The (old) Licquia Family Blog

This is the old blog site, powered by a simple blogging system called Blosxom. It's here to keep old links from breaking, and for whatever historic interest might remain.

Here's the current site.



Straw as a Necho Aggregator

As everyone knows who's read the about page, this site uses weblog technology to do its magic. Weblog technology is moving very quickly at the moment, and there's a new effort out there to more clearly define what it's all about. The project started out as "Echo", but it turns out that other software uses that name, so the current working names seem to be "(not) Echo" or "Necho". I'll stick with the latter for now.

The project has decided to start calling for implementations of the current preliminary spec for the syndication feed: the part that does the job of RSS. Most of the emphasis so far has been on developing the feeds themselves, or of translating the feeds into various formats. To my knowledge, no one has hacked any of the software that reads these feeds to read Necho feeds.

At least, that is, until now.

I've been playing around with the Straw news aggregator for the GNOME desktop. It's written in Python (yay!), and is rather well-written; the source is easy to work with. This seemed like a good opportunity for me to contribute to the Necho project and to learn a little about how Straw works at the same time.

The patch is here. (Please be kind to my poor server!) It's a patch against Straw 0.18.1, which can be downloaded from here. Unfortunately, Straw only runs on systems with GNOME, which means only Linux, the BSDs, and other UNIXes; sorry, Windows users. It seems to do pretty well with the Necho feeds I've tried out, including Sam's original test feed and feeds from Joel Spolsky, Phil Ringnalda, and Mark Pilgrim. There are a few quirks; it seems to like using the current time as the last modified time for all posts, for example. I also haven't added handling for authors and contributors, because this involves a level of XML tag nesting that the current handlers don't handle well yet.

I'll try to do my best to keep this up to date, but it's possible that other projects and real life may consume my time for working on this. At the very least, this should provide a starting point for testing Necho's interaction with news aggregators. Comments to this log entry, or E-mail to "jeff+straw" at "licquia.org", are appreciated.

Jul 06, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Being noticed, CSS, RSS

Motivated by the problems I've been having with weblog tools, I put some effort into the Web site. There's a new CSS-only layout; all tables have been banished. I've switched to pinging blo.gs; they seem to be more flexible in following the sites. So far, it seems to updating; we'll see with this post.

Those people who use RSS should note that the RSS links have changed. The old ones are still supported (and should be for the foreseeable future), but we've now got spiffy new RSS 2.0 feeds as well.

Finally, those people who like the pictures on the site home can rejoice. I've finally fixed the last bug on the auto-picture-post system for our new picture phones, so we can upload a picture to the site directly from our phones. This should increase the likelihood that we'll update the pictures more frequently.

Jun 26, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Not getting noticed anymore

Most of the cool blog tools out there rely on one of two services to know when to check a blog for new information: Weblogs.com and blo.gs. As far as I can tell, each services also watches the other, so you only have to update one service for everyone to get notified. I update Weblogs.com because there's a native Blosxom module for doing this that does its thing automatically.

So, when it seemed that Technorati wasn't paying attention to links I've made to other bloggers, I got suspicious that my Weblogs.com pings weren't happening. Sure enough, blo.gs (which has a search function) doesn't think my blog has updated since the 16th. Looking at the last ping, it appears that Weblogs.com is actually trying to verify an update, rather than just taking my word for it, and the verification is failing.

This makes sense, in a way. The front page of this site only contains the full stories for one section of the blog: the news stories. My section and Tami's are in the sidebar, but only with post titles. I did it this way because I didn't want to inflict my rants on people who just wanted to know how the family was doing. (Incidentally, you can see all three sets of posts munged together with this link. I don't generally advertise or support it, but it's there all the same.)

This way of laying things out made sense to me, and works from a browsing perspective, but doesn't work from the point of view of these new tools. Clearly, I need to reorganize things to be cooperative with non-browsers. The best thing, I think, is to split the two personal logs from the main one, and report different addresses to Weblogs.com for those.

So don't be surprised if things start changing around here.

Jun 23, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

The fight between division and unity

A lot of the ideas floating around on the Web bother me. OK, all together now: this is news? But in the last few days, I've read about several things that have really gotten under my skin, and in generally the same way. Most of the posts have the typical flaws and sparkles that grace nearly every blog post, so I don't really want to dwell on them individually. Rather, it's a theme that flows through all of them that causes me grief.

So let's start from the beginning: an aside from this Critical Mass post, which led me to this Washington Post story and this follow-up. It's all about some new academic fad called "whiteness studies". Unlike "black studies", "women's studies", and the rest, this is about studying all the ways whites should feel guilty for their skin color and the societal advantages they bring. Among the apalling quotes, this one stood out: " ... we intend to keep bashing the dead white males, and the live ones, and the females too, until the social construct known as 'the white race' is destroyed-not 'deconstructed' but destroyed." (Noel Ignatiev, from the comments to the Joanne Jacobs post and here.)

The interesting part is that, in one sense, I agree with this. No, not the bashing part. It's certainly true, though, that skin color or eye shape distinguish people exactly as much, physically, as eye color or hair color: no more, no less. It makes as much sense to deny brunettes loans, or cross the street when a green-eyed person approaches, as it does to avoid people with darker or lighter skin. (As a camp counselor in college, I've participated in exercises like this, based on hair color, which were very effective in teaching diversity to the kids.) So "destroying whiteness" is a good thing, if we can also destroy blackness, Hispanic-ness, Asian-ness, and all the other "nesses" as well.

"Whiteness studies" doesn't do any of this. Whites are supposed to keep their whiteness in mind always, in order to feel guilt; part of the point seems to be the assertion that whites don't think about race nearly enough. Does anyone think it helps matters to blame people for a physical characteristic they hold and cannot change? Didn't we learn that lesson last time?

The trend continues in a post by Halley Suitt. The post rambles around quite a few issues, with lots of good points and lots of bad; what caught my eye was the dichotomy between men and women. Men built blogs, but women alone made them worth reading; men made wheels, but women made cars; men committed crimes, and women exposed them; men have supportive wives, but women don't have supportive husbands.

Again, the point was to focus on what divides us, not what unites us. One could focus on the tech-head fixation on process and the subsequent revolution brought by the non-tech writers in the blog story, and be very correct. But, for some reason, techiness is male and writing is female, Mena Trott and James Lileks notwithstanding. So, again, my white maleness puts me at the edge of a vast gulf, built for me by freak accidents of parentage and random chance, with no hope of camaraderie with the other side.

This gulf is made even more explicit in this post. "Unconscious bias" is the rule for the day; those men just can't help being misogynists. The comments are even more revealing: when a man wanders in and challenges her assumptions, he is basically handed a reading list and told to go away. The comments are then marked as a "safe space" for discussion only among people who agree with the basic point. The message was clear: you're a man, you can't possibly talk to us, your place is to loathe yourself, go read these books to learn how.

It gets worse when Halley clarifies the meaning of her post. I believe her when she says that she didn't intend to bash men. But she did intend to bash marriage, by her own admission, looking for something new to replace it. What that is we won't know until her "Alpha Male" series gets around to the topic, which it hasn't as of this writing.

Of the distinctions we find in our society that divide us, only one has an irrefutable basis in fact: the gender divide. Marriage can act as a bridge (though, unfortunately, it doesn't in too many cases). It's not just the sex or children that does this, as too many divorced couples know; it's the commitment to each other, the determination to learn and grow from another person and understand the differences, the choice to be more than oneself, that allows each spouse to be a gateway for the other to transcend the gender gap. And yet we attack even this flawed mechanism of unity. Will Halley's replacement fulfill the same function? Or will the view of her commenters prevail: that we all must be content with being self-centered, and accept other people's otherness as a given?

You know what's really sad? In terms of the facts on the ground, I don't disagree with most of this. I saw racism firsthand while assisting a black itinerant preacher in central Illinois during my college summers, among people who would otherwise vehemently denounce racism. I work in computer technology, a very strongly male-dominated field, and have seen brilliant female co-workers treated like dirt for their gender. Generally, my female co-workers have all been brilliant for one simple reason: they have to be to survive. Similarly, the idea of a "house husband" is still too freaky for some people for some reason. We have neighbors in this very situation right now, and it's not always easy to remind ourselves that the guy isn't a lazy bum leeching off his wife, or that she isn't a bad mother for choosing a career over motherhood.

But it seems that some people see the divisions in our society and build them up. It's as if we thought that tearing down buildings was best accomplished by reinforcing them. I reject this. I know that women and minorities continue to face hurdles I don't, but I seek to tear those hurdles down, not trip myself in an attempt to compensate.

And, most importantly, I reject this notion that vast gulfs exist between me and my neighbors. I will probably never understand PMS, or the fear of walking alone at night, or the horror of burning crosses. But I know that others experience these things, and I don't have to taste their tastes to understand that they are bitter.

Unfortunately, it's not all up to me. As they say, "it takes two to tango". If some people consider "otherness" from me to be the primary fact about our relationship, there isn't a whole lot I can do to force them to be my friend. People can look at my white skin and maleness and decide that my mind is poisoned against them before the first word of greeting. No one should be surprised at this after hundreds of years of considering blackness or femaleness as the othering mark.

But if anyone out there in this camp is listening, consider this: my eyes were not opened to racism by diversity training or "whiteness studies", but by an itinerant preacher who set his shoulder against his burdens without veering from his main goals, and who did not blame me for the sins of others. And awareness of sexism was not taught to me by a women's studies department, but by brilliant and courageous co-workers who accepted me for who I was, despite the jerks who kept treating them like interns. These were people who looked to unite, rather than divide.

It's the fashion today to ridicule faith. Perhaps this is why the debate about equality seems to have foundered, and why so many of us cling to our otherness. For after the dismantling of the institutions of discrimination must come the moment when we believe in each other despite, not because of, the evidence. The alternative is eternal damnation: separation from and distrust of our fellow humans now and forever, for reasons that make no sense save historic precedent.

More than this is needed, though, if we are to have true unity. We must have faith in the basic humanity of those who are different from us, hope that others will act on a similar faith, and love that can overcome the counterexamples. I don't think I'm going to disagree with the assertion: "the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV) Whatever you believe about God and the universe, can you bring yourself to believe this?

"But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." (James 2:18, NIV)

Jun 22, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Orrin Hatch is 0wn3d

(For the non-geeks, 0wn3d is "leet-speak" for "owned". Treat the zero as an "O" and the three as an "E", and you'll see how it works.)

Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah has now officially come out in favor of vigilante justice. Don't believe me? Read it here. If he gets his way, you'd better hope that your kid doesn't try out a file-sharing program, since doing so will give unaccountable record executives just cause to destroy your computer and everything on it.

See how treating ideas as property causes all kinds of evil?

Jun 18, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Tweaking traffic lights for more tickets

At least, if you believe CBS News, anyway. (Via InstaPundit and TheAgitator.)

How does it work? It's simple. A city installs red light cameras at intersections, which snap pictures of the license plates of cars that run the light. Anyone so snapped gets an automatic ticket. Then, when the city finds itself needing money, it reduces the duration of the yellow light. With a shorter yellow, more people who think they have time to make it end up entering the intersection a split second after the light turns red. That translates into more tickets (remember the camera taking pictures of light runners?), and thus more revenue. The trick seems to work better when the short yellow comes after a series of longer yellows, as was the case in the CBS story; people seem to think that all the yellows will be the same duration.

Let's do the math, shall we? 30 miles per hour translates to 44 feet per second. (30 miles/hr times 5280 feet/mile divided by 60 minutes/hour divided by 60 seconds/minute.) So, reducing the duration for the yellow light from 4 seconds to 2.7 seconds (again, from the CBS article) reduces the "stopping threshold" (the point before the intersection where you can't make it on yellow) from 176 feet to 119 feet, a difference of 57 feet. If we assume a reaction time to the yellow light of 1 second, that means that you have 75 feet to stop on the short yellow, as opposed to 132 feet on the regular yellow. If this site is correct, and it takes 45 feet to stop an average car at 30 miles per hour, that leaves a safety cushion of 30 feet, or about 0.7 seconds, on a short yellow, as opposed to 87 feet, or nearly 2 seconds, on a regular yellow.

(It's worth noting that the site above really thinks that a driver at 30 miles per hour needs 66 feet, or 1.5 seconds, to react, so the numbers are, if anything, generous. Math corrections are welcome in the comments.)

Now imagine someone following you at one car length (15 feet). If he's watching your taillights instead of the traffic signal, on the short yellow he gets 0.7 seconds to stop, which translates into 30 feet. Given the 45 feet he needs to stop, the extra 15 feet back he needs to be to give your car room, and his 15-foot cushion, that translates to -15 feet. One word: crunch.

The story above was from Maryland. Another example, in San Diego, is detailed in this Congressional testimony by the former mayor of San Diego regarding a similar system. In this case, hundreds of tickets were thrown out by a judge. It turned out that the contractor installing the cameras got a kickback for every traffic ticket, and had written a mandate against increasing the yellow light duration. This despite evidence that increasing the duration of the yellow light can dramatically reduce accident rates.

It's also interesting to note that the National Motorist Association is strongly opposed to red light cameras.

Jun 16, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Europe's right to remain silent

From Slashdot comes this story about Europe's soon-to-be-passed law.

Evidently, in Europe they have a concept called a "right of reply". If a media organization publishes something about you in print, radio, or television, you have a right to force them to publish your reply. The new law extends this right to online publications, from the Web sites of media outlets to the lady weblogging about her neighbors.

The law as applied to large media organizations bothers me a little bit, but my worries are tempered by a recognition of the advantages of traditional media over the people they comment on. But the new law makes no sense.

The Internet is not the same as traditional media. It has advantages and disadvantages. One of the traditional disadvantages (which traditional media likes to make hay about whenever it can) is the credibility gap: if every nut can post to Usenet or write a blog, then we have to be careful about believing what's written on the Web. So, online libel is nothing like print libel, unless you consider a kid with a copier and a hand-lettered "the principal is a cow" leaflet "libel".

There's also not nearly the need for "right of reply" when one can reply as easily as one can on the Web. Online comments, TrackBack, search, and Web sites like Technorati show how easy it is to link a reply to an original comment without the active assistance of the original site. Would having a working comments section suffice for this law's right of reply? What about TrackBack? What about a link to a Technorati query? A Google search? I doubt that the Council has given any of these questions the thought they deserve.

What's more, as the original article mentions, the law means that the creator of the forum is no longer its master. This has many implications. It's a fairly regular thing to see forum owners crack down on trolls to protect forums from degrading into name-calling exercises; what will happen when the trolls use the force of law against the forum owner? Does the right of reply apply to anyone criticized in a right-of-reply post?

Here's a particularly juicy gem: "The reply should be made publicly available in a prominent place for a period of time (that) is at least equal to the period of time during which the contested information was publicly available, but, in any case, no less than for 24 hours." Since replies are, by definition, younger than the posts they reply to, and since blogs are "made publicly available" on a continuous and ongoing basis, does this make it nearly impossible to shut down a blog with right-of-reply posts? To my reading, you'd have to delete all of the replied-to posts first, and then continue to maintain the blog for enough time to ensure that the replies were available for as long as the original was. Such a legally mandated burden obviously increases the cost of running a blog, and a few high-profile cases of this happening could discourage people from expressing themselves.

For these and other reasons, I believe that this law will stifle, rather than encourage, free speech. Furthermore, I predict that someone will try to use this law to shut down a blog or render it unusable, in a similar manner to the Church of Scientology's ongoing crusade to shut down an online newsgroup. If Europe won't abandon this terrible idea, they should at least scrap this law and write one that takes into account the unique nature of the Internet, instead of trying to force the Internet to act like it has the limitations of paper and ink or radio spectrum.

Fortunately for me, I live in a country with guaranteed rights of free speech and freedom of association, so, as the article above points out, it's very unlikely that such a law will ever affect me. (Unless I decide to vacation in Europe again; despite the pleasant trip I had last time, it's looking less and less likely that I will, given Europe's gradual descent into European Community madness.)

Jun 16, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

New toy: cell phone

The accident a few weeks ago confirmed the need for me to carry a cell phone. We've had one for a long time now, but just one; as it turned out, Tami was more likely to carry it than I am. So, last weekend, Tami and I upgraded the phone we had, and got a second one. Of course, being a gadget geek, we had to get the so-called "third generation" phones, with the Internet connectivity, text messages, pictures, and so on.

Our old phone was with Sprint PCS; for various reasons, we chose to stay with Sprint. The other carriers had various problems; coverage in Champaign was iffy with AT&T, T-Mobile didn't roam, and we've had bad experiences with Cingular. (Come to think of it, Verizon wasn't represented at the Best Buy where we checked all this out. Can anyone comment on their services?) We both got Sanyo 8100 phones; Sprint and Sanyo both have information on it. (Sprint doesn't seem to believe in permalinks, so the Sprint link might not work for you.)

Sprint's philosophy towards their services is interesting. Whenever possible, they seem to want to make advances services use the Internet. This means that the Wireless Web service is key to just about everything they do that isn't traditional phone territory, including text messaging, pictures, downloadable features (like ring tones), and so on. This has its drawbacks; its text messaging interface, for example, is a little bit clunky. I do like the general idea, though, as it seems to be trivial to add services to the phone.

On the other hand, there are signs that some parts of Sprint are a bit behind the curve on Internet integration. Picture access is a good example. It, like everything else, is Internet-based; when you send pictures to other phone users, you get Short Mail (Sprint's name for text messaging) with a URI you select that takes you to the Web site to view the picture. They do this for both phones, where it makes sense, and Internet E-mail, where it doesn't; why they don't just attach the picture to the E-mail is a mystery. Downloading is possible, but you have to click on a link; you end up with a ZIP file of the JPEG-encoded picture, which is redundant, since JPEGs are already compressed. All of this makes it difficult to send pictures to your computer that can be picked up by a script and automatically saved. (Difficult, but not impossible; I've already done it, and am working now on auto-posting of pictures to this site.)

Verdict on American third-generation phones: nice, but still not where they need to be.

Jun 15, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

The appeal of the KKK

It's odd how debates get started on the Web. One that's going on now involves a post by Clubbeaux about his encounter with the Ku Klux Klan, and the surprising realization that some Klan people don't seem to match the common conception of what a Klan person should be. From what I can tell, the most interesting posts on the subject are from cut on the bias, Frozen in Montreal, Meryl Yourish, Clubbeaux himself, and the ever-eloquent Dean Esmay, which brought it to my attention and which is the main focus of my observations.

Executive summary: the tone of the whole debate leaves me uneasy.

First, the necessary disclaimers: I think the KKK is an evil organization, along the lines of Al-Qaeda or Hamas. I believe the world would be a much better place if it were to go away. Unlike Clubbeaux, I can fault people who join criminal organizations no matter the rationale. The only excuse I accept on that score is ignorance, and even then, I would still fault the person for not doing his/her homework, and for not immediately withdrawing once no longer ignorant. Anyone doubting my sincerity or veracity is invited to ask polite questions in the comments.

All that having been said, isn't it telling that we have a subject we can't seem to talk about without a quick bow to the received orthodoxy? Indeed, Clubbeaux seems to have done everything but present himself as a human sacrifice on the altar of the received orthodoxy, and yet several people (Meryl comes to mind) seem to continue to flail at him for his thought crime.

At one time, scientists had to make quick genuflections in the direction of the Church in their scientific papers. Scientists who didn't do so, or scientists who actually used reason to critically analyze the received wisdom, often met with persecution for it. (Read the story of Galileo for a well-known example in science, or read the story of Wycliffe for a church history example.) We like to talk about our Enlightenment values, but are we really that enlightened when we rail against people trying to deal with the evidence life drops into their laps, even if they are wrong about some parts of their analysis?

(I'll fully grant that Clubbeaux can be, well, difficult when people don't agree with him, and am perfectly willing to grant grace to Meryl for reacting to him in the way she did.)

In particular, I wonder if people aren't really thinking about the question Clubbeaux raised: why are people joining the Klan today? I'd love to be contradicted with links to studies on this question, though I haven't seen any yet. Dean did grant that Clubbeaux had a point on that score, which is good, but I'm not comfortable about him lining up with Meryl's "flog the blogger" rhetoric.

At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, I have to point out that the Nazis were considered an undesireable group in the Germany of the 1920s. Remember that Hitler was jailed for a time for his part in the Beer Hall Putsch, and wrote Mein Kampf while in prison. But they had a message for the "regular German" of the day. This enabled them to acquire the political power they needed to gain control of the Weimar Republic, power they then used to topple it and erect the Third Reich in its place.

So if Clubbeaux is right, and the Klan is the only organization addressing real problems real people have, is it right to shut our eyes to that because of their sordid past? Isn't it, rather, our duty as free-thinking liberal Americans to swallow our horror and look the problem in the eye?

Some people point to the existence of organizations that do address the concerns of poor whites as counterevidence; why don't poor whites join those groups? It's a good question. But before we can answer, I have to ask in return: which of those groups are really down in the trenches with poor whites, as Clubbeaux wrote:

The Klan was the only organization who gave a damn that a guy's kids were bused to a dangerous part of town to go to school? I could believe that. The Klan was the only organization to sit down beside a white construction worker who'd just gotten laid off because they needed to hire more blacks at the site, throw an arm around the guy and say "Hey, you really got screwed?" I believe that. The Klan's the only organization speaking up for a lot of low-income people, the kind of people who can't insulate themselves against the consequences of social engineering? I believe that.

Now if those things aren't true, then his critics have a valid point. I don't know if it is or not. But what if it is true? What do his critics, especially Meryl, have to say about it? Why, indeed, will no one get down and dirty and help these people except the Klan?

I admit that I'm mostly speaking from ignorance here. I've certainly not had a life like that Dean describes, or like the people Clubbeaux interviewed. But if I'm too ignorant to have answers, I can at least think clearly well enough, and remember enough of history, to ask questions. At least I'll come out of it less ignorant, and possibly, some others of us might as well.

Jun 11, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

The NYT feed posts to the future!

The previous story discussed the advent of the New York Times RSS feeds to my blogroll, a happy event. But not so happy, in one way: all the NYT stories seemed to stick like glue to the very top of the blogroll. I noticed that the NYT seems to post in clusters, but even so, the cluster should move down in the blogroll just like the other blogs do.

The source of the problem: posts to the future. For example, right now, the channel's lastBuildDate is 4:31 AM GMT, or 11:31 PM EST, which makes sense (it's nearly midnight as I write). But the first item has a pubDate of 7:20 AM GMT, or 2:20 AM EST.

I don't know if this is caused by a bug in the software, or if there's something nefarious afoot. But it's easy to fix; a simple tweak to my blogroll script that disallows posts to the future solves the problem nicely. Of course, it also drops NYT posts entirely from the blogroll, but that's a self-correcting problem: once the dates are fixed, the NYT posts will take their rightful place.

Any clues as to what is causing this problem would be appreciated.

Jun 11, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

The New York Times: Blog of record

Some of my regular readers (do I even have regular readers?) may have noticed the appearance of New York Times stories on my blogroll over on the left. Most blogroll changes are silent affairs, but this one, I think, merits special attention.

It all started when Dave Winer complained about the NYT changing its policy on archives, pulling them off the free Web and starting to charge for them. More importantly, when the articles disappeared, links to those articles changed, effectively removing the source material for many discussions happening on the Internet.

The NYT responded, and started talking to Dave, with very good results. RSS feeds are now available, though it's not entirely clear that non-Userland users (like me) are the intended audience. (Dave says that the NYT knows that the feeds can be used by anyone.)

I've been having problems finding good news sources, and am pleased to see a new source. If it works out, I may stop reading the BBC. On the other hand, I fear that this is to be a short-lived experiment.

Dave has revealed that the NYT makes a lot of money selling access to their archives; how much isn't known, but it's evidently significant enough to be a concern for them. Money is good; everyone planning to eat supper tonight in their comfortable home can attest to this. However, the NYT also has a reputation for being the "paper of record", and prides itself on defining the national debate. But if the national debate is happening on the Internet more and more, and you don't allow the Internet to read your stories (or index them on Google, another problem with the NYT's archive policy), you're going to lose credibility as the "paper of record" fairly quickly, self-destructive behavior aside.

So, it becomes a question of trading off one good (profit) for another (reputation, influence). Which will the NYT pick? Who knows? And that's what makes me nervous.

All the same, I'm willing to take part in the great experiment. I'll link and discuss NYT stories when they interest me, and keep the Front Page in my blogroll, for as long as things stay this way. When they change, we'll certainly know more about how they've chosen to trade.

Jun 10, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Critical Mass drops comments

Critical Mass is a blog about academic freedom and freedom of expression on college campuses. One of the best things about the blog was the comments section, which often served to host spirited debates about the ethics of free expression, the limits of government and college board intervention, and the place of free expression in education.

Today, however, Erin (the blog owner) decided to shut off comments for her stories. Comments already posted were preserved, but no new comments can be posted.

I understand the motivation for her to do this; there were a few people trolling the comments, which turned some threads into shouting matches. But it's still unfortunate.

It does bring up the question: are comments doomed on popular blogs? Most of the "A-list" blogs don't allow comments already, and it seems that it only takes a slight uptick in popularity for a blog to attract trolls and other undesireables. It would be nice if something like Slashdot's karma system or Kuro5hin's ratings could be made to work across blogs; this might give blogs like Critical Mass the ability to open up again.

UPDATE: Linked to wrong story, fixed. Sorry to all of you following the TrackBack from the Citrus College story.

Jun 09, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Technology as substitute for honesty

A guy named Simon Dumenco gets all superior about blogs and TiVo. Doc and Dave get bent out of shape about it.

I'm wondering what kick Simon is on. I didn't watch a single episode of American Idol (despite peer pressure). Unlike Simon, I didn't feel any weird compulsion to lie to my friends about it in order to impress them. Nor do I feel any strange desire to use blogs as Cliff's Notes on important issues of the day, whether to impress my friends or otherwise. Unlike him, I actually clicked on the link from Doc and read his screed, doing him the favor he admits refusing to do for others.

Regardless, my question to Doc and Dave is: why should we care? The guy's own article is sufficient to condemn him. Blogs don't need careful vigilance against powerful critics; they're already too big for some well-placed flack to kill. Let the Simons of the world parody themselves in public.

Don't get me wrong: I'm willing to be convinced that Simon isn't a waste of time. But not until he responds, in public, to one of us, and actually links to the story he's responding to. (And not one of those auto-link things where he says something like "Doc Searls (doc.weblogs.com)" and expects the machine to make the dot-com-words blue for him.) That would prove that he actually had a ticket for the cluetrain, as it were. But it doesn't help to argue with him over his need of a ticket; just kick him off the train and head out of the station, already.

Jun 06, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

The Browser War enters a new phase

Remember the Browser War? Microsoft and Netscape duking it out for dominance in the all-important browser space? Microsoft being convicted of using its monopoly power to crush Netscape?

It's not over yet. Not by a long shot.

The announcement you might have heard was the one that Microsoft and AOL have settled their antitrust lawsuit. Of course, this is bad news for the Netscape crowd, since AOL will continue to base its software on IE for the foreseeable future.

But here's the announcement you might not have caught. Basically, IE is dead; an upcoming maintenance release will likely be the last. >From now on, the Windows browser will not have an identity as a separate piece of software.

This has a lot of implications. For one, it's now clear that all IE users today will have to upgrade their operating system in order to get "IE 7" (in whatever form it takes). Those who don't will have to stick with IE 6. For people who write Web pages, this is a bad thing, because IE hasn't changed fundamentally since IE 4, and has huge bugs in its support of Web standards. (For more information, look here, here, and here, among other places.) For better or for worse, we're all stuck with the bugs of IE for the next few years, just as we were stuck with the bugs of Netscape 4 for so long.

With a lack of bug fixes comes a lack of new features, as well. I'm always surprised when I find myself needing to use IE; it seems so primitive, even compared to the minimalist Epiphany browser for GNOME. No tabbed browsing or popup management, and all security and privacy settings force you to deal with "zones" that no one, in practice, can seem to get the way they want them.

Another, nicer surprise is that non-Microsoft browsers are making a comeback. In one of the links above, Tim Bray mentions that the traffic to his site seems to be trending away from IE and towards alternative browsers such as those based on Mozilla, Opera, or Konqueror. Others have also noticed this trend.

If you're reading this site using Internet Explorer, therefore, you'd do well to look at some of the alternatives. If you don't like full-fledged Netscape, Mozilla is a good alternative, and they now make a nice stripped-down browser called Firebird. Apple has released a new browser for Macs called Safari, based on the Konqueror browser for UNIX. Opera is still going strong, if you don't mind paying for it.

Jun 01, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

In honor of Memorial Day...

...I present this link. Read it, and feel good about the future of this country.

(Via InstaPundit.)

May 27, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Whosoever? (and Christian bashing)

I made the mistake of getting sucked into a touchy subject Dean Esmay brought up today. Dean was magnificent as always, as were others, but you might want to brace yourself before reading some of the other comments. That is, unless you enjoy hearing Christ compared to Charles Barkley, the Church compared to the Klan, or Christians being called idiots.

I confess to having reacted in the forum quite strongly. It seems to be the thing now to insult the intelligence of Christians, and you get tired of it after a while. This is one of the reasons I've really enjoyed, and passed on, Steven Den Beste's posts; he doesn't mind admitting that we Christians really can be on his intellectual level, lofty as that may be.

Anyway, the post was about learning to live and let live, with specific reference to homosexuals vs. Christians. Dean quotes a post on the Daily Contentions blog (no permalinks; scroll down to the May 23rd entry entitled "Christianity and Homosexuality"), who points out a group called Whosoever, an online mag for homo/bi-sexual Christians. They preach tolerance and compassion, and also have a Bible analysis page regarding passages about homosexuality.

I'll have to color myself "unconvinced" on part of their Biblical case. I have experience with koine Greek, and have translated portions of the New Testament, and I've studied this issue specifically. They do have a good point that "feelings" and "orientation" aren't addressed in the Bible; they aren't. But actions are, and I think they do a lot of dancing around the issues regarding homosexual actions, especially regarding their "temple prostitution" explanation.

I'd have to say, though, that they certainly don't "disproof-text" any worse than a lot of evangelical Christian groups. Can they legitimately call themselves Christian? Sure. Fundamentalist they ain't, as can be seen from their statement of faith (in particular, point 7), but they affirm the basics of the Creeds. I might not sign on to their doctrinal statement, but I wouldn't presume to act as their judge. And I certainly wouldn't support persecuting them, or withholding the benefits of liberal democracy from them.

And you know what? None of our theologies are totally correct. Let God convict them of anything they need to be convicted of; it's his job anyway. And would it be so bad if God spoke to homosexuals through this magazine? Which ministry, after all, could claim to be without sin, if sinlessness is to be the new prerequisite for effective ministry? If you would wag your finger: would you also sincerely pray that they conform to Christ's plan, wherever that may lead?

And they do have a message for all of us. Hate, as a sin, trumps sex in any form. Go read how much of the Bible is directed at hate, and how much at sex, and you'll get an idea of God's priorities. (For that matter, do the same about greed or idolatry.) So is hating gays a Christian thing to do? Not by a long shot. People who hate anyone for their sin are too far removed from their own salvation to remember from whence they came.

May 24, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Are you tired of atheism yet?

While I was off getting myself rear-ended, Don Sensing responded to Den Beste's post, and has promised a series of essays on science and religion. The first one is already up.

Go read, and watch for Don's future installments; the first one is really worth reading.

May 23, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Accident redux

(What accident, you ask? This accident.)

Well, there isn't much to say. The insurance people have taken hold, I now have a rental van (thanks to Tami's perseverance; she found a van for rent in Indianapolis on race weekend!), and I have a few aches and pains. Hopefully, the doctor will be able to tell me more tomorrow.

I'm sure I'll have more to complain about before this whole mess is over. The adjuster from the "other" insurance company isn't in much of a hurry to check over our van or give us guidance about what to do with it. That's a pain; as nice as the rental van is, I'd rather just get my van fixed and go on my merry way.

I drove past the accident site today on my way home from work/errands/the usual. No freakout was detected, even if I did adjust my rear-view mirror a bit before hitting the interstate. Which is good; there are precious few other (good) ways home.

May 23, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Inductive atheism, deductive doubt

Steven Den Beste does it again, posting a very thought-provoking essay on the nature of belief in response to The Raving Atheist (no link, as the name fits; you can get to him via Den Beste if you really want to). TRA is one of the people trying to prove that religious faith is non-rational, and Den Beste does us theists a huge favor by utterly destroying that idea.

I should point out that Den Beste is an atheist, and that I don't agree with him on lots of things. What I admire in his essays is his honesty; he isn't afraid to categorize his atheism as a belief, and consequently sees no problem in commending the rationality of strong theists (such as Don Sensing).

In particular, I don't see his scientific evidence as convincing. The question of evolution isn't terribly interesting to me; science has a theory that works for some set of problems, but only God knows the true answer. (If God created the mollusc eye, can't he claim credit for that as well as the human eye? And don't engineers often use lower-quality parts for some operations as long as they meet the spec?) His sickle-cell anemia example is merely a very scientific instance of the problem of evil; we don't need to ask microbiology for evidence of injustice and inequity in the world. And most thoughtful theists have something that resembles an answer to the problem of evil.

Indeed, as I pointed out earlier, it's not really possible to "prove" the existence of God without some kind of personal experience, and personal experience is by definition anecdotal and untrustworthy as evidence in a detached manner.

The sense I get is that of a great gulf separating atheists and theists, a sort of "atheists are from Mars, Christians are from Venus" thing. As Den Beste points out, the convinced are hard to un-convince. I do have a source of hope, in that atheism requires a lack which God is certainly capable of providing.

On the other hand, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." (Luke 16:31, NIV) We theists (or, at least, we Christian theists) claim to be a part of a conversation, which atheists and agnostics claim not to be able to hear. As a caution, I might counsel such people to consider whether they've been making any effort to hear, or, as in The Raving Atheist's case, whether they've been making an active effort not to.

May 19, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

The NY Times censors itself

As usual, the blogger world takes the ball dropped by the media and runs with it, must faster than the media itself can. I was going to follow up to this, but the rest of the blog world beat me to it. And, since I don't have much to add, I'll make this linkfest my followup.

An excellent post by the PuddingTime blog takes on the accountability issue much better than Thompson did. How does the blog world handle corrections? Right now, not too well. They're either made as comments to the main story, as edits to the main story, or in a new blog entry. None of these are very good ways to get the word out. Read the full post for details.

Doc's reply (and his additional clarification) are devastating:

Here's a thought. What would happen if the archives of all the print publications out there were open to the Web, linkable by anybody, and crawlable by Google's bots? Would the density of blogs "above the fold" (on page one) of Google searches go down while hard copy sources go up? I'll betcha it would.

He calls this "printwash" in contrast to Orlowski's "googlewash" term. Basically, professional news sites don't play the Web game like everyone else does, and are suddenly surprised that they don't define the Web conversation like they think they should. Newspaper columnists are being locked out of the debate by the policies of their own newspapers, not by the machinations of a "blog cabal".

Now, in all fairness, the pro sites have a problem they're trying to solve: how to make money on the Web. Locking up their archives is one way to do this. This does have the effect of reducing their influence in the blog world, but that's a tradeoff decision they have to make. But I do agree with Doc that they shouldn't then complain about their declining influence.

(The previous link itself provides a good example of what Doc's talking about. Can you read it now? Without registering? Or has it been a few weeks? It's awfully easy to argue with someone who won't let anyone read his answers.)

The best quote out there is from Larry Lessig. If you don't read his site, you really should; Lessig is one of the most important participants in the digital rights arena. Anyway, he says:

This Internet is getting out of control. I just learned that when you search on news in Google, for example, it actually returns results with the work of people, not Incs. This has got to be stopped. Get Google to change its code. Incs. before people. Always.

Brilliant.

May 18, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

At least bloggers think

The A-list is a term that seems to come from Clay Shirky's essay on weblog inequality. The general idea is that several bloggers, by virtue of the inbound links given to them by others, have managed to gain high popularity, and that this popularity tends to propagate itself. Some people have translated this inequity into a cause, most notably Andrew Orlowski from The Register. Bill Thompson, from spiked-IT, has joined the cause with this essay on the recent O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

When I read Thompson's article, it became clear very early on that Thompson was writing for shock cynicism value more than as a rigorous critique of anything specific. That's too bad, because he makes a few good points that get lost in the shuffle. Several bloggers have been trying to make sense of the problem. ( Doc Searls seems like a good touchpoint for the linked debate, though I risk perpetrating the A-list by linking to him. Horrors!) It's hard to sort through the hostility, but here's my take.

Thompson's beef can be summed up in two points:

The first point should be obvious. I don't have any editors; I doubt very many do. Part of the A-list's appeal is the general quality of their posts over the "this week i ate ice cream for dinner, ain't i a rebel" stuff. On the other hand, one needs to have some perspective. The phenomenon Thompson was complaining about most was the "live blogging" being done, which was basically a bunch of connected people with laptops blasting first impressions into their blogs as the conference unfolded. Sure, it's unfocused, but at the time, it was the only information out there; its immediacy was something that couldn't be matched by the more thoughtful blogs and the news. Given the lack of alternatives, criticism of "live blogging" amounted to criticism of immediacy in general. Some of that criticism might be valid, but I doubt you could defend "anti-immediacy" with the same panache.

What really irks me about writers like Thompson is the complete lack of respect for a new idea and the thinkers behind it. Some people seem to make their way in the world by breaking down the good others do, thus making it more difficult for people with good ideas to push them forward and do good and interesting things. I'm of the opinion that this kind of cynical slamming is one of the great evils of the world.

Maybe the problem is that people who aren't used to having good ideas don't recognize when an idea is still in the formative stages, when they can exert positive influence on it. The level of commenting Thompson's getting shows that he can gain the attention even of the A-list. Yet, once he has their attention, he insults them, because old, entrenched ideas often can't be changed without a lot of strong negative criticism. That he mistakes blogging for an old, entrenched idea only displays his own lack of imagination and his lack of ability to engage in a creative process.

Enough for now. I'll write more later on some of the good points he raises.

May 16, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

New sidebar feature

I've been wanting to add a blogroll to my side panel for a while now, but regular lists of links are boring. So, I wrote up something that pulls the RSS feeds for my blogroll and posts the most recent stories. Blogs that haven't been updated recently enough get put in a regular boring list at the bottom.

This seems like a better way to do blogrolls. You immediately get an idea if any of the sites on the list are interesting to you, which is good with long lists.

I'll keep things this way for a while, and evaluate if this is a good idea or not afterwards. If you have an opinion, post a comment.

May 14, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Anatomy of advocacy

Just read an interesting post (thanks, Chris) that starts out about economics (mentioning the minimum wage debate in passing) and ends on a general note about bias. The interest isn't so much in what Jane Galt says, but what her commenters say, and how the advocacy on each side influences the debate.

The first data point to recognize is that I'm a total non-entity in economics. I can only talk about it in the most general way, and quickly get lost in the details when the conversation starts getting at all technical. This means that I can't really make a decision based on logic; I'm too uninformed.

But let's assume that I have to. Let's say that I'm to vote on a referendum on the minimum wage soon, and I want to have as informed a vote as possible. Given that I must make a choice between competing views, and given that I'm otherwise incompetent to make such a choice, my thought process is going to be anything but logical. Fallacies will abound because they have to.

And the prime fallacy I'm going to rely on is the argument from authority. What else? I'm going to judge the level of trust I have in each side, and totally give the side I trust the most the whole sausage. Logical? Nope. Necessary? You bet.

In assessing trust, given the data in that article alone, I've got several points to ponder. First, Jane's whole point in the article is to discuss bias, not the minimum wage; it's an incidental point, and one she only defends in reaction. Since her point is about bias, and she doesn't pretend to be immune herself (and specifically disclaims as much in the comments), she gets big bonus points.

Second, her opponents on the minimum wage center their efforts on a throwaway quote from the article:

It does not tell us, as many advocates have argued, that we could raise the minimum wage to $10 with salutary effect on poverty.

When her opponents start pounding her on this, she responds briefly, and then tries to remind us that this isn't the point:

But this isn't about the minimum wage... This is about the temptation to advocacy, which is what y'all are doing by leaping on stupid irrelevancies rather than focusing on the discussion at hand.

The response?

But don't think of yourself as being unaffected by the ideologies you have soaked in your education & experience - just like me, you, and everyone else.

...given the context, I think it was wrong of you to confuse the two. At the very least, you should have made it clear that...

I disagree that you have treated Card & Krueger's study fairly.

In other words, continuing to focus on the throwaway quote, and even beating her on the head with her own argument. This is a big negative. None of them seems interested in even paying lip service to the original point. This smacks of fanaticism, and a power-inequity approach to debate: play to win, not to learn. And in my book, people focused on the battle of wills instead of the search for truth are not to be trusted.

More information: Jane Galt does research and posts links. Cites and links in Jane's comments: 9. In opponent's: 2, one of which was an irrelevant witty quote. And this ignoring Jane's cites in the original post, and with multiple opponents. (I didn't count pro-Jane commenters who weren't Jane.) Again, Jane comes off looking better.

The only thing I see going for the opponents is that they seem to have confounded Jane on one issue: whether anyone was really advocating a $10 US minimum wage. Her last comment sounded almost like a concession, ending as it did.

So, from this little article, where am I at on the minimum wage? I'm more against raising it than I was before I read the article, based on Jane's rationale (which I'm incapable of really critiquing), combined with the lame performance of her opponents.

Now, some people really want to take me to task right now. I obviously have no business commenting on the minimum wage in any meaningful context. But here's the point: I'm reproducing the thought process many, many people use when forced to make a decision about something that they don't know squat about. People like voters, or Congresspeople, or town councillors. These are the considerations that people are going to use when making important decisions, decisions which in some cases may affect the very experts debating the issues back and forth.

It's important, therefore, to tailor your advocacy appropriately. One would assume that the commenters on Jane's blog are posting because they really want to convince people that they have a point. Yet their writing clearly worked against that goal.

Of course, I don't pretend to be perfect in this arena. I've done my share of "foot-in-mouth" advocacy. But I shouldn't, and neither should anyone else. If one doesn't care to convince anyone, one should probably keep one's mouth shut.

May 12, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

CNN sucking up in North Korea, too

>From Dean Esmay (who is on a roll, I must say) comes a very interesting first-person account of an American touring in North Korea.

What I found interesting was the scene where the group was taking a tour of a museum containing the gifts to North Korea:

Ever wonder why CNN seems to be the only Western news organization regularly allowed into North Korea? The next room perhaps offered a clue. In the 'Gifts from America' room a whole section of one wall is taken up by gifts from CNN. A few engraved plaques, a coffee cup (yeah, a freaking coffee cup!), a logo ashtray, etc. Probably at most a couple hundred bucks worth of crap that nonetheless get pride of place in the museum - for they reveal obvious signs of respect from a world famous news organization. The people at CNN are certainly using their heads and showing they know how to play the game. Though one wonders how that fits in with journalistic integrity . . .

Now, a coffee cup does not a scandal make. But given CNN's recent admission that they were sucking up to Saddam Hussein for access, should we take it for granted that they aren't doing the same thing in Korea? I don't think so, especially given that the aforementioned traveler in North Korea himself felt moral pressure to not betray the people he had talked to, and this after only a few days in the region with no serious ties or vested interest.

May 11, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Petreley vindicated (sort of)

Slashdot today has a story on a new distribution called GoboLinux. Interestingly, it's unique in that it totally rethinks the Linux filesystem layout, putting things together much like Nick Petreley proposed in some ways.

I'll just point out that these guys seem to have been hard at work long before Petreley started his series. Also, they deserve a lot more respect, because they actually built something, and did the hard work to solve the problems their idea created.

They also don't seem to be gratuitously slamming what has come before, which also puts them ahead of Petreley.

May 11, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

More on (a)theism

Don Sensing posted an answer of sorts to Den Beste's atheism post. His response is quick, and hints at a potential future post. Let me add my voice to the list of those who would be interested in a follow-up.

In a comment, an atheist invoked Occam's Razor as a principle that supposedly dictates that atheism is the most logical position to hold. (This seems to be a common thing to do.) I answered the comment briefly there, but felt the need to elaborate.

Occam's Razor works best with well-understood areas that have a couple of unclear spots. It's also good at pointing the way to further research. But when the whole field is a mystery, Occam is a very poor guide. Consider that the theory of relativity would have been rejected under this criteria in Newtonian England, even though it turns out to be more correct.

Atheism is a statement about what is not. It is nonscientific in that it doesn't really explain anything or give us any predictive power. Thus, it doesn't really suffice as an alternative to theism in an Occamist sense. And there are many questions religious theism answers that science cannot or has not, making science a poor Occamist alternative as well. Atheists are therefore relegated to admitting their lack of knowledge on a whole host of issues. This may or may not be a valid belief to have, but Occam is not going to be able to tell you one way or the other.

>From the comment on Sensing's post:

We know that no disproof of God's existence can be logically derived, but choose instead to believe that as long as the observable Universe behaves as if God does not exist then it is the most rational stance to be an atheist.

This, too, isn't clearly true. The question Popper would ask: What does it mean for the Universe to behave as if God does exist?

The hallmark of "mechanistic atheism" is the observation that the universe appears to be self-motivated; in other words, it doesn't look like someone outside of the universe is propping it up. How would we know, though? Obviously, only if the prop wasn't doing a good job, and the rules governing the universe seemed to fail every so often in a way we couldn't explain or predict. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to live in such a capricious universe, to say nothing of the probability that I wouldn't likely exist to have a choice in the matter.

Since consistency in the universe's operation seems to be a prerequisite for sentient life, mechanistic atheism is a bit of a tautology. If we couldn't exist without a consistent universe, then requiring an inconsistent universe as a proof of anything automatically disqualifies that belief. Put another way: we can't rightly hold God hostage by our need for consistency on his part, then insist that he be inconsistent before we believe in him. Doing so would essentially amount to suicide: we would behold God's face and die.

Of course, God could interfere in the rules in small ways, ways that were generally positive and non-disruptive. Out of necessity, such interventions would be rare and non-reproducible. Reports of such interventions would be dismissed as anecdotes by anyone who wasn't a direct observer. Thus, as proof, such interventions would only work on a personal level, and not as an effective tool in general discourse.

Surprisingly, the world as it really is seems to resemble this hypothetical world quite closely.

This isn't a proof, any more than anything else discussed so far is a proof. But it does put the lie to atheistic arrogance regarding being "more rational". Den Beste is right: the question of God is rightfully a matter of faith on all sides.

May 11, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Journaleering, part 2

A slightly older post takes Nick Petreley to task for promising a simple solution to a hard problem: software package compatibility. Summary: I was doubtful.

The final part of that series has been up for a while now, with his solutions to the problem. Not surprisingly, his solutions are a mix of obviously good ideas and some wishful thinking. Rather than go through the whole article, I'll hit on some of the high points

Use static linking whenever possible. This is an obvious answer to the problem of resolving dynamic library problems. However, security problems or other bugs in the library can't be fixed unless you rebuild. Worse, since the dependency information disappears, you often don't even know you have a security problem in some software that statically links a library. Look at the archives of Debian security announcements for the "zlib" bug for an example; there are a few cases where apps that statically linked to zlib or incorporated its source code had to be updated separately.

It's also possible in some cases for clients to remain compatible with servers they use even after major changes. If the client library is dynamic, it can be updated to talk to the newer servers without disrupting the old apps. This obviously doesn't work with static apps. Indeed, the packaging system will often report that your system is perfectly fine after an update (remember, again, that the dependency information disappears), yet your apps will mysteriously break. That's an improvement?

Design the application to look for resources in separate, identifiable directory trees. This isn't a new idea; see the stow project for one fine example of a system to manage just such a configuration. The HURD was, at one time, supposed to use overlapping mounts on /usr/bin and /usr/lib to solve the problem in a slightly different way.

Create and adopt a new dynamic-link wrapper. This is where a lot of the wishful thinking kicks in. We might be able to write an extension to the dynamic linker that looks in "foo/lib" for a dynamic library needed by a program in "foo/bin", but that's about it. The "framework" idea is a little unclear; the simple form (adding framework paths to the linker) is already supported, while the more complex one (figure out that a particular app is a KDE app and look in the KDE framework path) is unreasonable. How is the linker supposed to know that an app is a KDE app, after all?

Firewall-incompatible versions or build-in backward compatibility. That's like saying "to have world peace, all we need to do is stop declaring wars". Fine, but how do you do that?

Backward compatibility is possible now with the existing dynamic linkers; look at the changes glibc has gone through, and how well old apps use new versions of that library. Yet we still have problems, mostly because library developers can't be forced to follow the rules.

Resolve dependencies by file, not by package. And how, exactly, do you figure out which package contains "/usr/lib/libfoo.so.2" without package dependencies? Right: you store file-to-package associations. Which makes file deps devolve to package deps, with an added indirection layer to confuse the poor user who just wants some app installed and doesn't know where "libgnomeprint.so.15" is supposed to come from.

He hints at another problem, but basically handwaves it away: unresolved symbols from newer versions of the shared library. His "solution" amounts to "look really, really hard for it". One solution might be to declare a versioned dependency on the package containing the library, but Nick says that's bad, remember? I think that Debian's solution is probably as good as we can get: store the proper dep in the development library package, and have a program automatically calculate the dependencies by looking at what libraries the app uses and pulling the embedded package deps in.

I am particularly incensed by the implication that "that problem is political and beyond the scope of this discussion." Thanks, Nick. You just accused me (and others) of holding the solution in the palm of our collective hands, but refusing to use it because we really love to screw our users over for the gain of our own egos. But never fear: the journalists are here to save the world from the evil engineers!

(Side note: RPM has both of these features right now: file deps and versioned symbol deps. It even has deps on RPM features you need, which RPM magically translates into a versioned dependency on the "rpm" package. None of this helps; in fact, it hurts in some ways.)

The junk drawer. My words, not his, for points 3 and 4 on the second page. Anything with missing deps gets thrown in a junk area instead of being installed onto the system, without removing the stuff it's supposed to replace. I haven't a clue what this solves. Both Debian and Red Hat package managers refuse to install a package with missing deps already; what difference does it make that the package gets thrown in a refuse pile, given that it won't work anyway?

Generate something based on the end results. Running apps from a script instead of directly is sometimes a good idea. Reconfiguring the dynamic linker with each package install doesn't sound like a good idea. I might be convinced if I had any idea what this was supposed to solve.

Well, enough slamming of Petreley. If there's interest (like, say, any comments or TrackBacks to this post), I might post my own ideas about making the process easier. At a fundamental level, though, you can't get around the fact that packaging is hard work. You can't wave a magic wand and make any software, generated anywhere, work on any computer. Part of the process of making a distribution involves making sure everything plays well together and fixing the problems you run into. Source-only distros like the BSDs and Gentoo solve some of the problems, but they don't make the problem go away completely, and they introduce other problems which some people might find more troublesome.

May 10, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Religious flame wars

Dean Esmay linked a while back to a creation/evolution rant on a site called Clubbeaux. The rant was evidently inspired as part of a general atheism debate that got nasty somewhat quickly. After lots of accusations and some apologies, Clubbeaux's latest word on the fracas is this postmortem.

Some good came of it; Steven Den Beste has written an excellent article out of this that shows how atheism is no more provable than theism, and also discusses several responses to theistic proofs for God. Coincidentally (or perhaps not, given the strange way my mind works), Dave Weinberger posted some thought about humanism and "scientism" that tied in to the whole theme well.

It's late, and I need to hit the sack, so my deep thoughts will need to wait. But before I go, I need to harp on a lesson we all need to be reminded of, me included.

We don't need to defend the Gospel in these kinds of debates. There's really not much atheists, of either of Den Beste's types, can do to it to "tarnish" it. The intellectual arguments against God need to be met and vanquished, but beyond that, we shouldn't get all angry when people disagree with us, even if they do so in a vulgar and ugly manner. As we learned with this incident, violent reactions end up doing as much damage, if not more.

Regardless, we are all fallible and in need of forgiveness, a fact that Clubbeaux himself has recognized. I've added Clubbeaux to my aggregator, and defended him against some of the invective. (He's showed up here, too; I hope he comes back.) Should I lose my head in this manner, I hope he can remind me of his own battle scars and lead me back to reason.

May 08, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

"Link" links gone

So today, instead of writing for the blog, I decided to hack on the site.

Among other things, the "Link" permalink things are gone. Tami didn't really like them anyway; they looked confusing to her. And, as it turns out, the "Comments" link serves as a really fine permalink anyway, so that's the new permalink.

People who might have saved old links using the "Link" tag need not worry. They should work for the foreseeable future.

May 08, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Microsoft: "Do more with less"

Got the latest Dr. Dobbs Journal just now. It comes with an eval copy of Windows Server 2003. I saw the slogan for the ad campaign (see the title) and about lost it. That phrase can be abused so many ways:

OK, I'll stop now. But I still want to know why Microsoft does this to themselves. First "Where do you want to go today?", now this.

May 03, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Journalist makes OS engineers obsolete

I suppose a lot of us "amateur journalists" get to make weird proclamations regarding journalism, so why not?

Nick Petreley, tech journalist extraordinare, has solved the software installation problem Debian people (and certain other apt users) don't know they have. It's simple, really: just write a packaging system that allows software to install on any distribution of Linux, quickly, without conflicts or "package hell" or special dependency resolvers like Debian's apt.

This miracle is to be created by somehow combining some of the ideas of the current dynamic linker (except better), some of the ideas of Gentoo (without the time-consuming build step), and some of the ideas of the "ltdl" library from GNU libtool (except, again, better). He drops a teaser at the end of the article that implies that he'll have all the answers in the next article.

Wow. Who needs engineers when you have journalists?

This article is kind of like me commenting on reporting the news by saying something like "hey, if only journalists would just report the truth, they'd have far fewer problems". (Hi, Mike!) Well, duh. Reporting the "truth" is the hard part.

Similarly, Petreley reduces the software installation problem to its hard parts and then punts: "just solve these little problems, and we're cool". It's really easy to write articles that imply that we engineers are too stupid to think of such an easy thing, especially since no one will expect him to actually produce working code. Sorry, he can't; he'd love to raise the dead and heal the sick, but he's got this column deadline, you understand?

Just to be fair, the problem I want to see him solve is this: how does he write a dynamic linker that can either predict the future or write missing code on demand?

May 02, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Esperanto, and political cannibalism

My old fool's errand has returned. I've taken up learning Esperanto again.

Those who are unfamiliar with the history of Esperanto will find it difficult to find a more idealistic story. Esperanto was constructed entirely by a Jewish oculist in Warsaw named Lazar Zamenhof in the 1870s and 1880s, finally seeing print in 1887. Zamenhof's original motivation arose from his belief that many disputes and wars arise from miscommunication brought on by poor translation. By learning one easy-to-learn language, people could communicate with each other without one side or the other needing to learn a difficult national language (or, in the case of some groups, several national languages each), and international understanding could be greatly enhanced. Its subsequent history has seen quite a few ups and downs; you can read more about the story here.

Today, Zamenhof's goals are seen as a little optimistic, to say the least. Nevertheless, there is a robust Esperanto community that spans the globe, with representation in nearly every country in the world, particularly in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Online, there's quite a bit of activity, including a robust Usenet news group and many Web sites.

My knowledge of the language is getting to the point where I can read online sites with the help of my trusty dictionary. Curiously, I'm learning as much about my own country as I am about the rest of the world. An online Esperanto news site, Gxangalo, for example, posted this story about PETA's latest antics. A partial translation:

A leader of a group defending animals says that she has signed a will ordering that her flesh should be made into food (roast meat, served during a group meal, in the manner of a party). She also asks in the will that her skin be used to make leather goods. The idea is to protest the treatment of animals by humanity.

Ingrid Newkirk, 53, president of the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), stated to journalists that she decided to donate her body to the organization as a way to protest.

Ick. I imagine that PETA's antics have burned out the Anglosphere press, which is why I first heard of it on a foreign-language site as a curiosity. So now, one can laugh at their silliness in two languages.

May 02, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Instant gratification

(Suggestions that I'm making up for the long silence of recent days will be treated with the appropriate amount of disrespect.)

Matt Yglesias is surprised that we're better at finding Iraqi ex-leaders than we are at finding weapons of mass destruction. Considering that Iraqi soon-to-be-ex-leaders were very easy to find before we marched into Baghdad, is it any shock that hasty cover-ups are easier to uncover than secrets carefully prepared for a decade?

I remember growing up hearing that Americans had attention spans that were too short. I often wondered how anyone could say that after watching a baseball game, but I think I'm seeing it now. Only in America could a three-week war be declared a quagmire in its second week, and only in America could three more weeks be considered enough time to search a desert nation the size of California for carefully hidden items.

Apr 27, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

The joy of GNOME

For those who don't know, GNOME is a graphical user interface for Linux. To explain this simplistically, the user interface is the part that draws the little buttons, scroll bars, and check boxes, and ensures that when you click these things, something interesting happens.

Anyway, my employer provides a little Web-based sign-in board and requires that we all use it to let the company know what we're up to. I'm terrible at remembering to visit the Web page and click on the little form, so I wrote a little chunk of code that hooks into the GNOME user interface called an "applet". It sat on my desktop and gave me a cute little icon that told me what my status with the board was, and I could click on it and tell everyone I was going to the bathroom now, which I'm sure they were very excited to learn.

It worked great, but it was written for GNOME 1, and I'm now using GNOME 2, which means the applet hasn't been working for a while. This weekend I fixed it. Which is to say, I rewrote most of it from scratch, because GNOME 2 talks to its applets in a different way than GNOME 1 did.

Now that I'm on the other side of that problem, and my new applet sticks itself beautifully next to the time on my desktop and happily tells me that I'm "out", I have to say that I'm happier for the experience. As is usual for open-source technology, GNOME 2's applet technology is poorly documented, and the new GNOME hooks for the Python programming language (my language of choice) is even worse. But once you figure out how it works, you fall in love. That's where I am now. All the real problems I had were as a result of not understanding things; now, I feel like I can do anything with this.

All the same, I think I'm going to write a "Writing GNOME 2 Applets in Python" tutorial really soon and post it somewhere.

Apr 27, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Credibility and the Web

Two seemingly unrelated events have had me thinking about credibility issues on the Web.

First, the big news. The Agonist is a weblog that's primarily focused on the Iraq war. It's gotten some critical acclaim for its timeliness and accuracy, even appearing in cable news stories. Unfortunately, the site's accuracy and timeliness came from plagarism of a commercial intelligence newsletter. While the site owner of The Agonist has apologized and added cites to most of his back stories, his apology was disappointing. This has sparked a debate about journalistic ethics (also at the Washington Post, but I don't like using cookie-mongers as primary sources).

The second arose from the first, in the comments to the above plagarism link on Dean Esmay's site. An anti-copyright site took exception in a rather rude fashion in both the comments and on his site, prompting a biting response from Dean.

What to make of all this? My first observation: credibility is to be found in groups on the Web. People are making the point that another weblogger found The Agonist out. Through the magic of TrackBack (what?), people are debating back and forth on the questions about journalistic ethics that the Agonist incident exposes.

Which brings me to the next point: the importance of feedback. That's where the Esmay-Textism "debate", while trivial in itself, has a lot to teach us. The Textism site has absolutely no way of providing feedback to its author: no comments, no TrackBack, nothing. If you're interested in drive-by flamings, Textism seems to be the place to be, but if you believe in the value of debate (like me), you need some way of getting back and forth between the sides. Which means that, for people interested in the debate, Dean Esmay's site had to become the authoritative source. Advantage: Esmay. And it showed, as the comments seemed to come down mostly in his favor. So while it's not a guarantee, fostering debate usually gives you more authority, and on-site feedback mechanisms provide that.

Some of the bigger sites can get away with not having feedback, riding on their reputation from other arenas or over time. That's not where the rest of us are. Which, the way I see it, is a good thing, and should bring the credibility of Web news up over time.

In the meantime, watch what you read online, particularly for engagement with the readers. On the Web, people who don't link to criticism are more likely to deserve it.

DISCLAIMER: I used to work with Dean. I think he's a great guy, and very interesting. If that clouds my objectivity, so be it. Don't say you haven't been warned.

Apr 10, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

The BBC's lost credibility

A while back, I whined a bit about CNN, and praised the BBC for their RSS feeds and timely news.

Let's just say that their war coverage has floored me. Despite their great RSS feeds, I no longer recommend them.

Andrew Sullivan has been on a crusade against the BBC since the war began. I did notice that their reporting tended to be a bit pessimistic, but I hoped that it was just overcompensating for a perceived pro-Brit bias. It turns out that even the British troops there are angry. There's some evidence that their Arabic service is tilting the news even more radically than the English version. Denis Boyles reports that their broadcast service is bad, too, with their Baghdad correspondents even calling their own government and ours liars about the extent of the coalition's success in Baghdad. Even Iraqis in Iraq describe the BBC's radio coverage as "lies".

My evaluation: the BBC is better than Al Jazeera, but not by much. Suggestions for online news are welcome in the comments.

Apr 09, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Amazing article on history and the war

Here is an article by Bill Whittle, linked to by (among others) Sgt. Stryker. If there's one article on the war you read, read this one.

Mar 31, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Enemies, self-delusion, and the President

On Christopher Lydon's blog (found via Doc Searls):

I am searching of course for Other perspectives on Us. But I am also trying to get a better sense of what feels like a collision since September 11 of Post-Colonialism and Neo-Imperialism.

Even before September 11, and with alarm since then, I've had the feeling that the Bush dream is to recapitulate the British and Spanish empires. Didn't the Azores summit make it almost too obvious?

The mission that comes naturally to George W. Bush in the circumstances is to re-otherize the world. The global thrust behind so much else--in markets and culture, Internet technology, environmental salvation, medicine (and, yes, our own radio adventure) is to de-otherize the world.

An extreme repolarization of peoples is underway as American bombs rain down on the Cradle of Civilization. What do we suppose the world sees? Will this damage ever be undone?

Note his choice for "other". This part, for Lydon, is played by the President, as is evidenced by his "feeling" that Bush is hell-bent on empire, made "obvious" by the Azores summit. (Because of the mere presence of Britain and Spain at the podium? Guilt by association? Lydon doesn't say.) One wonders how Bush would go about disproving such feelings and epiphanies to Lydon, should he be so inclined.

Irrational anti-Bush sentiment isn't hard to find, and much of it is laughable. What resonates with me about this post is the fundamental dichotomy that underlies the quote: the rejection of "otherness" regarding the world (including the Cradle of Civilization and -- ostensibly -- its current ruler) and the embrace of "otherness" regarding the political leadership of one's own country.

Not that I think it bad to disagree with Bush; he and his administration have certainly done some things to be concerned about. But must we demonize our opponents? Is it impossible to consider that Bush, wrong though he is on some things, might be right on others?

This is what bothers me so much about the current war debate. If the war is bad, it is bad regardless of who prosecutes it; conversely, if the war is the right thing to do, it does not cease to be the right thing to do because George W. Bush is the one doing it. Certainly, if the war is bad, one can muse about the motives behind prosecuting it anyway. But I, for one, am not at that point. Even as I deplore the need for war and remain deeply skeptical of its necessity, I do not put the full blame for the failure of diplomacy at Bush's feet, nor do I see a way out of that failure that does not involve war.

Of course, rational people may disagree, and do. When they impute impure motives to their opponents, however, are they being rational? And is it possible to have rational disagreement in the world we live in, or are we destined to have the Rush and anti-Rush rant against each other, locked in perpetual struggle with no possible resolution?

UPDATE: Fixed missing quote in HTML.

Mar 29, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Cell phone companies clueless

Clay Shirky is really, really smart. If you want to be "hip" to the tech industry, his site is a really good place to learn about what's going on.

Yesterday, he posted an essay on the new cell phone networks being built right now. If you watch TV, you've probably seen the ads where the wife beams pictures of her spaghetti dinner to her poker-playing husband, who immediately rushes home. That's one of the things the new 3G networks are supposed to make possible.

Another service these new phones provide is something like cable or DSL Internet access, but without the wires. It's also not quite as fast and a whole lot more expensive, especially if you want to hook something that isn't a phone to the network.

That last point turns out to be really important in a world where cheap wireless Internet access is already available. If you've never heard of WiFi, or 802.11 wireless networking, go check out the networking section of your local Best Buy (or look online). For a little over $100, you can buy a little box you plug your cable modem or DSL into and an expansion card you put into your laptop or desktop PC. You can then put the PC anywhere you want, without having to worry about cable or phone jacks. If you have a laptop, you can wander around the house with it and keep your connection to the Internet. Most of them will also handle connection sharing if you have more than one computer. For a little more, you can buy little boxes that do both wired and wireless connections, so you can wire your PC and use wireless on your laptop or PDA.

The big story recently has been how businesses and other institutions are starting to install these little boxes in order to draw customers and increase productivity for their workers. Among these are universities, coffee shops, fast-foot restaurants, airports, and hotels. This makes availability of wireless networking "clouds" good enough that you don't feel the need to browse the Web on your cramped cell phone in the middle of a cornfield, especially not at cell phone prices.

So read the Clay Shirky article, and keep it in mind when thinking about upgrading your cell phone. Make sure you really want the stuff they're promising, and that it's not too expensive. Better yet, look around for cheaper alternatives, like WiFi.

Mar 29, 2003 | Comments are no longer available

Trying out auto-TrackBack

Now that we're on the latest Blosxom, we can try out some of the cool plugins people are writing for it. One is AutoTrack, an automatic TrackBack plugin that follows links in your stories and auto-pings those links if proper TrackBack information can be found. That's what I'm playing with now. If all goes well, a reference to this story should show up on that site.

Mar 27, 2003 | Comments are no longer available