What the hell is happening to the Internet in the Middle East?

Friday, February 1st, 2008

Three undersea fiber optic Internet backbone cables leading to the Middle East have been cut in the past three days — does anyone honestly believe they’re all just coincidental accidents any more? The story that the media is running with is that ships’ anchors have cut all of the cables in separate occasions, but come on, that doesn’t sound right. Can anyone remember the last time something like this happened? And now it happens thrice in three days?

It seems much more likely to me that someone is actively severing these cables. Are they waging war against the Internet as a whole? Well, not so much (and the way the Internet is designed, that’d be very hard to do). These cable breakdowns have not really affecting any Internet users in America, Europe, or Japan. The primary countries affected by the first two “accidents” are India, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It really makes you wonder. It’s almost like someone is trying to cut off one of these countries (maybe Egypt or Saudi Arabia?) from the rest of the world, and the rest of them are collateral damage. I can much more easily believe that someone is sending divers down to sabotage the cables than I can that all of this is simply accidental.

Or allow me to present another possibility: is Iran cutting off its Internet access so that it can better oppress its populace? According to the Internet Traffic Report, Iran currently has no Internet connectivity whatsoever, compared with merely degraded connectivity for the rest of the countries in the region. Something about all of this really smells funny. Keep your eyes peeled. Although the news media are still reporting all of these cable snippings as accidents thus far, I predict that we’ll be hearing a different story quite soon.

Iran has no net connection?

A real life Stand Alone Complex emerges against Scientology

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Laughing Man logoWith the recent appearance of the anti-Scientology Internet-based movement named “Anonymous” we are witnessing the emergence of the first true virtual Stand Alone Complex as envisioned in the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Allow me to explain. First, some background on what a Stand Alone Complex is, courtesy of Wikipedia:

While originally intended to “underscore the dilemmas and concerns that people would face if they relied too heavily on the new communications infrastructure,” the concept of the Stand Alone Complex eventually came to represent a phenomenon where unrelated, yet very similar, actions of individuals create a seemingly concerted effort.

A Stand Alone Complex can be compared to the copycat behavior that often occurs after incidents such as serial murders or terrorist attacks. An incident catches the publics attention and certain types of people “get on the bandwagon”, so to speak. It is particularly apparent when the incident appears to be the result of well-known political or religious beliefs, but it can also occur in response to intense media attention. For example, a mere fire, no matter the number of deaths, is just a garden variety tragedy. However, if the right kind of people begin to believe it was arson, caused by deliberate action, the threat increases drastically that more arsons will be committed.

What separates the Stand Alone Complex from normal copycat behavior is that the originator of the copied action is not even a real person, but merely a rumored figure that commits said action. Even without instruction or leadership a certain type of person will spring into action to imitate the rumored action and move toward the same goal even if only subconsciously. The result is an epidemic of copied behavior-with no originator. One could say that the Stand Alone Complex is mass hysteria-with purpose.

In the original anime, the Stand Alone Complex emerges in the form of the Laughing Man, a mythical figure under whose banner a large variety of disparate groups and individuals launch attacks against corporations and governments, with a common unifying theme of speaking truth to power. But there was no centralized organization, nor was there even an original who set out to launch such a crusade; the concept evolved spontaneously across the Internet, led by no one person but shaped by hundreds of independent ones.

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Avenue Q tells us what the Internet is really for

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

This is the last post covering the events of my family’s Chrifsmas vacation to New York City (and it only took a week to write all of it out for this blog!). The last thing I want to talk about is the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which we saw in the afternoon early into our trip. I don’t particularly feel like summarizing the musical, so I’ll let Wikipedia do it for me:

[Avenue Q] is largely inspired by (and is in the style of) Sesame Street: Most of the characters in the show are puppets (operated by actors onstage), the set depicts several tenements on a rundown street in an “outer borough” of New York City, both the live characters and puppet characters sing, and short animated video clips are played as part of the story. Also, several characters are recognizably parodies of classic Sesame Street characters: for example, the roommates Rod and Nicky are versions of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, and Trekkie Monster is based on Cookie Monster. However, the characters are in their twenties and thirties and face adult problems instead of those faced by pre-schoolers. The characters use profanity, and the songs concern adult themes. A recurring theme is the central character’s search for a “purpose.”

That’s enough background information to talk about what I really wanted to cover: the difficulties in dealing with puppet characters in a live stage production, and the excellent way it is handled by Avenue Q. Avenue Q has three human characters who work pretty much the same way any human character works in any other play. But there are four actors who each play two different puppets. The actors wear drab gray clothing and kind of blend into the background, and when any of the other characters/puppets are speaking or interacting with them, it’s always directed at the puppet, not at the actor.

But the actors aren’t ventriloquists; you can easily see their mouth moving as they talk and sing (as well as the mouths of the puppets that they operate). And, this is the brilliant part, the actors also use their own body language and facial expressions to convey what the puppet is experiencing. The director must’ve realized that humans are much more emotive than puppets can ever be, so the human actors act as if they are the puppet. I spent the majority of the play watching the actors’ faces rather than the puppets, because I felt more emotion coming through that way. The actors did a great job, and I can’t imagine how hard it must’ve been casting for that play, finding people who can act well, sing well, and puppeteer well, simultaneously.

One issue that came up occasionally was when both of an actor’s puppets were in the same scene. They would inconspicuously hand over one of the puppets to a member of the ensemble cast but keep on doing all of the voices of their puppets. So it was really funny to watch a conversation between two puppets played by the same actor; first the actor would speak while moving his puppet’s mouth, then for the responses, he would speak in the other character’s voice while the ensemble cast member holding the other puppet would move its mouth. Sometimes they weren’t even onstage, so they would speak their part from offstage while the ensemble cast member moved the puppet’s mouth in sync. It required some pretty elaborate choreography, but it worked, and it allowed them to have a larger cast of puppet characters while keeping the cast small.

I also enjoyed the play because, five minutes in, I realized two of the characters were named Kate Monster and Trekkie Monster. Those names sounded awfully familiar; they were the names of two of the characters in the hilarious World of Warcraft machinima music video “The Internet is for Porn” (watch it below the fold). And, indeed, the song from that video was from Avenue Q. So I eagerly awaited the song, and then joyously watched it performed live in front of me, as I sang along with the lyrics in my head. I should point out that the way the song is handled in the original play is even better than it is in the World of Warcraft machinima. For instance, it helps to have the background that the “Gary” referenced in the song is Gary Coleman, who has become a poor slumlord. And the way Trekkie Monster randomly appears from different windows on the set shouting “For Porn!” in the intro, and then the other characters each join them from their respective windows for the chorus, is excellent.

And I haven’t even gotten into the explicit puppet-on-puppet sex, and I shan’t, not in a blog post. I could never do it justice. You’ll have to see the play for yourself. I highly recommend it. Hell, it won a Tony Award, which is almost as much of a recommendation.

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Celebrating ten years on the web

Friday, July 20th, 2007

It just dawned on me, I’ve had a website on the World Wide Web pretty much continuously starting from 1997 (when I was in sixth grade). Nowadays that doesn’t sound so special, because most middle schoolers use instant messaging and email and have MySpace pages and whatever, but dammit, ten years ago, that meant something. Most of my schoolmates didn’t even have Internet connections at their homes yet, and so the computer labs at school provided a continuing sense of wonder.

Luckily, I use the squirrel-like archiving system, meaning it may take me awhile to find anything from awhile ago, but by God, I still have it somewhere. And so I’ve been able to dig up every webpage I ever wrote and post it on this server. Yup, really. My most recent website from before university was called Fyre’s Domain. I admit I don’t quite understand the name of the website, because while my server was indeed named Fyre, I never went by that name myself. Fyre’s Domain was also the first website I hosted on my own server, rather than using the web hosting of my ISP.

Fyre’s Domain was actually a bit of a programming project for me. Basically I wanted to write a blog (a format that I used in most of my previous sites before the name itself existed), but no widespread blogging software existed yet. So I wrote my own. In C++. It parsed text that I wrote directly into text files (yes, that’s how I updated the site) and wrote it into proper HTML, making a top page that had the five most recent entries and then a deep archive page. The program didn’t have any incremental updating or dynamic accessing, so every time I fixed even a single typo in one of the text files I had to re-run the program, which would read all of the text files and write out all of the static HTML files again. Hey, I didn’t say it was any good!

As part of my work on Fyre’s Domain, I also compiled archives of all of my older websites, themselves rescued from old archives on one of our old Windows desktops (the chain of custody is now about five computers long). Apparently I wrote four major revisions of a site called Bigmack’s World. This is also strange, as I never went by the online handle Bigmack; that was my dad’s. But we did share a dial-up account, and the site was hosted at something like http://www.erols.com/~bigmack/, so I suppose it makes a bit of sense. Bigmack’s World V1 is a blast to the past, replete with background MIDI music, annoying animated GIFs lifted from other websites, and the main navigation system is an image map! How’s this for an unreadable Web 0.5 background? I made it myself! What’s sad is how many of the links on that site are broken, but it’s also interesting that a fair number of them are still alive, essentially unchanged from ten years ago.

So, pardon my reminiscing. I hope you agree with my assessment that my websites have steadily increased in quality over time, though I don’t profess to be a web design guru by any means. I just don’t like information rot, and as long as I still have the files for all of my old sites, I like to keep hosting them.

Robotic collaboration on the net

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

I already wrote about how there are too many fracking bots on the Internet. Bots have downloaded twice as many pages on Cyde Weys Musings as people in February, with many thousands of hits each from the big three search engines Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

So I’m wondering, why can’t Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo collaborate? The reason they need to crawl the Internet at all (rather than just my blogging software updating them each time an entry is posted, edited, or commented on) is because they cannot trust individual individual sites. Spammers are always trying to break the rules, and if the search engines didn’t even come out to crawl sites they’d be overloaded with false information.

So that explains the need for crawling, but it doesn’t explain why Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft will all crawl the same page within hours of each other (when it’s extremely unlikely that anything has changed). That’s just wasted traffic. Whereas they can’t trust individual sites, they can certainly trust each other (or effectively deal with an abuse of that trust if necessary). For each page that they would crawl, rather than hitting the site immediately, the crawler should automatically ask its two peer search institutions if they’ve crawled the page recently, and if so, just transfer the crawled page data directly rather than having to make another hit on the site’s webserver.

This would also save Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft lots of money in bandwidth, because they could make their own dedicated internet for communicating web crawl data. This traffic would be much cheaper than traffic on the Internet. It would make owners of individual sites a lot happier too, because they’d be paying less for bandwidth while still being kept updated in the three major search engines.

Or Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft could go a step further. They could go in three ways on a colossal data center which would do all of the crawling. Then they’d have individual (massive) connections into the database of crawled pages, and could request re-crawls as necessary. Each crawled page would be immediately accessible to all three of them, saving individual sites’ bandwidth. They could even sell access to the crawled pages to other lesser search engines, recouping some of their costs.

Unfortunately, this has about a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. Even though it would be beneficial to each company in the form of lower bandwidth expenses and fewer required servers, the companies will never go for it because it would require cooperation. Each probably thinks they can come out on top eventually, and they’re not going to want to go in on a deal that helps them because it’s also helping their competitors.

It’s too bad. My server was looking for some relief from the constant pounding. And a single centralized bot cluster on the net would really be a nifty thing.

The Internet could come down with bird flu

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

In the event of a bird flu pandemic, it is very likely that government agencies and corporations would shutter their offices to prevent additional infection and require everyone to work from home. Unfortunately, the Internet isn’t quite able to support this. Millions of additional people trying to work from home would result in gridlock on the “Information Superhighway”. The Internet is only really built for the current traffic patterns, and couldn’t handle the large amount of additional bandwidth.

Just ignoring the people working from home, everyone else would probably limit their exposure to the outside world on concern for their own safety. And what exactly are these people supposed to be doing in their houses for days on end? Using the Internet would be a large part. It just can’t handle it, unfortunately. There’s talk of the government stepping in and using packet-shaping at the national level, cutting out non-essential high-bandwidth services like YouTube, the P2P networks, and BitTorrent. Usually I’m not in favor of government “censorship”, but in the event of an emergency, and if the alternative is an utterly non-functioning net, I can’t really say I’d object.

YouTube speed issues

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

I’ve been noticing recently that YouTube is suffering some significant speed issues. It used to be that speed was no problem, and the video would be entirely downloaded faster than one-quarter of the way through playback. Now, YouTube can’t even seem to transmit the videos in real time, meaning the video will frequently stop and stutter. It’s like RealPlayer’s “Buffering … buffering …” all over again. To watch a video without these annoying interruptions now I have to pause the video and let it load most of the way (meanwhile I’m browsing something else in another tab). Finally, when the download is mostly done, I unpause it, and hopefully the download finishes by the time playback reaches the end of the video.

What’s going on with YouTube? I know they’re growing exponentially, and they still don’t have a revenue model. Still, they were bought by Google, and you’d think that gives them enough money to buy infrastructure with. But it looks like their traffic has severely surpassed their infrastructure. They simply don’t have enough servers and/or bandwidth to handle everything coming at them, and as a result, the service is really suffering. I’ve mostly lost interest in YouTube now because I cannot just sequentially watch as many videos as I want. It’s a chore now; I have to identify stuff I want to watch, open them in new tabs, and wait awhile for them to load. Sorry, I’m not going to bother.

On the Internet, everyone is a fluffy bunny

Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

Or, more accurately, on the Internet, everyone is a raving wildebeest.

I have been reading Penny-Arcade regularly for many years now. It’s usually very funny, but every so often it’s also insightful. Those are the comics I like the most. There is this one comic from March 2004 (see below the fold) that I keep finding myself referencing in an ongoing basis in Internet conversations. The basic thesis of the comic is: “Normal person + Anonymity + [Internet] Audience = Total Fuckwad”. Unfortunately the comic dates itself somewhat by referencing Unreal Tournament 2004, but the overall idea transcends that game and applies to the Internet at large.

The simple fact is, most of the idiot trolls you meet online really are just normal people. They’re simply taking advantage of the anonymity of the Internet to be more rude than they would in real life. In real life there can be some pretty unpleasant, instant consequences to being a jerk; on the Internet, there are none. I’ve noticed this in my dealings at Wikipedia as well. Some people are consistently very unpleasant online, but (hopefully) don’t act like that in real life. Unless there’s some selection bias and the unpleasant people really all do tend to gravitate to the Internet, I see a large incompatibility between the number of jerks online and the number of jerks in real life. The most probable solution is that a lot of the jerks online don’t act like jerks in real life.

I can offer up my experiences at Wikimania as evidence of this assertion. The last Wikimania was held in early August 2006 in Boston. I went there, and so did lots of other Wikipedians who I had only ever previously interacted with online. It was overall very pleasant, and a lot of people I had had significant disputes with online were perfectly nice in person. It’s definitely harder to call someone an idiot to their face than to their username, at least.

The best way to work harmoniously with other people online is to keep in mind that are (most likely) just normal people, and to not treat them any worse than you would in real life. Things can get unpleasant on the Internet very quickly, but it usually takes two people acting like jerks to each other to bring the conversation to really low standards of decency.

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Trying out a Second Life

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

I played Second Life on and off for the past three weeks, and I think my time with it is drawing to a close. For those of you don’t know, Second Life is a virtual environment created by Linden Labs with “two million users“. It has an economy based off of real money and almost every single thing inside the environment is created by users through the very flexible object creation and scripting engines. Despite all of that, I just couldn’t really get into it. It’s not so much a game as a virtual environment, like the world wide web but in 3D.

I first started playing Second Life when I heard of the replicating object outbreak. That fascinated me, so I downloaded the game and played for awhile, trying to figure out how to do it. I wasn’t able to work around the safeguards in place that theoretically prevent a perfect replicator, but I did manage to create an object that spawned lots of other objects every second, each of which also spawned lots of other objects every second. Needless to say, I crashed a few zones that way and my account was banned.

So I started a second account and decided I’d be “on the level”. And I explored the game for awhile. I found all sorts of seedy establishments: strip clubs, prostitution rings, casinos, furries, and even a Gorean fantasyland, where my female avatar was captured and sold into rape slavery. Luckily that last part requires you to play along with it; I didn’t, and I just teleported the hell out of there. There’s even camping chairs in-game where property owners pay paltry sums of money if you just idle and do nothing. Apparently popularity (as measured by in-game metrics) is worth money, though they aren’t even paying you enough to cover the cost of electricity to run a computer.

The scripting language was a lot more open-ended than I thought it would be, and I did make some crazy stuff, but it just wasn’t very satisfying. The physics was off. Also, there’s few places in the game where non-property-owners can go to build stuff. These places are called sandboxes, and they’re filled with other people and lagged to hell. Making any sort of physics object there was an exercise in futility; some of my objects would be getting one execution cycle a second. So much for trying to make a rocket.

In the end, I realized I was just sitting around in camping chairs making money, but it was very little money and there was no point to it. I wasn’t even playing the game, just leaving it open in a window on one of my monitors. So I stopped. I understand how others, especially in minority interest groups (like Gorean fantasies or furries), might be attracted to such an environment, but it just didn’t do it for me. It is basically a glorified 3D chat room with a real-world economy, and I wasn’t interested in spending money on virtual goods, and as for chatting, I’d much rather use IRC or AIM. Many others seem to share this viewpoint.

One more thing: the lag is terrible. It can take over a minute from when you teleport in to a place for all of the objects to load. It reminds me of the web pre-millennium. I was keeping track of bandwidth, and their server was only sending down about one-tenth of the maximum capacity of my connection. Google, with their massive server farms, could do a much better job. But alas, Linden Labs has too little infrastructure, leading to lag and bad loading times.

I would definitely recommend trying Second Life. It is a unique experience, and it will be a good fit for some people. But I don’t see how it could possibly be the next evolution of the internet. It’s more of a novelty, more of a game where you have to make the fun yourself. But ultimately it’ll prove to be naught but a blip on the radar of progress. There is a conceptual revolution in how we think of the internet out there, and it will significantly change everything we’ve come to think of as the web — but this isn’t it.