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Torrents

One of the cool things I’ve been playing around with in the past month has been Torrents.  (If you are familiar with Torrents and Torrent clients, you might want to skip this and come back later.)

Torrents are a cooperative way to share files.   In standard file sharing, if I have a file I want to share, I post it on my web site.  If you know about it and want it, you download it from me.  The bandwidth used by my web site host’s server is charged to my account.  (Every time you look at my web site, the bandwidth to serve up the page is charged to my account, but the amount of bandwidth for a web site like mine is minuscule compared to that required to download a file.)  Now, if it is a small file, if it is obscure enough to not create much demand, and if relatively few people know about it, it isn’t a problem.  (For example, I currently am allowed about 2500 GB of file transfer bandwidth per month.  I am on pace to use about a tenth of a GB this month, unless you get a lot of your friends to visit the Ratlands.  Over and over and over and over…)

On the other hand, if you are offering up a really big, popular file and a lot of people want it, the cost can really mount up.  (Should I ever go over my bandwidth limit, it would cost me $1 per GB.)  So, if you want to share files, you have to pay for a lot of bandwidth.  File hosting websites almost always have advertising or some sort of commercial venture that pays for the bandwidth.

Torrents work differently.  To make a physical world analogy, suppose I have a document that is 5 pages long.  Suppose 5 of you want a copy.  In regular file sharing I would make a copy for each of the 5 people, or 25 pages total.  However, suppose I were to make a copy of page 1 for the first person, a copy of page 2 for the second person, a copy of page 3 for the third person and so on.  Then person 1 would make 4 copies of page one and distribute them to persons 2,3,4 and 5.  Person 2 would make 4 copies of page 2 to distribute to persons 1,3,4 and 5, etc.  In the end, each person who wanted the document would have a full copy.  Each person would have only made 4 copies of their original page.  I would only have had to make a copy of 5 pages.

Torrent clients are a way to coordinate the sharing of pieces of files in the digital world.  A person who wants to share a file prepares the file and a torrent file which has information about the torrent.  That torrent information gets uploaded to a torrent tracker (a web site that lists available torrents).  The whole process minimizes the bandwidth burden on the original sharer by distributing the burden among the people who want the file.  In practice, it is a lot more complicated than the page copying example because new persons who want the document are jumping into the pool all the time.  The original file sharer may not even be involved after a while because as long as there is at least one copy of each piece of the file available, everyone who wants a full copy can get it.  Once you connect to a torrent, as soon as you have a piece, the torrent client starts sharing that piece with others who need it.  In the torrent world, it is considered bad form to get your file and then disconnect, as that limits the availability of complete copies of the file.  The more people who have complete copies who make them available, the faster everyone else can finish downloading their complete copies, etc.

I have used Bit Torrent and Azureus, but I settled on uTorrent.  It just seems to work better for me.  I liked some of the features with Azereus, but on my computer with my ISP, uTorrent seems to be faster.  I will say that if you have a home network  and use a router you will have to learn about port forwarding to get a torrent client to work right, but  Azereus and uTorrent have really good tutorials on what to do and will point you to a web site that will walk you through the process specifically for your router.  Also, you will have to learn how to open a port through your software firewall, if you use one (and if you don’t, you should).  That piece of the process nearly did me in.  I ended up dumping Zone Alarm (which I had used since I first got on line) and going with Comodo.

Speed is often a problem with getting files via torrent.  A couple of nights ago I was downloading a live concert performance by the Radiators at Nugs.net (the free stash section, if you are interested).  It was about 160 MB and finished in about 10 minutes.  My download speed fluctuated, but appeared to average around 300 kBps.  Files that get shared via torrent are typically larger than that and download speeds are not usually nearly that high.  When I downloaded my latest copy of Ubuntu Linux I got torrent speeds that averaged over 400 kBps.  When I download movies from Public Domain Torrents I typically get speeds around 20 kBps.  So basically, downloading torrents is something that you need to set up and leave running at night, when you are not around, and in the background when you are doing other things on your computer.

The upside of torrents is that practically anything you could want is available via torrent: music, movies, computer games and programs, etc.  The downside of torrents is that the vast majority of them are illegal.  Pirate
Bay
is probably the biggest torrent tracker.  Based in Sweden (where
copyright laws are a bit different), they have been fighting running
battles to close them down. Legal efforts against them have included police raids on their servers and other things (see this article).  Currently, the Pirate Bay is engaged in a fund raising to buy the allegedly independent nation of Sealand so as to create a copyright-free nation.

There are, however a lot of things available legally via torrent.  I first started using torrent clients when I wanted a copy of Star Wars: Revelations (a fan produced film set between movies 3 and 4 of the Star Wars series) which is freely available, free of charge.  Star Wreck: In the Pirkining (another fan film) is also available via torrent.  As mentioned before, I got the newest version of Ubuntu Linux via torrent, which, if you are familiar with the Linux community should not be all that surprising.  (I believe the fantastic download speeds I got for Ubuntu have to do with the likelihood that people who are interested in the latest Ubuntu are probably fairly computer savvy and most probably have very fast internet connections.  I’ve never come close to that speed on any other torrent download.) 

My favorite legal torrent site is Public Domain Torrents which features movies which are, oddly enough, in the public domain.  Effectively this means old B&W cartoons, silent movies (Buster Keaton, among others) and my favorites, the old Science Fiction movies.  They also have a number of old movie serials.  I’m in the process of downloading a series called Flash Gordon conquers the Universe with Buster Crabb.  The only real problem with this site is that we’re talking about relatively obscure stuff here.  I have had situations where I was one of only two or three people downloading a particular movie.  With that small a group, torrents take a long time.  I have noticed, however, that as I finish downloading these torrents and leave them available, the groups continue to grow.  Where I started downloading with one or two others, when I finish there may be 10 or 20 involved.  The folks who use PDT seem to be pretty good about continuing to share what they’ve downloaded.

Well, that’s the short version on torrents.  We now return you to your regular drivel.

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