Archive for July, 2008

It’s annual company meeting time

Friday, July 18th, 2008

My company is celebrating its 10th anniversary with an all-weekend annual meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia this weekend, so don’t expect any new blog posts for the duration. And by all-weekend meeting what I really mean is an actual two-hour meeting surrounded on both ends by golfing, roller coasters at Busch Gardens, resort hotel activities, and copious drinking of alcoholic beverages paid for by the company, so don’t feel too bad for me. See you on Monday!

WordPress continues delivers cutting edge features

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

I know I’ve been critical of WordPress in the past, but the new release of WordPress 2.6 allows me to pause and give thanks for all the amazing features that WordPress offers. Earlier tonight I was helping a friend with her Blogger.com blog, and the difference between that and WordPress is night and day.

For instance, Blogger doesn’t even offer out-of-the-box support for below-the-fold text, and the official work-around they suggest is an ugly display:none; CSS hack. Yeah, that’s right, the full text of every post is always included on the main page — there’s just a CSS directive to the browser to hide it! Talk about inefficient! WordPress does it the correct way. And the stylesheet support Blogger has is just hideous. The full text of the stylesheet is included inline with the HTML header on every page. If you don’t believe me, just view the HTML source of this random Blogger blog. They’re all like that.

So compared to Blogger, WordPress is incontrovertibly amazing (and although my friend isn’t likely to want to get server space and administrate her own blog, I would at least recommend moving her blog over to WordPress.com). But the new version of WordPress, 2.6, adds a killer feature that I’ve long wanted in my blog software but haven’t seen anywhere: an integrated revision control system. If you’ve ever read Wikipedia and viewed the history tab, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Revision control is useful for single author blogs, where you might wipe out a passage only to later wish you had it back. It also helps a lot when there’s some tricky formatting you want to get just right. Without a revision control system, there’s no way to revert to a known good version without first copying the post source into Notepad. But it really shines for multi-author blogs. I remember how, when I was writing for Supreme Commander Talk with Grokmoo, we would edit each others’ posts, and then have to explicitly have a chat about what things in each other’s work needed editing so that the mistakes might not be repeated again. With proper revision control, just execute a diff and what’s changed is plain as day! It always slightly irked me that other people might be editing my words and I would never be able to know. With WordPress 2.6, that’s no longer possible.

So I’ll count my blessings with WordPress. Despite its security vulnerabilities (most of which seem to be passed now) it really is a great piece of software, and the developers continue to add amazing new must-have features to it. Now that I’ve had some experience with another blogging platform, I can unequivocally say that I heartily endorse WordPress. Everyone’s blogging experience should be this smooth.

Brushing up against fame at the Good Stuff Eatery

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

This past weekend on the night of my birthday (Woohoo, another year closer to death!), I joined in on an expedition to a new restaurant in Washington D.C., the Good Stuff Eatery. The friend that I went with is a local food review blogger and pretty thoroughly covered the food, so I shall cover the experience.

Coincidentally, a day before we headed to the Good Stuff Eatery, I was listening to Elliott in the Morning, a local radio morning show. Elliott was interviewing Spike Mendelsohn, a contestant from Top Chef who was opening up a burger joint in the local area. Lo and behold, the mentioned burger joint and the Good Stuff Eatery are one and the same, so I already knew a bit about the place before we went there. In particular I knew that I wanted to try the Blazin’ Barn Burger, which is inspired by the Vietnamese banh mi submarine sandwich. At work we get banh mis fairly often and they’re very good — think of a normal sub, but with pickled vegetables, jalapeno peppers, seasoning, and different sauces.

The Good Stuff Eatery was crowded, as one might reasonably expect for the opening weekend of a restaurant created by a celebrity chef. An old guy was managing the line outside the door (after which you had to wait in another line to order food). And, on a rather significant note to the two Top Chef fangirls who were amongst our number, Spike was there behind the counter, packing hamburgers into bags and chatting with customers.

I’d never heard of him before the Elliott in the Morning interview, so I didn’t develop a sudden outbreak of shyness like my friend over from The DC Dish. She was at first too afraid to even talk to him, and had me take a covert picture of him (which she didn’t put up on the blog, I see!). Meanwhile, I was chatting with him about the music selection in the restaurant, which was quite good — in the time I was waiting in line I heard Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and some other classic rock. He revealed to me the secret of his music: the classic rock station on XM satellite radio.

This brings me to an interesting point: fame is situational. If you are well aware of someone who is famous, it is a Big Deal when you actually meet them. If you haven’t really heard of them before, it’s not a big deal. The awe factor of meeting someone famous comes directly from hearing about them repeatedly, coverage in the media, appearances in television shows, by reading their novels, whatever. If you merely hear that someone is famous without any reinforcement to back that up (as it were), it doesn’t affect you. So I didn’t feel a sudden outbreak of nerves when talking to a guy I’d just heard of a day prior, but the two fangirls who had seen a whole season of him on Top Chef understandably felt a bit different about it. Now if we were to run across, say, Neil de Grasse Tyson, I bet our roles would be reversed. But I return to the restaurant.

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Why the dirigible will never come back

Monday, July 14th, 2008

One of the greatest casualties of the 20th century was the dirigible (or zeppelin, blimp, or airship, call it what you will). Although it was made obsolete by the fixed-wing aircraft, the dirigible has yet to be surpassed in sheer romance, and has long been admired by Steampunk writers and fans. Ponder how amazing it would be if things had turned out differently, and dirigibles still regularly graced the skies above us, docking gently with our tallest skyscrapers. And unlike the cramped confines of an airplane, traveling in dirigibles was downright luxurious, with observation decks providing grand views of the scenery below.
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The only problem is, the dirigible died out because fixed-wing airplanes are simply much better. They can travel significantly faster, don’t need to bother with large volumes of tricky-to-corral lighter-than-air gas, can navigate rough weather much better, and don’t require large ground crews to land (a plane just needs an open runway; a dirigible needs a ground crew to grab and secure its tethers). So you can see why I’m a bit skeptical whenever another story hits the media about yet another dirigible that’s supposedly going to bring blimps back into style (pictured to the right).

Dirigibles were awesome, but they simply aren’t coming back in any real capacity, no matter how many times they’re “reinvented”. The latest fad is in dirigibles that aren’t actually lighter-than-air, and that thus require the lift generated from wings during forward motion to stay aloft. The article I’ve linked above is far from the only airship using this design that’s been marketed recently. But the new design simply doesn’t address enough of the fundamental disadvantages of the airship, so expect to see it only in fringe applications, like leisure cruises. It won’t be causing any revolutions in air travel, passenger or cargo.

It’s a shame, but the dirigible, just like the telegraph, is a technology whose time has come and gone. The only sliver of hope for the airship is in its nostalgia value.

On growing old

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

Do you think 23 is too young to make the transition from celebrating birthdays to resenting them as yet another precious year elapsed before death?

War in the Middle East – this could be fun!

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

Rumblings about a potential war in the Middle East with Iran keep pouring in. It makes you think there really is something to this. Is George W. Bush insane enough to launch a third war when we can’t even win the two we’re currently engaged in? Are the Israelis really stupid enough to preemptively attack Iran, which would surely cause them to lose even more favor around the world? Does anyone besides the OPEC countries want the much higher gas prices that would be associated with a regional war in the Middle East?

The difference between attacking Iran and, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, is that Iran can actually fight back. Hence why I put “this could be fun” in the post title — if you’re a hardcore military nerd, anyway. Iraq and Afghanistan couldn’t do anything but sit back and get bombed from the air during the initial stages of our assaults, then our ground forces mopped up the remnants. A war with Iran would be much different.

Iran actually has medium-range missiles capable of striking our forces assembled in the Gulf. Our preemptive strike would have to be perfect, taking out all of their strike capability outside their borders within a few minutes at most, or else we would definitely be experiencing materiel casualties on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War. Planning such an attack is incredibly hard, and it makes you wonder if anyone is seriously attempting it, or if this is all so much saber rattling.

So keep your eyes peeled. If we actually go down this idiotic path of a war with Iran, at least it’s going to be interesting. And Israel had better be very careful about it, or they’re going to have significant civilian casualties from Iran’s forces.

A journey into the bowels of Wikipedia

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Most people don’t know what’s going on in the bowels of Wikipedia. Be very thankful of that. For the most part, what goes on in the bowels of Wikipedia is thoroughly uninteresting except to those who are right in the thick of it, in which case it’s certainly the most interesting thing ever (or you would have to assume so, judging by how much time is whiled away on it). So to those looking on from the outside, and want to know what’s really behind this Wikipedia thing, here’s an example.

The English Wikipedia has an Arbitration Committee that is tasked with resolving the most serious disputes between users. Arbitration cases work pretty much like court cases in the real world, including lengthy opening statements and discussion by all parties involved, the presentation of evidence, discussion of said evidence, debating, proposal of rulings, voting on rulings, discussion of rulings, etc. The only difference between Wikipedia arbitration and a real court case is that in an arbitration case, all of the onlookers can get into the discussion too, and they frequently do. Imagine a court case where everyone in the gallery is screaming loudly along with every step of the proceedings and you have an inkling of how chaotic and lengthy this can all be.

The Arbitration Committee has about a dozen sitting arbitrators who are the only ones who can vote on the proposed rulings. Recently, one of the arbitrators broke ranks on a case and said that an agreement had been reached in a case following private discussion by the arbitrators. The only problem is, it hadn’t. Another arbitrator logged on soon after and posted a message saying that this ruling had not, in fact, been agreed to by everyone. Much drama and gnashing of teeth ensued, with the most vocal Wikipedians wailing that they had lost total faith in the Arbitration Committee (one wonders if they thought it had been infallible up until that point).

The controversy surrounding this incident grew so big that a separate process, a Request for Comment, was launched on the topic of the Arbitration Committee’s legitimacy. So we’ve gone from a simple user disagreement, to an argument over the user disagreement, to an argument over the argument over the user disagreement. And keep in mind that the user disagreement itself was pretty far removed from the actual purpose of Wikipedia — writing the encyclopedia — by a good deal. Is that enough levels of meta for you? At this moment, the meta-meta-discussion, the Request for Comment on the Arbitration Committee, is 92,500 words long, or about the length of the average fiction novel. And the talk page of the Request for Comment, which is effectively a meta-meta-meta-discussion, weighs in at a decent 32,500 words, or the size of an average novella.

I’m not going to go into any further detail on any of this, because frankly, my eyes are glazing over at this point. You’re invited to read the links I’ve presented, but honestly, there are so many better things you could do in the same amount of time — like read an actual novel. And I haven’t even searched out all of the meta levels — the administrators’ notice boards, the community notice boards, the village pump, etc. All told, on any major controversial issue, roughly five to ten novels worth of text will be spewed forth by all of the participants involved. It’s enough to make any future historian squirm with glee.

I hope you enjoyed (!!) this look into the bowels of Wikipedia. Just be very thankful that you aren’t involved in any of it (or if you are, I’m so sorry). The next time you’re reading an article on Wikipedia, just appreciate that somehow useful things manage to get done even amongst all of this unproductive chaos. Wikipedia in many respects resembles a supermarket in the Gilded Age. Walking along the clean, lovingly arrayed aisles and admiring the nicely presented canned pork products, it seems like a very pleasant place. But don’t dare inquire about how those products are actually made — there’s a whole jungle just beneath that shiny veneer.

Treating depression as brain damage

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, the theory of depression as a chemical shortage in the brain is losing ground amongst scientists in favor of a new theory of depression as damage in the brain. It’s not nearly as out there as it initially sounds, and it actually does fit a lot of clinical evidence better. For instance, fluoxetine (the active ingredient in Prozac) raises the level of serotonin in the brain. Yet using other drugs to lower the level of serotonin in the brain does not cause depression, nor does it make depression worse. The release of serotonin caused by fluoxetine is thus probably doing something else to the brain: healing the neurons, not simply restoring a chemical balance.

Now, this only makes sense if depression is actually a mild, reversible neurodegenerative disorder as opposed to a chemical imbalance. The theory goes that people are depressed because their neurons are in bad shape due to a lack of regenerative trophic factors, and the proper treatments (fluoxetine and exercise are both highly effective) increase the production of trophic factors and cause injured neurons to recover/regrow. This explains the observed clinical phenomenon known as “Prozac lag” — serotonin levels go up within hours of starting treatment with the drug, yet it takes weeks for the depression to be alleviated. Well, guess how long it takes to repair/regrow neurons? Weeks, not hours. Fluoxetine is also being investigated as a treatment for lazy eye, which is caused by underdevelopment of the neural cortex. It works in rats, the theory being that the fluoxetine is fostering the growth of new neurons. It’s now starting to be used as a treatment for lazy eye in humans.

Now nobody’s sure if the new way of thinking about depression is completely correct, so don’t go jumping to any conclusions just yet, but it’s now looking more likely than the chemical imbalance theory of yesteryear. The new theory also explains the other factors that are so often coincident with depression — memory problems, smell and taste sensory deficits, and basic bodily process problems with weight control, sex drive, and sleeping. So under this new theory, we don’t think of depression as just sadness, but of an overall lowering in functioning in the brain caused by neural deterioration, of which sadness is simply the most notable symptom.

The new paradigm should make it easier to get people to accept treatment. Instead of telling people that they need chemical happiness (which some people refuse, because they don’t like the idea of a chemical in their brain making them something other than themselves), tell them that they need a chemical to repair minor neural damage. Phrased that way, it’s a lot less off-putting. Who would be opposed to fixing brain damage by taking a simple pill? It has a convenient explanation, too — in the modern world, humans are exercising a lot less often than we used to, and as a result, the trophic factors that promote neural regeneration aren’t being produced in the same quantities. If people aren’t getting enough exercise to replace those lost trophic factors, at least restore their equivalent brain function through the use of a convenient pill.

I wonder what ramifications this theory this will have on the future of neurology. We may soon find out that other psychiatric disorders are caused by some forms of damage to the brain (we already know about the obvious ones, like Alzheimer’s disease). Medical neuroscience may shift away from modifying neural chemical levels towards treating and rejuvenating neurons. It all goes to show how science is consistently digging up new truths and changing our world for the better. Science brought us fluoxetine and now it’s finally explaining how it actually works, creating a bridge of understanding that will hopefully help in the treatment of other disorders.

Authors are the only ones to see the fairer side of copyright

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Most netizens agree that copyright is pretty horrifically broken. It lasts far longer than it has any business to, its length keeps getting extended, it’s way too restrictive, and it benefits major corporations a lot more than it does individuals. Most of copyright’s terrible public image has come from the music industry and the movie industry (thank you RIAA and MPAA!). What it hasn’t come from, for the most part, is the book industry. Here’s why.

Across the entire book industry, authors retain the copyright to their works. That’s why they can pick up shop and re-release all of their older novels with a new publisher at the drop of the hat. This ever-present threat is what keeps the publishing industries in line: they have to give the authors good deals or else they’d lose all of their authors. It’s also how JK Rowling can make a billion dollars off a single series of seven books — she retains all of the rights to the series, so when a licensing deal is made to make a movie, she gets the money. You ever heard of a musician or a filmmaker pulling that off? Hell no! Musicians only get paid a pittance from their albums; the majority of the profit comes from concert touring. Filmmakers also don’t make (that) much off their work.

The reason for all of this? In the music and film industry, the publisher gets exclusive publishing rights. There are many musicians out there who’ve switched labels and who can’t legally sell their old music, because someone else owns the rights to it! The same thing happens in the film industry. How absurd is that? The “game” in those industries is so rigged that just to be able to play, you have to give away all ownership rights to something you came up with. That’s how broken copyright is that it allows this to happen.

Now granted, the novel is very much the production of a single person (and a few editors), whereas an album generally has a larger production staff, and a movie especially is made by a lot of different people. It’s harder in the latter two cases to argue that the work is completely owned by a small group of people, especially in the case of a movie studio ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars to produce a movie. But many indie films that are entirely self-financed still get the same raw deal, with their creators having to give up exclusive rights just to get them shown in major theaters. It’s a travesty of copyright.

So go out and support the book publishing industry when you have a chance, as it’s actually not rotten to the core and the authors retain ownership and earn a decent percentage of the profits. As for music and movies, well, you should treat those publishers the same way they treat their creative talent: by royally screwing them over.

This post was inspired by the recent move of the blog The Loom between webhosts for the third time. During each move, the author has retained full ownership of all of his posts, and has been able to move all of them forward to the new host. Yet such a thing in the music industry, simply moving all of an artist’s back catalog to the next label without having to draw up a lot of contracts and pay out a large sum of money, is unthinkable.

Update: After some further research and discussion with friends, it looks like I’m mostly wrong about contracts in the writing industry being more lenient than in the other industries. Dammit. Looks like I got the wrong idea from only considering people who’ve managed to negotiate good contracts. Check out some more book deal contracting issues at this link.

Attention American conservatives: Wikipedias are grouped by language, not by nation

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Another day, another conservative commentator ‘discovering’ that Wikipedia is a bastion of left-wing liberal thinking. In this case, Lawrence Solomon, a climate change denier with a tenuous grasp on reality, is getting all bent out of shape that his attempts to insert oil company propaganda into Wikipedia are being reverted. He reaches the very tired and predictable conclusion that Wikipedia is left-leaning and biased against conservatives.

In actuality, Solomon just isn’t using the right frame of reference. He’s making the rookie mistake of assuming that the English Wikipedia is the American Wikipedia. It’s not. The Wikipedias are grouped by language, not by nation. This is a huge distinction: for instance, the Portugese Wikipedia has more readers and editors in Brazil than in Portugal. The English Wikipedia thus primarily serves not only the residents of the United States, but also the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, etc., and is also widely read and edited by hundreds of millions of people in other nations where English is used and taught as a second language.

That’s right, the English Wikipedia is even heavily read and edited in countries where English is not the first language of the vast majority of the inhabitants. The reason? Simply put, the English Wikipedia is the best one. It has the most articles, the most editors, the most comprehensive coverage, by far the most readership, etc. The German Wikipedia ranks a distant second. So even if English is not your first language, so long as you have a decent level of literacy in English (which many people do), the English Wikipedia is more useful to you than the one in your native language.

The English Wikipedia thus reflects a global perspective rather than a purely American perspective. This is where all of the complaints of the American-centric conservatives who claim that the English Wikipedia is biased fall flat on their face. The United States is a very conservative nation relative to most other nations. What we consider liberal is considered moderate or even right-wing in other nations. What we consider conservative is considered unthinkable in many nations. For instance, just try to find another developed nation that lets thousands of its citizens die each year of treatable diseases because they treat health care as a privilege for the rich who can afford it rather than as a basic human right. The United States pretty much stands alone in that barbarism.

A lot of really stupid things that we have manufactured controversies over here in the United States, like climate change and evolution, aren’t controversial at all from a global perspective. The English Wikipedia simply reflects that. It’s not a case of censorship of conservative opinions, but a conscious rejection of extreme viewpoints that very few people on a global scale hold. If you can’t handle that, go back to your Fox News, where you’ll never hear anything you disagree with. Meanwhile, Wikipedia is going to be doing what it’s always done, offering up a neutral point of view, which emphatically does not mean an American point of view.