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Fast Forward: BitTorrent

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Monday, March 14, 2005; 2:00 PM

Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro was online to talk about BitTorrent. In his latest column, he writes that most file-sharing programs aren't the most upstanding citizens of the computing world. But BitTorrent is different.

Submit your questions now or during Monday's chat.

Rob Pegoraro (The Post)

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Rob Pegoraro: Greetings, all. It's that time again, so let's get on with the show...


Lorton, VA: Hey Rob,

I'll admit to downloading torrents, and I was disappointed in the termination of SupeSupernovag. However, I'm curious to know why torrent sites are being sued while users of Kazaa or other P2P sites/programs do not. Ditto with IRC chat rooms/forums.

Rob Pegoraro: Lorton's asking about my column yesterday on the BitTorrent file-downloading program. I have to guess in my answer, but my theory here would be that people running Web sites are both easier to locate and easier to beat in court than people running programs that (unlike Web sites) aren't online 24/7. Internet Relay Chat channels are even more evanescent... the MPAA isn't and really can't hope to be in the business of suing everybody downloading flicks online. Like everybody else with finite resources, it has to pick its fights.


Mt. Airy, MD: Sorry this isn't about bit torrent, but hoping you can help. I've recently gotten a free edition of System Mechanic 5 thru my memory card purchase and I was wondering what you thought of this program. When I ran the "eliminate duplicate files" portion, it cam up with 5,334 duplicate files (991.96 megabytes), some I haven't touched since 2002. Frankly, I'm scared to eliminate any files, but I was hoping you could help. If I eliminate duplicate files, does one of each stay on the system? If I'm asking these questions, should I just get rid of this software because it's too technical for me?

Rob Pegoraro: We've given Iolo's System Mechanic utilities suite positive writeups before. I'd be really careful about using that "eliminate duplicate files" option, however. You should be safe trashing files that haven't been modified or read in years, but often that's not the case for files in system directories (c:\windows and its sub-directories).


BRAZIL: Rob, how do you do?
this program (bittorrent) is equal to KAZAA?

Anderson Rogério

Rob Pegoraro: It's not an equal or even an equivalent. Kazaa and other file-sharing apps have built-in search capabilities, so you only need to type what you're looking for and, if the file is available, start downloading. BitTorrent has no search built-in. And, as I wrote, it's got a lot of legitimate uses.


Gaithersburg, MD: Thanks for writing about BitTorrent.

A couple of months ago, I downloaded Fedora Linux but passed on using BitTorrent out of a general aversion to file-sharing apps, mostly due to privacy and security issues.

It's good to know that BitTorrent is free of bundled spyware, but apart from that, what other security implications are there? I would like to know with something approaching near certainty (nothing's ever 100% with computers, I know) that the ONLY accessible files on my computer are those to which I explicitly allow access. In short, would you feel safe having BitTorrent and, say, TurboTax on the same computer?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes--in fact, I do have that exact combination. BitTorrent only uploads files you've already downloaded. You can't upload anything else unless you set up a tracker site and upload a complete copy of the file (called the origin) to a machine running the BitTorrent client.

You may, however, have to open a port in your firewall to let BitTorrent do its thing; the BitTorrent site has more details on this.


Lititz, PA: While illegal file sharing is certainly something in the media corporations' cross hairs, shouldn't we also applaud programs like BitTorrent for spreading free music? In this case, musicians can (and do) benefit from devoted fans efforts to spread free recordings of their concerts. This is free promotion, much like wearing a big Nike emblem on a t-shirt.

The Grateful Dead is probably one of the first to embrace the taping culture, but others such as 2005 Grammy Award winners Wilco, seem to be using this technology to their advantage and increasing financial success. Wilco's taping policy allows recording and free distribution and in this case, everyone is pleased: the artists and the fans.

Tristan Loper

Rob Pegoraro: Wilco's a good example of how giving away music for promotional purposes can work. I heard the entire Yankee Hotel Foxtrot record online at a time when no commercial radio station I could get at home would have played even a single song off the album; I liked it enough that I bought the CD.


Great Falls VA: I'm interested in a smartphone with a large entry
keyboard for heavy e-mail use. I've tried out the Treo 650
and Blackberry 7230...but it looks like some Nokias might
have more room with their clam-shell design. What do
you recommend?

Thanks for your help here...and the good articles!;

Rob Pegoraro: If you're talking about the Nokia Communicator series of phones, I'd stay away. Those things have been really heavy and bulky, almost in the shoe-phone range. And few if any carriers have sold them here, which means you have to pay the steep, unsubsidized price.


Georgetown: I tried the EZ Cleaner from ToniArts that you all reviewed a few weeks back and am happy to report that it's really good -- the registry fixes make my machine boot up much faster, while theunnecessaryy file remover was nice for the control freak in me, but didn't free up more than about 10MB.

My question is on its duplicate program removal. I'm not a techie and therefore reluctant to remove stuff that looks dangerous.

However, I note that in addition to beginning with a /WINDOWS/ in the title, almost all of them have a duplicate that begins with an /I386/ or something similar.

Can you tell me if it's safe to ditch the /I386/, or should I just leave things alone.

(And if you have anymore basic advice on freeing uphard drivee space, please advise.)

Rob Pegoraro: Your reluctance is well placed. I believe--somebody correct me if I'm wrong here--that \i386 is also a system directory. If you don't actually need that extra space *now*, leave well enough alone.




Rob Pegoraro: Um, first please fix your Caps Lock key :)

Yes, you can run Verizon DSL on a Mac (not installing Verizon's software can help in that respect, from what I hear--just use the built-in stuff in Mac OS X). "Overall benefits" of Mac use? Well, the big one for anybody who goes online is the absence thus far of viruses, worms, spyware and browser hijackings on the Mac.


Atlanta, GA: For someone doesn't know much about BitTorrent,
how would I go about downloading Yankee, Hotel,
Foxtrot using this software?

Rob Pegoraro: I didn't use BitTorrent to download that album--as I recall, I heard the whole thing streamed off Wilco's site. It's not there anymore. But trust me, the record's totally worth buying.

(As an aside, I'm going to shoot whatever programmer ever thought it was a good idea to have instant-messaging programs steal focus by default. I almost typed half this answer into the IM window that Gaim just opened in front of my browser window.)


Reston, VA: Having used BitTorrent for about a year now, I am a huge fan of it. Yes, as with all file sharing services, there is the potential for illegal file sharing to occur; that is the nature of the beast. I love BitTorrent for it's de-centralized nature; there is no need to connect to any central server to download something. And if you know where to look, you can find pretty much ANYTHING. I really think this concept has the potential to become a superior alternative to any and all central file sharing systems(kazaa, bearshare, etc). Do you?

Rob Pegoraro: If by "superior" you mean "survivable," yes. File-sharing is never going to go away, no more than shoplifting in real-world stores will (or, say, people posting copies of my stories onto other Web sites). Decentralized file sharing, with most of the traffic carried out inside smaller, separate circles of users, seems where this is headed.


Arlington, VA: Your thoughts as a journalist please on Apple's court victory today. Is Apple just as entitled to protect its product position as, say, Coke is when developing the next new formula?

Rob Pegoraro: Apple is entitled to fire any of its own employees for leaking its own information. But since when does a private company get more authority to force a reporter to disclose his sources than the government does (which is essentially none in everyday practice)? I haven't read this judge's ruling, but I don't see how you can possibly justify such an outcome.


Gaithersburg, MD: Rob,
Do you see BitTorrenting as a way for business and corporate entities to successfully share files (Example: a phone list) across multiple remote locations ?
Why or Why not ?

Rob Pegoraro: If the files are large enough, absolutely. A phone list might not need that kind of extra setup.


Olney, MD: How will BitTorrent be affected by the Grokster case?

Rob Pegoraro: IANAL (I Am Not A Lawyer), but I don't think Grokster affects BitTorrent at all. Different programs, different business models (as in, BitTorrent doesn't really have one).


Baltimore, MD: Rob,
I have recently discovered your very helpful discussions. I am considering getting a new Mac but have no spare peripherals making the Mini a little less appealing. I find the iMac G5 an elegant way to save space and reduce wiring but I have noted your caveats about the cpu becoming obsolescent before the monitor. Could this be eventually overcome with a future iteration of the Mac Mini or other cpu and still using the iMac monitor?

Another question I have is whether it is possible to change the default paste command in Word X for Mac from say html format to unformatted text rather than having to go through the Paste Special command?
Thanks for all your help.

Rob Pegoraro: You can't use the built-in monitor of an iMac with any other computer. Odds are, however, that you'd be able to upgrade an iMac's CPU at some point, given how accessible the innards of that machine are.

While I'm on the subject, the Mac rumor sites are now reporting an update to the iMac is due in the next month or so. (Hey, Apple, I'm helping to share your trade secrets!)


Alexandria: Rob
I am about to deploy to Iraq and am interested in picking up a reliable MP3 player. My needs are pretty simple--- 128-256MB, WMA capability, slim profile, and sturdy. I have owned a couple or iRivers that I thought I treated delicately but they both broke.

Thanks for any help you can give me.

Rob Pegoraro: Creative and Rio Audio have been making models along those lines for a long time. I'm not sure I could recommend either company's hardware offhand, but if anybody has experience with Creative or Rio players (especially when used in hot, sandy conditions), now's the time to chime in.

Oh, BTW: Thanks and good luck, Alexandria.


Blue Bell, PA: Rob,
I am getting an error message that Symantek Live Update is no longer able to update my files. Their help site hasn't helped. I have been using their virus and internet security software on Windows XP Pro for the past 6 months with no known problems. Any ideas what could be the problem?

Rob Pegoraro: Nope, but a call or e-mail to Symantec tech support ought to clear things up, no?


Durham, NC: Is it possible for the music or movie industry to identify and sue illegal downloaders using Bittorrent in the same way that they've done with other file sharing programs?

Rob Pegoraro: It could be done, but it would be a lot of work for little benefit. If you can just drive the tracker sites offline, the people trying to download movies/music/etc. won't have anyplace to point them to those files.


Alexandria, VA: Rob --
So I finally broke down and decided to dive into the whole RSS thing. Now, with the caveat of I know that you don't control the Post policy, I find it amazingly annoying that every time I try to read a post columnist or story in my RSS reader (the simply named RssReader), the Post launches a pop-up ad in my browser. Now, I now they still need to make money, but when I view the article in the reader, it displays all of the normal ad links as if I went to the Post and clicked on an article. Why, oh why, would they throw in extra, annoying, pop-up ads for folks taking advantage of RSS?

Or maybe my viewer stinks. Either one.

Rob Pegoraro: I don't actually subscribe to any of our own RSS feeds (hey, it's not like I don't know what's in 'em :). Your reader should be able to block those pop-ups anyway... what client are you using?


Anonymous: Just A comment, I have a tivo with tivo basic and upgraded just to try tivo2go (despite reading your review), what a waste of time, quality stinks even on programs recorded using "BEST" and theburningg software, at least in the demo, is a real pain. I am canceling and going back to the free basicversionn of the service I can use

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for sharing your experience. I think I've only heard from one TiVo ToGo user who actually likes the service since my review ran in January.


Cubicle City, Washington, DC: I'm using Firefox now based on your recommendation -- and I love it. But when I sign on to AIM, sometimes I get popups that are IE and sometimes they are stuff NO ONE should see. Yikes. IE almost never works for me any longer. Can I just delete it? Or what can I do to stop the hijacking?

Rob Pegoraro: AIM is one of the rudest programs that I have ever used. Here's the Help File item I wrote on how to bring this app to heel--or switch to an AIM-compatible program that won't assault you with pop-ups.


Wash, DC: Rob, have you heard about possible problems with the new scrolling trackpad on the most recent Apple powerbooks (i.e. freezing or unresponsive cursor)? If so, how serious and what's the remedy?


Rob Pegoraro: Saw a report about this issue, but I haven't heard from any first-hand users--these PowerBooks only just came on the market, and they're not exactly the cheapest models in Apple's lineup. My hunch is that this is a first-time glitch that Apple will have to fix with either a software update or, at worst, a free hardware replacement/upgrade through its stores and dealers.


Washington, DC: Hi Rob,

Quick question about spam. I currently use Outlook Express and get loads of spam (which is an issue with my ISP not OE I realize). Recentlyy I've been getting spammed by someone who's using my email address. So who knows whom else is getting these emails and cursing my name.

My question is - if I switch over to Thunderbird will this eliminate this problem? I use Norton AntiSpam so most of the spam I don't even see, but I worry that my email address is going to be blocked by other ISPs for spamming when I'm not the one offering cheap meds or great mortgage rates.

Thanks for you advice!;

Rob Pegoraro: No, using Tbird or any other mail program won't solve this annoyance. Only finding the spammers impersonating your name, then taking a baseball bat to their computers, will.


Moorpark, CA: BitTorrent? Welcome to years ago!; Great program, but nothing news, and I'm surprised you're just trying it out. Further, since you're impressed by that one cute slider on the 4.0 release of BT, try the doubly-maleable, and much more informative, BitTorrent Experimental, which seems to run smoother and say much more about what speeds your seeds have and how many bits other leeches already have - http://ei.kefro.st/projects/btclient/

Rob Pegoraro: I didn't just try BitTorrent out--I first sampled it last summer. I decided to write about it now because the news timing worked then, in terms of how many legit uses I saw coming online.

Your description of this other BitTorrent version makes me think I won't like it. I don't actually care about details like "how many bits other leeches have"; I'm not a network engineer. All I care about is when I'll have the file itself, and at what point I've given back enough of it to close down BitTorrent to free up my bandwidth.


Fairfax: Rob, I read your suggestion about setting up the Admin account, and using the "run as" to access it from non-admin accounts. When I originally set my computer up, I had myself set as an admin, and my wife (who used to download and install everything her friends sent her, thus constantly making me have to clean out the old computer) I put her in as a limited-user. If I add a new admin account, and change my current account to limited-user, would that cause problems in programs that I installed under my account? Would I need to re-install in the "admin" account?

Thanks!; (unfortunately I'll probably miss most of your live discussion)

Rob Pegoraro: Once installed with admin access, programs should run fine in non-admin mode (except, perhaps, when you're changing some settings).


San Diego, CA: Rob-

Your experience with installing Mac OS 10.3.8 shows that
nothing--not even Panther is totally bulletproof. You
might have drawn the following conclusion for your

Good Mac hygiene requires that prior to fooling with the
OS, Disk Utilities Permission Repair be run until there are
no significant repairs being reported; and

in the case of any previous flaky behavior, (as you
described so well!;), the Mac be started up from the Install
CD and Disk Repair run until it also reports no errors.

I'd say that your procedure was the equivalent of
performing major surgery without prior scrubbing and
then going on to save the patient from serious
complications using your great medical skills. Good
learning experience, but for the sake of your -students-,
it would be good to draw the proper conclusions--don't
upgrade the OS until/unless it is running well.

Great column.


Rob Pegoraro: Good analogy... it didn't quite feel like the patient was dying on the table, but I certainly did think that I'd be spending more time stitching it up than should have been necessary.

I may have actually run Disk Utility to fix permissions and not have found any errors. OTOH, I don't think I've seen any permissions issues come up in that program (which doesn't check access rights in userspace, just in the system folders, AFAICT) in a year or so. So either fixing permissions is just a form of computing voodoo that we can comfortably ignore, or I've just been lucky so far (and if it really is necessary, then Apple should have its system-software installer go through that step automatically).


Bethesda, Md.: Re: Apple's court victory. I have yet to read the ruling
either, just the various news reports. The parts of the
ruling they quoted indicate the judge decided that Apple's
right to protect its trade secrets and enforce its NDAs
trump the reporters' first amendment rights. Unbelievable.
If a company can out people who leak information by
getting subpoenas for reporters' notes, then it will have a
chilling effect on business accountability reporting.

Rob Pegoraro: Not just that. If you've got some time, read up on how the Church of Scientology has sued reporters on trade-secret grounds. And what's to stop the government from calling its own documents trade secrets?

I wonder if this judge would like to live in a country where the press is unable to document corporate and government misdeeds because the offenders can throw up trade-secret defenses every time somebody reports something they don't like.


Gaithersburg, MD: Just a comment:

The nicest art of using a BT ( or BitTorrent ) is that you know the file is genuine. Most other file sharing programs have virii or other issues. With BT, You know it's genuine because it'll be the same file on EVERYONE's HD.

Rob Pegoraro: Yup--I didn't get into the mechanics of this in that column, but as part of the whole torrent process, each client computes a checksum of the finished download to make sure it matches the original.


burke, va: "would you feel safe having BitTorrent and, say, TurboTax on the same computer?"

I'd suggest you should be a lot more worried
about turning your computer into an Internet-wide accessible file server.

I invite you to image the havoc that will ensure when BitTorrent announces, "here a security patch for BitTorrent 4.0, and by the way, yourhard diskk has been readable by the entire world for the past X months".

Rob Pegoraro: First of all, there is no BitTorrent, Inc.--just a programmer and a program, whose code is open for the world to inspect. You *can't* hide that kind of backdoor in an open-source app, period... unless you think there's some worldwide conspiracy of silence by programmers.


Lake Ridge, VA: I believe you (or the washpost) did a story recently on how to pick out a home PC. Can you link to it?

Also, any new tips you'd offer that aren't in that article? I'll be in the market for a new laptop in the next two months or so to replace myantiquatedd desktop. I finally ruled out a Powerbook, because as much as I want one they are just too pricey.

Rob Pegoraro: Here ya go: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A57741-2004Nov17.html


Alexandria, VA: To answer your question about my client -- I'm using RssReader (yeah, that's what it's called). And if I have a browser open, it will "jump" (take over?) the last active window and "push" it to an ad.

Rob Pegoraro: Not familiar with that one, but try FeedReader (www.feedreader.com) or the RSS readers built into Firefox and Thunderbird. Haven't seen any pop-ups come out of those programs.


Ocala,FL: Any comment regarding the Napster fiasco? The hole with Winamp was quickly followed by reports of another program that did an actual transcode of a DRMed Windows Media file to an unencumbered MP3 at 10x speeds.

Rob Pegoraro: Not surprised at all! I wrote in my Napster To Go review that making permanent copies of these files should be a trivial exercise--if you can hear something, you can copy it. I am somewhat intrigued by the existence of a hack that allows direct conversion of a file, as opposed to recording its audio stream, but, y'know, almost everything gets hacked eventually.


San Diego: Is it necessary to subscribe to a service in order to utilize Bit-Torent? If so which would you recommend? Bob Davenport

Rob Pegoraro: BitTorrent is a program, not a service. The best way to try it out would be to hit that SXSW Web page I mentioned, which later last week began offering a much smaller song-sampler download.


Alexandria, VA: Just wanted to make a comment about using Firefox with live chat - hopefully you can help me out. Two complaints. First, when you reload the chat page, instead of going back to the last piece of text you read (like the otherwise awful IE), it goes to where you were on the scroll bar. This means you need to constantly scroll back and figure out where you were. Second, if you open the "weekly chat" link, that opens in a new window. Click on a previous chat, and while it opens back in theoriginall WP tab, an entirely new blank untitled window opens up. Very annoying. These few things make me like both Firefox and WP a little less, which is sad because I love them so much!;

Rob Pegoraro: I'm not the HTML jockey around here--it's enough trouble for me to remember to put the angle brackets and slashes in the right order when I'm adding a link to one of these posts--but I'll post this so the people who do work on the publishing end of things can see your comments.


Baltimore, MD: Were you first a journalist who got assigned the personal-technology beat? Or were you a techie who decided to try writing a column?

Rob Pegoraro: Kinda in between. I've always been intrigued by computers and gadgets, back to the days when as a kid I'd take apart my dad's old TI calculators for fun. But I'm a writer first; technology is just what I lucked into covering when I started freelancing for the paper 10 or so years ago.




Rob Pegoraro: I'm trying a review unit out right now, in fact. You'll be able to read my opinion soon enough :) But I will ask this question--anybody interested in answering, please follow up in e-mail: Do you see this as a game machine that also plays/displays movies, music and photos, or a multimedia player that also plays games?


Rob Pegoraro: That's all, folks! It's been a while since I've done a chat that ran close to the budgeted time, but I've got a lot of other items to tackle today. Thanks for all the questions... see you here in a couple of weeks.


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