cell phones) that could accomplish this task.  According to him, the hardware already exists and all that’s needed is the software making it all work.

Soon after Moglen shared his vision, a brilliant group of university students decided to start the Diaspora Project [3] to create that software.  They managed to raise enough money to devote themselves to this project full time for the entire summer vacation.  Their promise: a first iteration of Diaspora released under the GPL by September 2010.

  1. Patrick Truchon, Re-Decentralizing the Internet, <>
  2. Eben Moglen, Freedom in the Cloud, <>
  3. Diaspora, Kickstarter Pitch, <>

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Free Software (Part 1: The Philosophy)

Posted by Patrick on May 18, 2008

Update (July 2, 2014)

This page has moved here.

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