Archive for May, 2008

Wikipedia as a cult of knowledge

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Wikipedia has been accused of being a cult by a wide variety of detractors. And frankly, it’s true. But it’s not quite the kind of cult that most of its detractors allege. For instance, it’s not a cult of Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia’s remaining co-founder), as most of the everyday editors barely even know who he is; they are so far isolated from his influence that they don’t even come close to sipping the Kool-Aid. It’s only at the top echelons of Wikipedia governance where Jimmy’s influence makes itself known, but that has been waning heavily in recent years after a long series of missteps from an aloof “leader” who, every time he steps in, seems to do so with only half knowledge, and is as likely to inflame a conflict and leave it unresolved as he is to resolve it.

No, the only way in which Wikipedia can be truly be described as a cult is in the manner in which nearly all of its members value knowledge. I have never seen such a uniformly inquisitive group of people before. Wikipedia is the largest collection of free knowledge on the planet, and a cult of knowledge has grown up simultaneously with it. Simple informal discussions amongst Wikipedia participants have a palpably different feel than anything else I’ve experienced. Everyone relishes learning new things. Wikipedia articles are linked frequently, not only because Wikipedia is the common thread linking the participants together, but simply because reading Wikipedia’s articles is an excellent way of learning new things. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the more anti-intellectual American society at large.

In the past few days I’ve read about everything from naval armaments in World Wars I and II to local towns in my area to science fiction novels. Scarcely a day goes by in which I don’t refer to Wikipedia on something. When I’m not in front of a computer and someone mentions a topic that I have insufficient knowledge of, I keep it in my mind until I next get in front of a computer and then look it up on Wikipedia. Most of the Wikipedians you will interact with do likewise. Thus, there’s never a dull, silent moment in a conversation amongst Wikipedians, because there is never any lack of subjects to discuss in a cult of knowledge.

Shouldn’t we invite the uncontacted tribes into the modern world?

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Incredible as it may seem in 2008, there are indeed some remaining uncontacted human tribes (click that link for the pictures alone). These are people living with no contact with the modern world apart from the occasional airplane sighting, doing things in all likelihood as they have been done for centuries or millennia. While modern civilization has washed across the globe these past few thousand years, it has as of yet failed to spread to the some of the most remote corners of it. I find that absolutely fascinating.

But it also brings to my mind a moral quandary. These are people like you and I; they are not “savages”. It’s not that they were incapable of coming up with civilization on their own, it’s simply that their environment isn’t amenable to it (for more details on this thesis, I refer you to the Pulitzer prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond). Yet civilization is a great thing that uplifts the human experience, right? So don’t they deserve the benefits of civilization, what with the much better medicine, modern agriculture, the Internet, et al? Who the hell are we to not gift all of this to them when it’s perfectly within our abilities to do so, solely because we want to keep them around as a sort of curious sideshow, a museum exhibit on the human condition before the march of progress revolutionized it? Isn’t that at its core more arrogant than not contacting them at all?

Haven’t we reached a point in the evolution of humanity where we should go back to all of the unfortunate folks who missed the rising tide and fill them in on the great news? We’re sending space probes to distant worlds they likely know of as nothing more than wandering objects in the sky, if that! Were I in their position, I would at least want the knowledge of modern times, even if I did not want the style of modern life. And you have to admit, there is some strange lure to living simply, but I draw a distinction between living simply by choice and living simply in ignorance. Don’t they at least deserve a choice in the matter? It’s their lives. There are a couple of people dying from completely curable illnesses at this very moment in the uncontacted tribes. Shouldn’t we at least ask them if they want our modern medicine? If I was dying of a completely curable disease and someone somewhere had a cure, but refused to announce themselves and alleviate my suffering because they preferred that I remain in an “untouched and pure” state, along with all of the unnecessary suffering that entailed, I’d have a few choice words for them.

Unfortunately, if we do not proactively address the issue of our first contact and do it in a responsible manner, it will be handled by unprofessionals in a completely irresponsible manner. Humanity is sweeping across the globe. Already, the territory of the outermost uncontacted tribes is being infringed upon by loggers and poachers. And their first reaction is often simply to murder the uncontacted tribesmembers using firearms; they simply want the trees and the animals, and don’t want any pesky people defending their land shooting arrows at them to get in the way. Don’t we owe them better than that as an introduction to modern civilization? They’re going to experience civilization one way or another, either in the form of an amazing present or in the form of a large boot squishing them beneath it.

And there’s one more issue at play here. The linked article mentions that the uncontacted tribes haven’t built up many immunities to disease owing to their utter state of isolation. Illnesses following first contact can prove fatal to up to one half of their populations. It’s like the American Indian situation all over again, but even worse, because the diseases are more deadly and more global now than they were centuries ago. Yet loggers are increasingly encroaching upon the uncontacted tribes’ territories, so they will eventually get these diseases regardless. Shouldn’t it happen under the auspices of modern medicine instead? Isn’t that the only moral way to do it? With modern immunizations and hospital care, the mortality rate can be brought way down. We owe them their first contact in a conscientious manner, if for no other reason than so they don’t experience waves of deadly illnesses after their first accidental contact with people who don’t care about their wellbeing.

So, I say we invite the remaining uncontacted tribes into the fold of the rest of humanity. They can turn down all of our amazing technology and continue living life exactly as they do now if they want to, but at least give them the simple choice. They’ve already seen our airplanes buzzing above them. I do not think a simple direct introduction will faze them much further. It is to our great disservice that we patronizingly use the rationalization of “they wouldn’t be able to handle it without their society collapsing” in actively avoiding first contacts. If there’s anything we’ve learned in our own many-thousand-year journey through civilization, it’s that humans are infinitely adaptable.

It’s time to stop leaving them in the dark and turn on the light.

DRM: how things you’ve bought aren’t actually yours

Friday, May 30th, 2008

We free software folk have been trying to warn people about the dangers of Digital Restrictions Management for a while, we really have. Yet you just aren’t listening to us! Well, here are two recent all-too-obvious-in-hindsight DRM travesties by Microsoft that might have you reconsidering. If Microsoft can’t even be trusted to do DRM correctly, then who can?

First, Microsoft decided to close down their MSN Music service, presumably because it was unprofitable. Unfortunately for any customer who ever bought anything from the store, they won’t be able to play their purchased music files on any additional devices come June because Microsoft is shutting down the servers. Each audio file is actually a file encrypted with DRM, and once the servers go away, so too go any of the means of being able to decrypt the files. Ain’t it great that “pirates” will be able to play their downloaded mp3s indefinitely, but people who legitimately purchased the music will be stuck with worthless files and no refund? But that’s what you get when you willingly buy something infected with DRM.

Microsoft also uses Digital Restrictions Management on all of its Downloadable Content for the XBOX 360. All downloaded files are linked both to the user account and to the hardware. Want to change accounts? You can’t take your downloads with you. Buying another XBOX 360? Can’t take ‘em with you. Buying another XBOX 360 because your old one broke? You’re still screwed! That’s right, this poor sap’s XBOX 360 broke, taking all of the downloaded content that he bought along with it, and Microsoft’s only response was “buy all your content a second time.” It makes you wonder why they even use the word “buy”, because when you actually buy something it implies that you actually own it. If this is really the future of gaming consoles, we gamers are in big trouble. Microsoft is trying to supplant a decent product (games on DVD that can be played in any console) with an inferior one, simply because they can make a lot more money with it, what with the duplicate downloads, lower distribution costs, no need to print manuals, etc.

And why shouldn’t they? By buying all of this content that’s infected with DRM, we customers are bringing it all down upon ourselves. Unfortunately, many people will only realize too late how evil DRM is — after they’ve spent thousands of dollars on music only to have the authorization servers shut down, or after they’ve spent hundreds of dollars on downloadable content only to have their XBOX 360 crap out on them. And Microsoft doesn’t care about fixing any of this. They already have your money, and they’re big enough they can just tell you to go screw yourself. Actually, I wish they were that kind, because tauntingly suggesting you pay again for everything you’ve already purchased once is worse.

So join with me and refuse to buy anything that’s infected with DRM. Support the EFF’s anti-DRM campaign. Support the Defective by Design campaign. Spread the word. Don’t be the poor sod who abruptly finds himself “owning” hundreds of dollars of worthless DRM-infected files that cannot ever be used again.

The upside of high petroleum prices

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

As much as I wince each time I have to fill up the gas tank (which I’m doing less and less these days, thanks to working from home more often), I do realize that higher petroleum prices are ultimately a good thing. And so does a writer for Market Watch. We’ve been able to maintain this addiction to oil for so long only because the lobbying might of the oil companies has overwhelmed the benefits of switching (and not because it wasn’t cost beneficial to switch from oil, because it already is). But as gas gets more and more expensive, alternative options like plug-in cars will look more and more attractive. Once a major shift is made, the negative externalities of petroleum production will be reduced by a good deal.

So the next time you’re wincing at how much it costs to fill up at the pump, console yourself with the knowledge that this is ultimately good for the future of mankind on this planet. Widespread petroleum use is environmentally unsustainable due to the particulate pollution and carbon dioxide emissions (and thus, global warming) it causes. The sooner we get away from it, the better. And the best way to get away from it, and indeed, perhaps the only way to get away from it in this political climate where the oil companies wield such great power, is to make it such that people simply cannot afford it.

Who’s with me on a countdown to $10/gallon gasoline?

Syntax highlighting “Hello, world”

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Don’t mind me; I’m just trying out the Syntax Highlighter WordPress Plugin. It’s pretty awesome, huh?

public void HelloWorld() {
	String txt = "Hello, World!";
	System.out.println(txt);
	return;
}

Specs for a high power, cheap ($380) GNU/Linux desktop

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

The other day, I was realizing that I don’t use GNU/Linux as often as I should. Sure, I run it exclusively on my servers, but I still use Windows on the desktop for the most part. That’s more out of habit than out of any need. Everything I currently do in Windows I can do in GNU/Linux, except for the games, which I’m playing more and more occasionally these days. I was dual-booting my current desktop with Windows XP and GNU/Linux for awhile, but it proved to be inconvenient. My computers’ uptimes, both servers and desktops, are typically measured in months (only going down for crashes and power losses). It takes awhile to reboot and restart all of the applications I typically have running, so I don’t do it by choice. Thus you can see the problem with dual-booting: it entails constant rebooting, which I had to do as often as I felt like playing a Windows game. And then once I was in Windows I wouldn’t want to go through the hassle of booting into GNU/Linux only to boot back into Windows the next time I wanted to play a game. It simply wasn’t working.

So I now see the problem with my initial attempts at using GNU/Linux on the desktop. I simply don’t have the patience to put up with all of those constant reboots and interruptions in my computing environment. I’m too lazy. I’m simply going to get another desktop to use exclusively for GNU/Linux, while making every effort to only use my current Windows desktop for playing games. And luckily, making a desktop computer is cheaper than it’s ever been. Here is a current parts list I put together just yesterday for a killer GNU/Linux desktop.

The specs

This complete GNU/Linux system costs only $355. Throw in shipping and we’ll call it $380. That’s a really cheap price considering how powerful this system is. Avoiding the Microsoft tax by choosing a Free operating system pays huge dividends when the overall system is cheap. Allow me to explain the choices I made in putting this system together with individual analyses of each other components:

The barebone system

First of all, I save a lot of money with this computer by building it into a barebone system. A price of $90 for a case, power supply, and motherboard is really hard to beat. You can easily spend over $90 for each of those individual components (and in fact, when I built my current desktop, I did). Getting a good barebone system is an excellent way to save a lot of money on a low-end desktop. If you’re not building a low-end desktop, I wouldn’t bother. The limitations can be significant. For instance, the motherboard that ships in the barebone I picked out supports a maximum of 2 GB of RAM; fine for a low-end system, but you really want 4 GB of RAM on a medium or high end system. And the power supply is only 250W; again, fine for a low end system, but don’t expect it to be able to power, say, a high-end discrete video card. And naturally the motherboard doesn’t support dual video cards, which would be an upgrade path you might want to keep open on a system you’re outlaying more money on. It also doesn’t support quad-core processors. So there are limitations, but for a low-level system, you won’t run into them.

Read the rest of this entry »

The failings of development in Windows

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Drinian (regular commenter here) pointed me to a great series of articles on the failings of Microsoft in recent years. Particularly, the Windows APIs are inconsistent and not pleasurable to use from a development perspective, and with Windows Vista and its flagship applications, Microsoft has released a wildly inconsistent smattering of user interfaces. I’m not going to try to sum up the articles in any further detail; they’re so full of content that you really have to read them for yourself:

  1. From Win32 to Cocoa: a Windows user’s conversion to Mac OS X – Part I
  2. From Win32 to Cocoa: a Windows user’s conversion to Mac OS X – Part II
  3. From Win32 to Cocoa: a Windows user’s conversion to Mac OS X – Part III (Updated 2008-06-01)

And yes, I know there’s a lot of “Mac OS X” in the title there, but the majority of the content really is about Microsoft and Windows. The third part in the series isn’t out yet, but when it is, I’ll try to update this blog post with a link to it.

For the record, I personally agree with pretty much everything Peter Bright says about Windows development. I did a good bit of it at my previous job and it was ugly. .NET hasn’t made significant improvements in this regard because it makes way too many concessions to long-deprecated functionality. And the wide variety of official Microsoft user interfaces in Windows Vista is incredibly off-putting. Why does every large Microsoft application function completely differently?! If I’m a third party developer writing my own application, what do I try to make it look like? The answer isn’t Microsoft Office 2007 (even though it’s my favorite new interface of the lot), because the ribbon menu implementation is specific to the Office codebase and doesn’t even have a public API! Brilliant!

Hard to believe it’s been a year

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I graduated University of Maryland. Compared to how quickly this one went by, all of the previous years in my life felt like eons. And the sad thing is I can’t really even point to anything that justifies the passage of a whole year (except possibly writing that novel, my work on Veropedia, and that telescope I haven’t finished yet). Nothing particularly amazing happened; I just worked, earned money, and wasted time. It’s kind of unfulfilling. At least I have this blog, which gives me some kind of accomplishment to point at. Otherwise, I would be really melancholic right about now, having blown a whole year on work, surfing the web, and playing games.

Whereas other people have New Year’s resolutions, I think it makes sense for me to have a Graduation Day resolution. I don’t want to be in the same place next year as I am today. I’m resolving to do more worthwhile things, in whatever form they may be. For now, I think that will involve a lot more writing. I’ll have to seriously cut down on idly browsing the web and channel that time towards my writing. I’ve already really cut down on my time spent playing games, so that’s good.

Eventually, though, I think I would like to go back to school. There’s something about being a professor that really appeals to me. I think I was one of the few students in my classes who really envied our professors. And I know I have the intelligence to accomplish that goal; it’s just a hell of a commitment. So for now I’ll continue working, saving up my money, and writing, but I do have my eye on more nobler goals.

The highest-editing zombie bot on Wikipedia

Monday, May 26th, 2008

I stopped actively editing Wikipedia more or less one year ago. Naturally, I haven’t stopped editing completely, as I still read Wikipedia nearly every day in the pursuit of my own edification. But I no longer seek out thankless administrative tasks to perform, nor do I browse articles solely to find a way to contribute some writing. In that way I’m much more like the casual reader who occasionally fixes a typo, though the casual reader also doesn’t have the ability to delete articles, block users, and protect pages (ah, the privileges of being an administrator). But I don’t much use those abilities anymore, so it matters little.

In addition to doing lots of editing and administrative tasks (page may take awhile to load), I also spent a good amount of time hacking on programs for Wikipedia. Some, such as the userbox generator (don’t even ask), were purposefully silly. Others, such as my work on the PyWikipediaBot free software project, were more useful. In addition to my work on that bot framework, I wrote quite a few bots, which are programs for making automated edits. By the time I (mostly) retired from Wikipedia, I had put many hours into those bots, and I couldn’t bear to just shut them down. So I left them running. They’ve been running now for over a year, unattended for the most part, and have been remarkably error-free all things considered. I have variously forgotten about them for months at a time, and only remembered them when my network connection chugs for an extended period of time (long “Categories for deletion” backlog) or when my server’s CPU utilization pegs (bot process gets stuck in an endless loop). So yes, there is a zombie bot editing Wikipedia, and it even has administrative rights that it uses quite frequently!

All of these bot programs that I wrote run under one Wikipedia user account, Cydebot. That account was the first account on any Wikipedia project to break one million edits. The total currently stands somewhere at a million and a quarter (proof), though it has been out-edited by one other bot account by now. But just think about the enormity of that number. At one point Cydebot had a single digit percentage of all edits to the English Wikipedia. You can’t say that’s not impressive, especially considering how ridiculously massive Wikipedia is. Yet being a bot operator was largely unsung work. The only time I really got noticed for all the effort I was putting into it (and never mind the network resources involved, especially when I was running AntiVandalBot, which downloaded and analyzed the text of every single edit to Wikipedia in real time) was when yet another person thought they were the first to realize that Cydebot was using administrative tools and deemed it necessary to yell at me about it. Wikipedia has this cargo cult rule that “admin bots aren’t allowed” — even though people have been running them for years. I’ll grant that it’s schizophrenic.

So after continuing to run Cydebot for this long, I’m not going to stop now. I haven’t put any effort into Cydebot for over a year besides occasionally updating the pyWikipediaBot framework from SVN, killing pegged bot processes, and rarely modifying the batch files for my bots when someone points out that the associated pages on Wikipedia have changed. I don’t have the time (nor the desire) to put any further serious development work into Cydebot, so at some point things will finally break and Cydebot will no longer be able to do any work. But it’s already gone for over a year performing all sorts of thankless tasks on Wikipedia that no human wants to be bothered with; why not let it continue going and see how much longer my favorite zombie bot can continue at it for?

If you want to track the continuing edits of a zombie bot on Wikipedia, you can do so here. So the next time you are idly reading Wikipedia, remember that, not only are there bots behind the scenes that are making millions of automated edits, but some of them are zombies that have been running largely unattended for months, if not years. Wikipedia is built, in no small part, upon zombie labor.

Fixing an image upload bug in WordPress 2.5

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Ever since I upgraded to WordPress 2.5, I’ve been unable to successfully load images. The Upload Image page would come up just fine, I would select the image file, the progress bar would advance all the way to the finish, then I’d get kicked out to a WordPress login screen, with the image not having made it. I didn’t have the time to fix it for awhile, so I simply uploaded images to my webhost using SCP and linked to them manually, but that was a huge drain of time. So I finally sat down to fix it once and for all.

I tried all of the official WordPress fixes, to no avail. There’s something up with my shared hosting provider’s (HostMonster’s) configuration that doesn’t respond to any of the standard fixes. So I finally gave up and installed the No Flash Uploader plugin. It does exactly what it says: revert to the pre-Flash uploader days of WordPress 2.3. You may not get all of the “latest and greatest” features of the WordPress 2.5 uploader, but then again, I’d say an uploader that actually works is far superior than one that doesn’t.

So if you’re experiencing image uploading problems in WordPress 2.5, try out this plugin before you give up all hope. It’s just like uploading images in WordPress 2.3, which wasn’t bad at all. This whole Flash uploader mess — is Flash really even necessary, considering it’s not well supported on GNU/Linux? — along with the lack of password salting security hole pre-2.5 has really shaken my confidence in the WordPress developers. I’ll take basic functionality over flashy functionality any day of the week. And I wish they had followed this mantra a little more closely, as a simple Google search will reveal that I’m far from the only person having problems with WordPress 2.5.