February 22nd, 2004

BitTorrent

The internet is more than just the web. The web is a protocol called 'http' or HyperText Transport Protocol. There are other protocols. SMTP (Standard Mail Transport Protocol) is how email gets across the internet. POP (Post Office Protocol) is probably how you check your mail if you use MS Outlook, or Outlook Express. FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is a protocol for having one computer send a file to another. Its as simple and reliable as the name suggests.

But as peer to peer file transfers such as napster caught on a new protocol has emerged. Its called BitTorrent ( http://bitconjurer.org/BitTorrent/) and its really cool. Ok, first off things like this don't just emerge. Often it requires either a standards body to sit down and agree and write up a formal specification. Sometime it doesn't work like that.

Sometimes a guy gets frustrated and thinks of a better way. Instead of trying to make a company sell it, he just gives it away, hoping it will catch on. He writes some code that uses the new protocol, and he gives it away. He might even write up how it works. Someone else uses the tool, likes the idea, reads the code, and makes a few improvements, then he gives that away. And the cycle continues until its useful to lots of people, people who don't know how to read code, let alone write it.

So thats what's happening right now. People looked at napster, and said sharing is good. Sharing things you don't own is bad. Thats like stealing. Its not 100% the same, since you aren't taking away the original owner's item, but its bad. Right now the courts are trying to figure out just how bad it is. Its a tricky issue.

But sharing things you own, or things you create, is good. This can be done with ideas - like this protocol, or music - with bands who don't mind fans trading copies of shows.

Napster was a company and an idea. There were problems with the company - the legality. And problems with the idea. Or rather, there were improvements that could be made. Some folks wanted anonymity, so they ran with the idea and created a bunch of new spinoffs. Others saw ways to make it faster.

A program named edonkey saw that many people had a file, they could all give part of the file to someone who wanted it. And that this could be faster than getting a file from a single person. That idea morphed, into emule, overnet, and bittorrent.

There are some important improvements with bittorrent

  • Whereas edonkey gives the feeling of going somewhere to get files (and therefore feels seedy), bittorrent feels like a certain way of asking. It makes it feel very natural to click on a link while web browsing, and to download that file from many people.
  • It encourages being a good neighbor. The more you send to someone else, the faster you can download. It encourages sharing.

BitTorrent is wonderful for sites that occasionally can't handle all of their traffic. It doesn't matter if you are a little site like mine (cariaso.com) or a big site like Yahoo, CNN, or Google. Sometimes, for some reason, your site will get 15 minutes of fame, and be unable to handle the load. Just when everyone wants to talk to you, you get overwhelmed and just can't keep up. Its webserver stage fright.

If you'd like to try out BitTorrent, consider using client. There are lotsof others, all of which look nicer. This one isn't too fancy, but it does the job nicely. http://bt.degreez.net/download.html

BitTorrent encouages sharing, but doesn't require it. If you're behind a firewall, you may not be able to share, so you won't be able to use BitTorrent at its fastest speed. If you use the program I listed just above, there is a large colored circle towards the upper right. If its yellow, you probably have a firewall blocking you. Consider opening ports 6881 - 6889. If anyone experiences this problem, just reply and I'll be happy to walk you through it. Here is info for Microsoft personal firewall ( http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?kbid=308127 ). Otherwise Google is your friend.

Ok, now you need to find something to download. I'm going to suggest two places to try. Both are collections of live music, from bands like the greatful dead, and phish. Before you run away, just look. There are lots of bands in there. Just scan the list, and see if you see any names you'd like. Or maybe someone you know would appreciate it if you burned a CD of some of this for them. You can do that. Its 100% legal, and encouraged by the artists. Seriously. http://bt.etree.org/ is a great guide to the site.

The first site is etree. You can see a list of all the shows they offer here http://bt.etree.org/browse.php

If you don't see anything you like check out sharingthegrove.org http://tracker.sharingthegroove.org/track/stats.php

You should be able to click on a filename. You will download a very small file. Your webbrowser will ask what to do with a .torrent file. Tell it to open it, with c:\Program Files\BitTorrent\btdownloadgui.exe the .torrent file tells bittorrent how to get the real files. It will ask you where to save them. the very top of the window should say 'Desktop'. Just save them there.

Now a few words of caution about chosing your download. The folks who are really into this, are REALLY into this. Purists. People who take sound quality seriously. They don't listen to mp3 files, because mp3 files use lossy compression. That means it throws away little bits of the original recording so it can make it small. Most folks never hear the difference. But ITS THE PRINCIPLE as they say.

So you'll probably end up picking a show that is stored in FLAC or SHORTEN format. These are compression formats (like mp3) but they don't throw away anything, no matter how insignificant. You'll be able to tell, becuase you'll have a directory full of files ending in .shn or .flac.

if its .flac you'll want to install these programs WinAmp and FLAC

if its .shn you'll want to install WinAmp and ShnAmp

FLAC is easier to use.

Since this post is about bittorrent, not audio compression I'll just suggest you read this for more info if you have any problems. GuyForget's Tutorial

If you try and follow this, let me know how it goes. I'm trying to explain a lot from memory and inevitably something was missed.

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