Saturday, February 28, 2009

Plus ça change ...

I'm thinking of a technology. A revolutionary, disruptive technology. This technology broke down the barrier of distance, putting people who would never have met in direct contact with each other.

Using this technology, someone in the far reaches of the country could do business with someone time zones away. The technology could be used to procure any kind of good for sale, from buttons to houses.

Not only is this technology responsible for the creation of industries and corporate empires, but for entire towns and cities. Access to this technology could make the difference between a settlement withering and dying or growing and thriving. It is fair to say that maps were literally redrawn around this technology. Ways of life were created and destroyed, species decimated.

The technology led to rampant speculation. Fortunes were made, lost, re-made and so forth on the strength of speculation in this technology.

Press agents and marketing wizards spoke breathlessly of the technology's transformative power. Lavish promises were made to the public. Some panned out. Many didn't.

I speak, of course, of the steam locomotive.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Yada yada yada

While I'm carping about the web.experience ...

A certain health insurance provider runs a web site that, in theory at least, provides me access to my records online. To get to it, I first have to accept their terms of service. No problem. Then, this being health care in the US, I have to confirm that I've read their privacy notice.

As is often the case, the web interface puts up a scrolling box containing the yada yada I'm supposed to have read. The first one, I'm sure, says "Don't do anything illegal, don't try to crack our security and here are some other rules we hope we have the legal right to enforce." The second one is related to HIPAA so it means ... something, I'm sure.

But here's the thing. As usual, they try to ensure that you've read the fine print is by requiring that you scroll through the whole thing. The script behind this doesn't care how long you take. Scroll down in half a second and hey, you read it. Go out for a cup of coffee, come back and scroll through in half a second and hey, you read it. I don't have any hard numbers on how many people really read through these things, especially after they've seen one or two. I'm guessing you could fit most of them in a mini-van.

But here's the other thing. The script doesn't work. I can scroll right through it all I want, and whatever I do I get the same popup. The wording is interesting: They would like me to please read the text, but (whether I read it or not) I must scroll to the bottom before clicking on "go ahead". They don't care if I've actually read it, but they're bound and deterimined to make sure I scroll through it.

Now, I realize that all this machinery is here so that the company's legal department can say "Look, at least we tried to get them to read the fine print," and I suppose it could be worse. They could make you read it Captcha by Captcha, for example. It just would sure be nice if the script worked.

Dear Mozilla, again

Did I also mention it sure would be nice if I could tell which Firefox tab is running a (possibly invisible) Java or Flash script that's eating my CPU, or which ones are gobbling up memory?

Didn't I also make a comment at some point about a modern browser being its own operating system in all but name, but without the usual administrative tools? I can't be bothered to search back for it, but I'm pretty sure I did ...

If said features are already available (maybe as a plug-in), I would be glad to hear about them and praise their authors. If not, no, I'm not going to even think about diving into the code to implement them. I will remain a selfish, greedy little user sponging off the efforts of selfless volunteers.

I'll be in good company.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Open source vs open source

This piece arose out of a discussion on a mailing list I'm on. The discussion was about, among other things, why open source projects fail. By the time I finished a particular email, I realized I was basically blogging (not coincidentally, my output to that particular list dropped considerably when I started blogging here). Here's what I wrote, toned down a bit and edited lightly to take the later discussion into account:

It occurs to me there are two kinds of open source. First, there is stuff someone put together and threw out to the web. Much of this of limited value. There might be a good idea in there, but chances are it's not really new, or it's not fully worked out. It might or might not be well coded. It's probably indifferently documented. The developer works on it whenever, so there's no release schedule. For my money, such projects don't fail -- they never really start.

Then there are projects like Apache, or Mozilla, or Eclipse or Red Hat, or the various Google offerings, that are developed and supported full time by some sort of durable entity [Later in the discussion I unwisely called this a corporate entity, in a legalistic sense. This proved to have too many overtones, so I switched to "institution," which is still not ideal.] Generally there's commercial money in it one way or another, but the important quality is that there are numbered, scheduled releases and there are multiple people working on it as part of their day job.

But what about Linux, Python, Perl, the GNU tools and such? They may have started out in the first category [Re-reading, no. They weren't just thrown out on the web. They were generally well along before the world saw them -- but see the Postscript below for an interesting twist], but at some fairly early point the person behind them made a conscious decision to move to the second. Linus could have decided "Hey, that kernel thing was cool. I think I'll do something else," but instead he spearheaded the move from 0.9.x to 1.0.x (note -- release numbers) and has stuck with it up to 2.6.x. The Linux kernel arguably has one of the least formal and most distributed development processes of the major projects I'm aware of, but even then there is a single gateway for significant changes and if Linus should get hit by a bus, there are known people who could take over.

Python's Benevolent Dictator for Life, Guido van Rossum, works at Google, where he spends half his time on Python (evidently 50% for Guido is 20% for everyone else). BDFL Larry Wall's early development of Perl took place during his employ at JPL. While Perl is another of the less formal examples, there is still an elaborate structure around the development and release of Perl.

Rms took the more formal route, founding a foundation and drafting the famous GNU licenses. Being rms, he secured his own money for it, some of it thanks to a grant from another foundation, the MacArthur foundation. This is not a path lightly traveled, but the destination, again, is an institution dedicated to supporting the software.

In short, whenever something significant has happened in open source, it's because someone explicitly pushed for it. The actual coding, testing, documentation etc. might be distributed and more or less volunteer, but at the bottom (or top, if you prefer), there is a small, single point of control. This point of control tends to become institutional, that is, an entity distinct from any individual, fairly quickly.

There is a "religious" aspect to open source that many people, including myself, instinctively distrust. It relates to the notion that open source stuff "just happens" and that if you just throw stuff out on the web, or maybe even just hope it will happen, you'll magically get a robust, coherent and useful product. Experience shows, not surprisingly, that this just doesn't happen. Generally, a project has to start with a robust, coherent and useful product before a culture can emerge around it.

PostScript: My pondering on this topic keeps returning to Linux. On the one hand, it definitely supports the idea that good free software doesn't just emerge out of the web, but requires the ferocious dedication of a single person or small group. On the other hand, it has had a less romantic version of the idea of informal, distributed development in it from the beginning. Linus's GIT source control system, which deliberately has no central repository, is a more recent manifestation. In this light, it's interesting, not to mention somewhat amusing, to read Linus's original Usenet post to the world:

Hello everybody out there using minix -

I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april [i.e., a few months], and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

I've currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I'll get something practical within a few months, and I'd like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-)

Linus (

PS. Yes – it's free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT portable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that's all I have :-(.

More webcam fun from Alaska

While you're waiting for Mount Redoubt to erupt (it's currently code Orange, one notch below "it's erupting right now"), you might wander over to the Alaskan Alpine Club and check out their ice tower. I say "might" because I'm not sure whether their camera is broken
Something has gone awry. We will send the web camera team over to the ice shack to inspect it, fiddle-around and homdihoom awhile, ah, soon.
or there just isn't an ice tower this year
The Ice Tower Committee adopted a proposal to sit around this winter and see if an ice tower forms on its own, by supernatural phenomenon, since the local ice climbers have too much ice in the Alaska Range. If not, and if we can find sponsors for the expenses, the committee members will make an ice tower next winter (2009-2010).
Either way, they do at least provide pictures of last year's tower and a link to a similar effort in Sweden.

The concept is simplicity itself: Stick a vertical pipe somewhere. Pump water out of it. If it's cold enough out, say because you're in Alaska or Sweden in the winter, the water will freeze around the pipe, forming a small column. As the column grows big enough to support the additional weight (and the weight of a climber), add another section of pipe. Repeat until the tower is too tall for your water pump, or warm weather sets in, or whenever. Colored water optional. Invite your ice-climbing friends over to enjoy.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Inventing iBiblio

In a recent edition of WUNC Radio's The State of Things, ibiblio founder Paul Jones shares some interesting tidbits about the history of the Internet As We Know It. Some that caught my attention:
  • Jones's mouthful of a title is worth mentioning: Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications and Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Information and Library Science. In his view this cross-listing has only become more relevant over time. Now if I only knew what a Clinical Associate Professor was ...
  • He says in as many words that Al Gore invented the IAWKI, not by any technical innovation, of course, but by re-directing the military-based ARPANet to an NSF-funded model and thence into the commercial world. So throw that in with my previous take.
  • In talking about WXYC, the first radio station to stream on the internet, he basically says it was a good thing that streaming audio strained the bandwidth limits at that time. It led both to more bandwidth being deployed and to smarter ways of distributing the bits.
  • Critics at the time warned that streaming audio would kill the internet -- a recurring theme in tne Streaming audio as we know it now (much less YouTube, or streaming movies and TV) would absolutely have been impossible on the internet in those days. But Jones's implicit point (I gather) is that the internet is, by design, a moving target.
  • One crucial aspect of the streaming of WXYC was that it was software-based (as opposed to the MBone, a more hardware-based alternative for multicast) and, being open, allowed others to innovate without WXYC being involved or even knowing it was happening. This again is a recurring theme.
  • Jones repeatedly picks up the theme of re-mixing, mashing-up or otherwise re-appropriating existing ideas and putting them together in new ways toward new uses. This flows into (and from) his discussion of the Creative Commons license, another innovation at whose birth he was present.
  • Jones quips that the Creative Commons license has three forms: Human readable, machine readable and lawyer readable "because lawyers are neither humans nor machines". Come to find out, he's married to a lawyer.
  • ibiblio's usage statistics are interesting. As ususal, there are a few collections that get much more traffic than the others (a handful out of about 2500). However, even these only account for a small fraction of overall traffic. No 80/20 rule here, but rather a real live case of the "long tail". I think it's significant here that iBiblio is non-commercial; I may expound on that point later, right after I manage to disambiguate what "long tail" means.
There's a fair bit more, including an openly fannish plug for Roger McGuinn's folk song archive, on ibiblio of course, and some poetry that I didn't get to, though as it turns out he has an MFA in poetry. As the host points out, you can pull it off the internet and listen to it yourself -- and Jones had a large hand in making that possible. In particular, WUNC's archives are hosted on ibiblio.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dear Mozilla

Is there any chance that when Firefox starts and several things require passwords, it could ask for the master password once, instead of over and over again? I'm pretty sure it doesn't change.

Just asking.

(This is a known problem, since 2006. So much for the "all bugs are shallow in the open source world" theory.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

We're only in it for the money

In this week's Techtonic Shifts column in Newsweek, in a piece entitled Time to Hang Up the Pajamas, Daniel Lyons delivers a few home truths about the blogosphere. The gist is: almost no one makes much money blogging, though a very few do quite well. "Monetizing" blogs and social networking in general is proving harder than some may have expected. As Lyons says,
Advertisers shy away from blogs because they're too unpredictable and because few blogs attract anything approaching a mass audience—and even those that do face so much competition that ad rates remain pitifully low.
It's not the economy. It's systemic. It's the promise of narrowcasting fulfilled. It's very easy for me to get my message out to whoever might be interested in random thoughts about the web and the technology floating around it. It's easy for someone interested in, say, Deutsch's fallacies to find my take on it, and thence the list itself.

But from a business point of view, who cares? At some point it's nice that I could get some money out of writing up my random thoughts instead of no money, but I'm orders of magnitude away even from that point, and there are scads and scads of other bloggers out there in the same boat. Conversely, if you have something of interest to a ma$$ audience, blogging is not a great way to cash in. Lyons again:
Some A-list bloggers have found that the best way to "monetize" their work is by returning to the much-maligned "mainstream media"—like political writer Andrew Sullivan, whose blog, The Daily Dish, now runs on The Atlantic Monthly Web site.
Lyons also mentions purely online outlets like the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast but argues, with some reason, that these are basically online media companies that happen to include blogging. In short, if you want to make money writing, you go through a publisher, just like always (or occasionally you hit a home run without a publisher, just like always).

There does seem to be a slow shift from publishing on paper to publishing on line, but -- beating the not-so-disruptive technology drum one more time -- it seems much more likely that the business world is driving the technology world and not the other way around. If the technology really were disruptive, we'd be seeing very little paper publishing and lots of electronic self-publishing. Instead, we see a much slower shift away from paper than the technology will allow and most of the actual money still going through corporate publishers.

(It occurs to me that the shift to paper seems to corrolate with frequency of publishing. Newspapers have been significantly affected by the web, particularly by the advent of online analogs to classified and personal ads. Book publishing is almost unaffected. In the middle, most major magazines have online presence but continue to publish on paper. Or on the other hand, maybe the distinction between news and fiction -- fill in your own punchline on that one -- is more siginficant. But I digress.)

In any case, I'm happy to keep cranking out my ten or so posts a month when time permits, safe in the knowledge that whatever I do, it's unlikely to rock anyone's boat very much. If you're in the blogosphere, odds are you're there for the same reason you're in a band in college: because it's what you want to do, not because you expect to make a living at it.


Friday, February 6, 2009

More teen driving surveilance

I heard about this on the radio (while driving, naturally). I haven't run down all the details, but it brought to mind the "good driving monitor" and the case of the teen driver with a GPS:

The state of Maryland is currently doing a pilot program in which hundreds of teen drivers are getting DriveCams installed in their cars. The DriveCam is a webcam/accelerometer assembly that sits quietly on the rear-view mirror until it registers g-forces it doesn't like. At that point, it records 20 seconds of video and beams it up to the mothership for analysis. A driving expert then assesses the video and sends The Man (in this case the teen's parent/guardian) an email.

The intent (at least in this pilot) seems more educational than punitive; mail tends to be more "You should allow more time to slow down before corners." than "Get this stoplight-running drag-racing menace off the streets," and is aimed at reducing teen driving deaths. Given that teen driving deaths account for a disproportionate fraction of both teen deaths and driving deaths, this seems at least worth consideration [I'm dodging the privacy issues for the moment -- maybe I'll get back to them in a later post].

What do the teens make of it? The teen in the radio piece initially accepted it on the grounds that erm, there wasn't really any choice, but a few months down the road seemed to appreciate the pointers and had learned how not to set it off more than every couple of days. Avoiding an email to Mom and Dad is pretty powerful incentive for a teen -- whether that's incentive to drive carefully or to find a way to disable the device is a different matter.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

It's gonna blow (maybe)!

Things are pretty slow at the National Hurricane Center these days (at least as far as Atlantic tropical storm activity is concerned), but that doesn't mean there's nothing going on in the natural world or that no one on the web is watching. For example, the Alaska Volcano Observatory, sitting in one of the most seismically and volcanically active parts of the world, monitors dozens of volcanoes up and down the Aleutian islands, on the Kamchatka peninsula and elsewhere in the area.

At this writing, Mount Redoubt is on orange (watch) status, meaning that it's not erupting at the moment, or at least not very much, but things could change at any moment. Fortunately the effects were fairly limited in 1989, the last time this happened. Nearby towns got a sprinkling of ash -- a significant hassle, but not a major hazard (*).

Alaskans don't seem too worked up about it, and with that in mind I don't feel too bad about peeking in on the webcam from time to time to see if something's happening. That's kind of the point of webcams, isn't it? If you feel curious yourself, just bear in mind that Alaska is probably in a different time zone (if you're actually reading this from Alaska, I'm guessing you've probably already heard about the site), and days are short up there this time of year. If you pop in at random, the image may be a bit dark and indistinct.

(*) The more serious hazard is to air traffic. During the 1989 eruption a KLM jet lost power in all four engines and fell two miles before the crew could get it flying again. As I understand it, there are more safeguards these days to prevent planes from flying into ash clouds to begin with.