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Is It Time To Reboot or Replace Wikipedia?

Date/Time Permalink: 03/02/11 06:36:42 pm
Category: General

The idea of free information lies cheek-by-jowl with the idea of Free Software. Indeed, open-source program code is simply the freeing of software information, point-blank. And if the web does not exist to make as much information available to as many people as cheaply as possible, then what, exactly, do we have the World Wide Web for?

There's been a growing amount of outcry against the perceived bias of Wikipedia editors. Just recently, the gaming site "Rock, Paper, Shotgun" has called for salvation of the Wikipedia entry for the now-defunct "Old Man Murray" website.

Wikipedia editors always give some outlandish reason for kicking content off the site, and yet I almost never see these methods applied democratically. What is notable, what is reliable, what is a source, varies depending on which editor is interpreting the rules that day. In any case, you can forget the "anyone can edit" part. You're either a member of The Old Boy's Club, or every attempt you make at improving anything will get incinerated as soon as you do it.

The struggle for credible sites to get equal treatment becomes a Kafka trial. "Old Man Murray" was deleted because a third party had not written about it in a non-trivial way. Ironically enough, the Wikipedia entry for "Rock, Paper, Shotgun" carries the warning:

"This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party publications. Primary sources or sources affiliated with the subject are generally not sufficient for a Wikipedia article."

And indeed, of the seven citations given under references, six point to the domain rockpapershotgun.com itself, and the other one is a link to Amazon for a book written by Jim Rossignol, one of the authors of the site itself.

Try this: hit that handy 'random' button on the left sidebar of any Wikipedia page and see what kinds of references are left to stand undeleted, year after year, on article after article. Here's a random sampling of what I got in just a few minutes:

  • Sarajevo in ancient times - No citations.
  • Jakarta International College - The only reference cited leads to a dead page! I especially find these all the time.
  • 1981 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships - Two references, two dead links.
  • The Economy of Esteem - It's an article about a book, and the only citation is its own book! That's great. But doesn't that count as "citing oneself"?
  • I'll Be Your Shelter - A 1990 Taylor Dayne hit; we all remember it if we were paying attention in 1990. But the only reference provided for all of this information points to a web page that simply lists the song - name-artist. Where do you get who it was written by and what else she wrote and who did the backing vocals out of all that?
  • Flow On - But this article about another music single doesn't cite anything.
  • Gordon Van Gelder - The only reference cited is a link to a message board forum. One where anybody could create an account and post whatever they wanted to. Note that it does have a pile of external links, which look like they should be in the reference section.
  • Kolga-Jaani - This geographical stub references a site written in a language other than English (I don't know what language). This is another common problem I see a lot; how do you verify information when you don't speak the language the original material is in? At the least, an English Wikipedia page should reference an English source.

Now, I'm not saying that the above articles are false or anything. I'm also aware that somewhere in the Byzantine maze of Wikipedia rules there might be justification for the application of policy in some of these articles. It's just hard to see why they are still living and breathing while the pages referred to in this list of 15 deleted articles got the ax.

But a lot of the deleted entries recently could have motives attached.

Wikipedia has become a walled garden. Arbitrary rules are hammered out willy-nilly and applied by rogue editors with agendas on top of agendas, and anybody cannot fix it. Which wouldn't irk me so much if they didn't have the gall to collect $16 million in donations last year.

Update 3/4/11 The Old Man Murray story hit Boing Boing and now the O.M.M. entry is reinstated in Wikipedia (at least while everybody is watching). One case got media attention and got immediately corrected; how many more dozens of cases will go unknown and unjustified?

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But I Suffer From Attention Surplus Disorder

Date/Time Permalink: 02/13/11 12:48:55 pm
Category: General

Now, here is the once-in-a-purple-moon case where I can point to somebody doing it right. TechRights dares to commit the act of intellectual terrorism that is having an original thought, and asks, "What If The Real Problem Is Information Underload?" Pointing out that as much as we complain about the information age overloading us, it actually saves us from having to find everything out ourselves.

The example they give is a farmer from decades ago, who had to know how to manage the hands, diagnose the livestock, and figure out the weather. Today he'd run the payroll through his PDA software, look up his horse's symptoms on a site like "vet.com," and of course his Firefox plug-in gives the weather report. Sure, this is a good point, and I could even go on with more examples.

Hey, remember paper road maps? Now your GPS system is clipped on your sun-visor, giving you the directions turn by turn until it steers you confidently into a fruit stand. But before, you had to know your way through a Thomas guide, and especially you had to develop a whole little literacy regarding map legends. You'd have to know that the gray trapezoid was a dam and the black square was a dump. Map-reading wasn't even considered a skill. Now when I see a GPS system, if I make the tiniest comment about the 3D rendering, I get shocked gasps - I must be a wizard! How did I know that?

The supposed Information Age really just increases the speed and availability of information, not the volume. We had to know just as much before the computer revolution; it just took longer to find it out.

Now Then
YouTube drive-in movie theaters
text messaging 1-900 phone party lines
Craigslist newspaper classifieds
blogs newspaper columns, 'opinion' sections
blog comments letters to the editor
pr0n adult magazines, bookstores, etc.
game consoles video game arcades

And before we had cybersex, we had phone sex, and before that, we had sex through the mail. It was very slow, particularly in the days of Pony Express, but it was a small price to pay for an orgasm that lasted months.

See, even post-Information Age, we see the cognitive effect leaning towards the deficit rather than a surplus. For instance, I just typed out that little table up there in HTML tags, without even thinking. That was a grade-school skill 12 years ago. Today, it is absolutely lost to the WYSIWYG editor.

Now granted, I could replace knowing HTML tags with using a WYSIWYG editor more and then join the crowd of people bitching about the information overload of having to know how to use an editor, but then I have the cognitive tax of dealing with the screwed-up editor. Seriously, I have yet to meet the GUI web-document editor that doesn't vomit all over itself. I want minimalist code tags. All WYSIWYG editors today assume that you're composing a complete web page. They still haven't gotten the news that there's this invention called a blog, where you just type normal word-processing text most of the time with the occasional tag for formatting. But yes, if I didn't care about getting the tags just right, I'd be using a WYSIWYG editor and posting just any old slop, content to know less.

Anybody looking over my shoulder and seeing me type HTML tags these days is likely to make a comment like "Why are you typing that junk?" They're HTML tags. "What's an HTML tag?" They've never seen one. Ooooooh, so that's what the little pointy parenthesis on the keyboard are for! Every time, like clockwork. It makes people nervous and edgy around me. I'm a witch; I type HTML tags.

Yeah, Google and Wikipedia, every month there's this new article about how they're making us dumb. No, they have just replaced this process:

  1. Go to library
  2. Go to the card catalog room
  3. Look up the keyword for the topic you want
  4. Write down several call numbers for those book titles - stubby golf score pencils and index cards!
  5. Find the books on the shelf
  6. Open them up and as likely as not, flip to the index in the back
  7. Again, look in the index for the keywords you want
  8. Finally turn to the page number from the index and read that piece of information!

I used to do all that and think nothing of it. Today, I use two advanced search operators typing the query into Google, and once again I'm a black-arts sorcerer. Nobody else knows these things. They come running to me for help with asking Google a question. I am the oracle. For knowing how to type a word with a colon after it.

No, the problem isn't information overload. The problem is that people expect to not have to learn any information at all.

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IBM's Watson, the Artificial-Intelligence Jeopardy-Playing Supercomputer, Runs Linux

Date/Time Permalink: 01/14/11 12:06:16 am
Category: General

Just to put it out there - a common question asked of us techie geeks is "What first got you interested in computers?" Typical answers are movies - the programmer as a kid saw Tron or Wargames and that inspired them to become part of that world. With me, it was 2001 - A Space Odyssey. From the minute I first saw the HAL-9000, my thought was "I must have one of those!" Just, you know, don't give it admin access to the life support system and doors...

"HAL, open the pod bay doors!" "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that!" "HAL, SUDO open the pod bay doors!" "OK, here you go..." That's how XKCD should have run it.

Oh, by the way, you know the movie trivia that the HAL was named after IBM? If you count back one letter for each of the letters in IBM, that's what you get is HAL. I guess "JCN" wouldn't have had the same ring. Anyway, IBM's Watson just had its practice round for Jeopardy today... and it won.

So, according to this article about Watson at Digital Trends,

"Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, is made up of 10 racks of IBM Power 750 servers and runs Linux as its operating system."

Yes, just one more landmark computing achievement in which Linux has played a role.

Hey, IBM? You know what would be really nice of you? If you could just mention the word "Linux" somewhere in your taping of the show tomorrow. It wouldn't kill you, would it? Just once, we'd like to hear the word "Linux" out loud on TV. I want to hear how Alex Trebek pronounces it.

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Abbie Hoffman Would Have Loved 4Chan

Date/Time Permalink: 12/08/10 12:47:37 pm
Category: General

...and if you stop and think about it (or as I will explain in today's post), that isn't actually saying a good thing. The real title of this post should have been "Julian Assange Is A Blowhard, Ron Paul Is Still An Idiot, And There's More Important Issues In Life Than Legalizing Pot", but that title would have driven readers away without checking it out.

Because history is a dead subject in America, allow me to re-introduce the principle characters. This is Abbie Hoffman:

Abbie Hoffman flipping bird and brandishing gun

This is probably the most characteristic image that sums up the chap. Although he is brandishing a rifle, he wasn't particularly known for violence. The bird he's flipping and the F-bomb written on his forehead, however, might as well be his registered trademarks.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Hoffman led the Youth International Party, also known as the "Yippies." This is confusing, because a modern reader might see that word out of context and mentally infer "yuppies plus hippies equals yippies", but that's not the case. The Yippies were very much their own movement; they were the second wave of the Baby Boomers after the hippies and Flower Power thing started playing out.

Hoffman also wrote Steal This Book:

Not a best-seller for some reason

...and those of you modern Internet activists who equate file-sharing with civil rights have already felt a ping of kinship with him! In fact, Hoffman was a prolific author. His bibliography includes titles such as F*** the System and Revolution For the Hell Of It. He's sounding more and more like a member of Anonymous every minute, isn't he?

Oh, and here's the Yippie flag:

OK, so not the most attractive motif...

Wow, marijuana was so important to them that it was emblazoned right on their flag! And it's laid over a red star suggesting Communist affiliation, which is funny because they shoot pot smokers on sight in China, Russia, and Cuba. If you're tokin', you aren't producing "from each according to their ability", comrade!

But it just goes to show, there really were people as ignorant as Generation Y back there in history. That's actually a relief. I was worried the human race was devolving into monkeys or something. Anyway, they put pot at the front of their agenda, as if only the lit end of a joint pointed the way to liberty. Do we know any movement in modern times who does this?

Did I even have to show you?

It sounds like I'm setting Abbie Hoffman up to demonize him, but in fact, I loved the big goofy lug and was sorry to see him go. I don't agree with him, but I have to admire his spirit, or at least his soul. But let's get to the nut of the matter:

Here's a comprehensive list of everything the Youth International Party accomplished:

  1. Doodly-squat

They made a lot of noise, they got a lot of headlines. The TV news ran clips about them late in the broadcast, right between sports and the closing panda story. A few quotes from Wikipedia about the Yippies ring especially true today:

"The Yippies were the first on the New Left to make a point of exploiting mass media. Colorful, theatrical Yippie actions were tailored to attract media coverage, and also to provide a stage..."

"Yippies were famous for their sense of humor."

"The group was known for street theater pranks and was once referred to as the 'Groucho Marxists'."

"Yippies organized alternative institutions in their counterculture communities."

Yes, "alternative institutions" were "free stores" then and The Pirate Bay now.

The problem with Yippies and the modern 4chan/Anonymous legion (I hate the term "hackivists" but that looks like the name young online activists will be stuck with) is that they make a lot of noise and get a lot of attention, but they hurt their cause by generally being a bunch of kids acting like attention-seeking brats.

Let me tell you what real revolutions are made of: They are well-organized. They have clear goals. They get taken seriously. They have a plan, not just to get attention, but to win. When they achieve their coup, they have an organized political system all set to replace the old one. THEY HAVE A PLAN!

But whee, isn't it fun to pull down your pants and moon the news cameras? You can sit on the couch afterwards and laugh as the evening news recounts your latest publicity stunt. But what did it accomplish? What did it change? Oh, sorry, I forgot. The First Rule of Project Mayhem is You Do Not Ask Questions.

Julian Assange is a Groucho Marxist. Wikileaks is simply taking the place of the old "The Memory Hole" website, which used to publish leaked documents twice as revealing with one-tenth the noise and fuss. Wikileaks, as has been demonstrated today, can run just fine without Julian Assange. He wasn't arrested; he turned himself in. He isn't being tried for anything to do with Wikileaks, but for some misdemeanor-level sex charge (not rape!) that is only illegal in Sweden and only carries a fine of $750. So while he's dodging from country to country with police kinda-half-heartedly chasing him like a global game of Pac-Man, he shoots off a bunch of leaked documents (with two months' worth of teaser statements beforehand to be sure everybody's watching) to make it look like he's a Superspy Anarchy Activist being taken down by The Man instead of a working-class shlub dodging the sex-law equivalent of a traffic ticket.

Oh, one more parallel between Abbie Hoffman and Julian Assange: At age 16, Assange got his feet wet cracking into computer systems and exploring and sharing the data he found. This actually led to an Australian arrest, to which he pled guilty and was fined $2100 AU. The point of comparison is that while doing so, he, together with some of his script-kiddie friends, formed a group that was actually called "The International Subversives". I guess he didn't know about the "Youth International Party" or felt that he was 20 years late for it.

Need I go on? [ Edit - I'll let this guy at ABC.net.au go on for me, in a very intelligent and clear assessment of the Wikileaks situation. ]

Now Ron Paul, who simply cannot order breakfast these days without delivering a speech in support of Assange, has already been a subject of this blog before. I'm sure we all remember the blimp and the "Re[3V0_|]ution" and characters like this invading my home town of Des Moines, Iowa, in 2007/2008, right around Caucus time:

I know this guy.

What I'm getting at is, Ron Paul is also a Groucho Marxist. Remember his nickname, "Dr. No"? He got that nickname from often being the lone dissenting vote in the US House of Representatives. Stop and think about that. The lone dissenting vote. There are 435 voting members of the US House of Representatives. So Ron Paul is famous for coming out on the losing side of vote tallies that look like this:

Ron Paul Everybody Else
Nay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay Yay

That's great, you made a symbolic protest. It reminds me of those protest votes for Ralph Nader. But, ladies and gentlemen, does Dr. No LOOK LIKE A SUCCESSFUL POLITICIAN??? No, he looks like he LOSES a lot! When you lose a lot, they have a name for you. They call you a "LOSER". Have you heard about the lonesome loser, beaten by the queen of hearts every time? Have you heard about the lonesome loser; he's a loser, but he still keeps on tryin'?

[ Edit A few days later, by coincidence, Wikipedia made "Ross Perot presidential campaign of 1992" their featured article of the day. Once again, we have a third-party candidate, a grassroots movement, lots of noise, he was provided with a free soapbox to the point where some days it seemed like Larry King was a regular guest on Ross Perot Live, and lost anyway. Just fell apart, didn't take the job seriously enough, kept changing his mind on whether or not he even wanted to be president. Ross Perot is another example. ]

SUCCESSFUL politicians get other politicians to go along with them. People like Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and Barrack Obama have fought for the same causes that Groucho Marxists advocate for, but - THEIR BILLS GO THROOOOOOOOUUUUUGH! Their measures pass, their activism groups win, they change things, they get elected to higher offices than Representative. They win win win win win win win win win win. Maybe not every time, but they at least have a few notches on their rifle stock.

I'll tell you what they don't do: They don't dress up in screwball costumes, they don't go out and do performance art comedy pieces, and they don't run around blowing pot smoke in everybody's faces and then giggling at how annoying that is.

This is the worst 4chan can do: make your website run kind of slow for a day - an activity which is roundly condemned by 2600 Magazine, bless them. And when "hacktivists" make a website run slow, they aren't "just getting warmed up". That's it, that for them is a victory. The story makes the news, they retire to their bongs on their couches and giggle as they watch all the attention they're getting. And tomorrow, nothing is changed.

Let me make this clear to all of the Yippies, "Hacktivists", Anonymous, and Groucho Marxists:

You're all assholes.

You hurt, do not help, but hurt the causes you advocate for. Because of you, serious people trying to make the changes that you want to have happen lose credibility. You are in fact a hindrance, not a help. Even if you could just get your message out without being assholes about it, you'd be doing us a favor. Al Gore made a movie An Inconvenient Truth. Maybe that didn't solve global warming, but at least, if you watch it, it is a dignified, intelligent argument. What's wrong with getting your message out that way? Oh, wait, I forgot...

Once you puff, you can't get enough!

...you don't seem to have the time to make a whole documentary or read a book or get elected or really change things. Once you puff, you can't get enough! Yeah, I hear that. You know, in my young days, I used to smoke weed too! Dude, really! Yeah, Penguin Pete, this brainy geeky guy who reads a lot 'n' programs 'n' draws 'n' stuff, yeah, he totally used to blaze, man! Emphasis on USED TO.

I'm for the legalization of marijuana myself. For a whole bunch of reasons, not all of them identical to everybody else's. It's just that it's way down on my agenda list; it's about the 999th most important issue to me. It's not that I officially "quit". It's been a couple of decades "dry" now, and I reserve the right to toke a plant at a distant time in the future, when I'm an old retired guy in a rocking chair on the porch. When I'm old and useless, after I've finished taking care of business. In just the same way, as I state on my "about me" page, I'm a wine fan, but drinking wine is a holiday/special-occasion thing, so I can relax and make snooty comments about the legs on my lightly chilled Pinot Griego. There's a difference between what I do and being wasted on a jug of Thunderbird every day.

You know why I haven't smoked pot in a long time? Because it got BORING! I have a built-in defense mechanism against addiction to any drug, including alcohol, because they all get BORING and I get BORED sitting around baked out of my mind TOO STUPID to understand anything and TOO LAZY to do anything!

And I have nothing but flaming contempt for any idiot who is happy to live that way 24/7/365.

So to all you slacktivists, on behalf of all of us who are struggling to be rid of useless wars, rotten economies, gay prohibition, theocracies, censorship, impediment to scientific progress, monopolies, and yes, even pot prohibition...

Please choke to death on your stupid bong as fast as you possibly can - and then go straight to hell!

Update: Exactly one month after I composed this post, the 2011 Tucson Massacre happened. The suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, could have been as good as a golem constructed from all of the folly I rant and rave against above. Tea Partier, Ayn Rand-fan, pothead, goldbug, Libertarian, and so on, wrapped around definite schitzophrenia at the core.

I'm too sick with grief at the tragedy (so far at six dead and twelve wounded) to go on arguing about it now, but I can mutely point at it in support of the above thesis. When I say "You hurt, do not help, but hurt the causes you advocate for," I'm talking about incidents like the 2011 Tucson Massacre.

Now, political interests from all camps are hopping online to deny that this guy had anything to do with their political preaching, that he was just a nutcase. Yes, a nutcase who internalized and digested and memorized all of the online "hacktivism" the Grocho Marxists spew - and then it fed his madness.

Or, as nothing less than the Department of Homeland Security put it:

"The report, which warned that the crippled economy and the election of the first black president were 'unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment,' described the rise of 'lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology [as] the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States,' according to a copy reviewed by The Center for Public Integrity."

Here, folks, let Representative Bob Filner tell you all about violent right-wing extremist ideology, in this shocking recent video.

A side note: One of Jared Lee Loughner's chief beefs was the "Obamacare" health bill. Ironically enough, as Huffington Post points out, more health care for the neglected mentally ill would have prevented this tragedy. Yes, please, we do need better commitment policies! When someone is disturbed enough that they're scaring people, and you can't commit them until they commit a violent act, obviously something is wrong.

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A Point That Deserves Illuminating: Linux Is Not "I-Cant-Believe-Its-Not-Windows!"

Date/Time Permalink: 11/23/10 12:27:56 pm
Category: General

Every now and then I'm shocked from my usual shell of cynical apathy when a sign of intelligent life is spotted elsewhere in the technology district of Blogistan. Such a blip passed by radar a couple weeks back when Matt Hartley of Datamation arrived at the question Does Being Competitive with Windows Matter?

You know, it is damn frustrating being me, because I've spent a big chunk of five years on a blog just howling these ideas at the wind and watching almost nobody comprehend them. Then somebody else finally gets it, and gee, even then the concept is only party fleshed out and the readers only partly comprehend it, and then after two weeks the debate has moved back to the usual run-of-the-mill babble. Hey, thanks, Renaissance, see you in another five years!

There's a saving grace, though. Events outside of the Windows-vs-Linux-on-the-desktop have moved on to change the field.

So, we used to have two conflicting parties trying to adapt the same machine. Suzy User just wants something, anything, to do a short list of basic operations: email, web browsing, playing multimedia, and playing games. Suzy User is a content consumer. And her only choice used to be the desktop computer.

Then we have Joe Geek who needs the computer to build things. Joe might write that email and web browsing program, run a server, design those games, and produce some of that multimedia content. Joe Geek is a content producer.

The difference between consumer needs and producer needs appear to be clearly understood everywhere else. You don't sell a forklift to a soccer mom, and you don't force a warehouse worker to try to drag pallets of boxes around in an SUV. I could go on with more examples, right? Everybody grasps the concept that the needs of a consumer and a producer are different?

So why has nobody but me said for years that you can't force Joe Geek and Suzy User to be happy with the same computer? What, am I living in an alternate universe here?

The battle that has raged for 20 years has a break now, though. Instead of anybody solving the problem, it's going to quietly solve itself in a sort of evolutionary way. Suzy User has discovered the smart-phone. That's the saving grace, the change in the field, the end - finally! - of the war.

Yay! Now everybody can have what they want! I would actually like to see the worlds become more polarized, because that is the happiest solution. I look forward to the day when a computer is seen as something you'd only need to buy if you are a producer. This doesn't mean that you can't also consume on the same device. But now the straight-consumer has a device especially for them, and so they won't be trying to turn my production device into a consumption device. Then we don't have to dumb down the desktop.

That's where all the newbies-vs-geeks strife has been coming from.

It sure will be funny to see some 500 years from now when the human race unearths all the blogs from the archives and goes, "Wow, they really didn't have the first clue about what these computer things were all about, did they?"

you can't fit a Linux peg in a Windows hole

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Explaining Security Concepts to ZDNet Bloggers Is Like Teaching Physics to a Pig

Date/Time Permalink: 11/12/10 03:22:43 pm
Category: General

For those of you wondering why I don't flame back at the massive ignorance of tech bloggers any more, it's because (a) it's like shoveling manure against the tide, and (b) 90% of them are so transparent that it's an utter waste of time. If preschoolers can see through it, why should I write a whole blog post pointing out that it's bogus?

Nevertheless, one of the FUD faithful occasionally has some tactic that was well-thought-out enough to render most of the troops in the FOSS ranks speechless. Oh, well, that's my cue to crack my knuckles and come in for a round, just for the exercise. So, today's "What-A-Moron" is whoever is hired to ghost-write under the picture of Sonja Thompson, Senior Editor at TechRepublic.

So, let me see if I remember how to do this. Here's the link to the post. Gotta have that. And, um, as much as I can read this through the crusty syntax, the argument is something like:

Proprietary software is said to be insecure because it's closed and security exploits can be hidden and not fixed, while open source software is said to be more secure because many eyes spot all the exploits and fix them. Actually, proprietary software is more secure because if the good guys can't spot the holes, neither can the bad guys. Likewise, open source is actually less secure, because the security holes are open for the bad guys to see, too.

Also, the word "logic" is brandished and brandished and brandished like a big stone club to scare away the timid, and an image of the old joke Tshirt "arrogant Linux elitist" is displayed in the hopes that Linux fans will be driven to rage and charge like a bull. Sorry lady, but like a black person being called "nigger," an educated professional being called "elitist" has learned to recognize that word as nothing more than an insult thrown around by bigots. Also, we took it back. Once it's on Tshirts, it's been defanged.

Ho hum. So, then, this formidable blowhard article would intimidate the smurfs out there. But allow me to take the wind out of it with the following one-sentence slash, indicating the point of failure of this "logic":

Crackers and Hackers Are Two Different Things!

And, see, we've only been screaming that one fact for what, 20 years now? The cracker/hacker confusion is older than Linux itself. Look, hackers build things; crackers break things.

Computer security is built by hackers. Computer security is broken by crackers.

Write it down. Graffiti it on subway walls. Print it on Tshirts. 20 years later, people still can't get it. We are forever stuck on page one of the book for Information Age 101.

The methods, the tools, the practices of hackers and crackers are different. Crackers do not go over source code to find their security holes. They use brute force. Got that? Crackers are not programmers, any more than a car thief is a mechanic.

Hey, you know that homes get burglarized, right? OK, so the burglars don't need to go to the Hall of Records and check out the blueprints to your Tudor mansion looking for points of entry, right? No, they smash a window or rattle doorknobs until they find one unlocked, and then they're in. A home burglar is not an architect.

The cyber equivalent of all that is running brute force attack programs. They don't even write this stuff themselves. They download scripts and run them and when they hit something, they're in. It takes exactly the same, identical skill set that playing a slot machine does. Passwords are cracked by trying every combination, website holes are found by trying to access every file, cross-site scripting attacks are found by slinging random code in the arguments to variables in PHP pages until you find a buffer overflow, and so on.

Once a proprietary software hole is found, it stays open for years. We've literally seen the case happen, here's the 17-year-old Windows hole that just got patched this year. (...and the Register still says 'hacker' when they mean 'cracker.' See what we're up against?)

Conversely, the same strategy doesn't work against Linux, BSD, and other open source systems. Yes, true, you can penetration-test Linux and BSD. There's plenty of tools out there to do that, too. There's even distros like "Damn Vulnerable Linux" specifically built to be weak and demonstrate points of failure. But when you go to all that trouble to find a security hole in Linux and exploit it, you know what's going to happen?

It's going to get patched in a matter of days, perhaps even hours. Any wide-scale attack by the "black hats" would get noticed, addressed, explored, blogged, documented, and patched before the first wave would hit the average home desktop. Because the users are empowered to fix their own system. And when we say "users," remember that that includes professional enterprise-level users. Users like the United States Department of Defense, CERN, and Google are the ones who get on this stuff the most, before the average cracker brushes his teeth in the morning.

Getting back to Sonja Thompson (or her ghost-writer - doesn't this article read like it was paid by the word?), I could even see how somebody could mistakenly conclude that the perception of safety when running Linux is "a mystical, spiritual belief that an end user comes to believe not through logic or reason, but through blind faith." It looks that way if you look at me. I know that Linux, BSD, and other systems aren't 100% safe and never will be. But most of the time, I simply don't have to worry about it beyond keeping my systems up-to-date. Any big attacks against Linux would already be bitten to death by the big mean watchdogs up the street from me, and basically I get to enjoy the ambient security provided not so much by the nature of the OS itself, as by the enterprise-level community around me.

Yawn. Well, that looks like I've made my point. This stuff is boring.

Linux frag in a chess board in a Rubik's cube

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Well, Fine, Then! You Should Learn More About Cars, Too!

Date/Time Permalink: 08/22/10 03:46:09 pm
Category: General

bad car analogies get their own motivational poster

How many times have you had this happen while trying to explain Linux to a Windows user? You point out that you like Linux because you can get into the source and change it, you can tweak it how you like, you can fix problems from the command line, and so on. And after a few cringes from the listening party at the idea of doing things with your own computer, you'll get back The False Car Analogy:

"I drive a car every day but I have no interest in working on it myself. Why should I need to work on my own computer?"

"I don't know how my car works; why should I care how my computer works?"

"No, I don't compile my programs from scratch. I don't machine-lathe my own engine blocks, either."

[ Addendum: A great example of what I'm talking about happens here. A perfectly reasonable IT guy says "learn something, anything, any little thing, even one thing about computers if you use one every day of your life." and gets crucified for it. Right after "TheLady" screams and foams at the mouth, "taceo" brings out the Dreaded False Car Analogy. Happens every time. The tide may not come in tonight and the sun may not rise tomorrow, but bet your soul that every time you tell somebody to learn anything... ANY. THING. about computers, you will get the False Car Analogy read out to you like the Riot Act. ]

If nothing else, the person who throws out The False Car Analogy is telling you that, in addition to being a complete loss on the computer, they're also a lousy driver on the road as well.

This time, I'll forget the usual argument that cars and computers are completely different things. True, rules governing how you interact with your swimming pool don't govern how you interact with your toaster-oven, and in fact no logic whatsoever is to be found in analogizing any two devices ever. But we've been saying that until we're all blue.

No, instead, I like to take the bullkaka by the horns and play idealogical chicken with the straw man on their own turf. So: I'm a computer geek, if there is anyone on the planet who meets the definition. My whole site justifies that statement.

Guess what? I also wrench on my own cars! Yes, I can rattle off the details of the four-stroke engine's workings (intake compression combustion exhaust). I have, in my time, replaced transmissions, master cylinders, brakes, carburetors, radiators, pumps, starters, alternators, distributors, and seals. I've done my own tune-ups and oil changes. I have even done some "hacks" such as resealing a leaking water pump using a Pepsi can and JB-Weld until I could get out of the vast Arizona desert I was crossing.

And, oooooh, if only you people knew how badly you get robbed almost every time you take your car to a mechanic! I'm sure some mechanics are ready to leave furious comments telling me off for painting them all with the same brush, but I'm telling you that I've dealt with dozens of mechanics in four states and have had nine out of ten of them try to take me for a ride! Time and again, I'll pull in someplace and ask for an estimate - $400, $800, $2600, for a repair involving a ten-dollar part and thirty minutes work. I laugh and go to the parts shop across the street, do the work right there in the parking lot - looking right at them - and drive away honking bye-bye. I am dead serious, try it yourself.

Granted, I'm more "old skool" - I tend to fall behind the times with modern engines - but even if I take a car into a shop nowadays, I am sure to bring the Chilton's manual with the page marked showing the exact part I need replaced. Even then, even after I have demonstrated as much, if not more, knowledge than the person I am about to pay to do the work, I still get the occasional leech trying to gyp me.

My knowledge of car mechanics is borne of the same kind of desperation that drove me to Linux. I don't like mechanic work. In fact, I openly hate mechanic work! If I never have to fumble through a greasy socket set looking for the 13/16ths while hitting my head on the starter and getting hot oil in my eye again, it'll be too soon. Unfortunately, the lack of honest people out there drives me to self-sufficiency.

I apply this philosophy in just about every facet. It isn't always paranoia about getting cheated that motivates me; sometimes it comes in handy knowing how to do things for yourself, just... because. Living in the Midwest is part of it - it sure is better if you can relight your own pilot light on the furnace in the middle of the night, because with ten feet of snow and ice out there, the furnace guy is not coming out for a long time. Cooking your own food at home is its own reward (Roasts? omelets? stroganoff? Bah, junior stuff. I've graduated to baking my own pies now.). Having all kinds of boy-scouty skills like finding your own way out of the woods can be a lifesaver. And heck, I've fixed gadgets and appliances all over the house, from toasters to DVD players.

Even if I don't do something myself, I at least double-check the expert I'm trusting. I'll still get professional council for legal matters, but there is a public law library in every major city and I am by God not going to let paragraphs of boilerplate intimidate me out of marching right in there to read the law books for myself. I go to doctors, but I research the prescriptions and side effects online before I just docilely gulp down whatever the pharmacist hands me. I pay a plumber to fix the sink, but I still know how pipes work (oddly, contrary to auto mechanics, I have never had a plumber try to cheat me).

Everything can apply! Yes, really, it is possible to live this way!

I don't even see it as anything special. I don't call it being a geek. I call it "being alive" as opposed to "letting life happen to you like a goldfish in a bowl."

I have to wonder sometimes what some of you people out there do with your time.

So, yes, you should be car-savvy and computer-savvy. And "entering a search term into Google" is not the equivalent of "replacing your own intake manifold gasket." Instead, "not knowing how to enter a search term into Google" is the equivalent of "pulling the car over to the side of the road at sundown and sitting there all night because you don't know how to turn the headlights on!"

hardcore GNU/Linux knuckle tattoo

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What Part of "Social Linking Sites Are Rigged For Money" is So Hard to Understand?

Date/Time Permalink: 08/05/10 08:40:36 pm
Category: General

The first of three parts. Part two here. Part three here.

In the latest scandal which is getting millions of upvotes and front-page views today and will be forgotten tomorrow, Digg.com is shocked - shocked - to discover that political astroturf is going on on their very website!

Maybe it's a generational thing. You can say "email has a lot of spam" and not even raise granny's eyebrow any more. Knowledge of 419 scams is becoming so common, they even tape signs on the monitors at Internet cafes forbidding them. Malware certainly gets a lot of ink... heck, it's half the reason some people come to Linux.

But buying votes and opinions on social linking websites is exposed again, and again, and again, and again. And people go right on just believing that Digg, Reddit, or StumbleUpon front page like it was gospel.

The latest story at Alternet is considered news because this time it's political astroturfing. Big whoop. Conservatives, tea partiers, and religious organizations have been found in the past to use "think tanks" and special interest groups. It's all funded. It's all money that originally came from a corporation somewhere.

But anyway, Alternet is scandalized because Digg is being rigged by conservatives. And I always thought this was a clue.

Ron Paul rigs votes on Digg

That's from what, two and a half years ago?

This goes into some of my reasoning as to Why Social Bookmarking Will Always Suck.

This needs spotlighting. I know that I'm preaching to my own small choir here, but this needs to be trumpeted way out to the world. I think that 95% of web users just don't realize what a big business this is. I've been Googling phrases like "buzz marketing," "word of mouth marketing," "social media marketing," "influencer marketing," and "front page service," and there's just... no end to this. It involves the top, richest, biggest corporations in the world, and they really care about where your mouse is going to click next enough to fabricate a whole world of lies for it.

retro Atari Linux cartridge

UPDATE ESPECIALLY FOR THE RON-PAULTARDS: I thought this went without saying on this website, but on my site I delete all comments supporting Ron Paul immediately. Why? Because I am a good person, that's why. I'd throw my own mother out in the snow for spamming Paultard propaganda on my site. And then delete it and disown her. So no, don't think you can talk me out of it.

You don't like it, you need to take it up with the University of Alabama-Birmingham's computer forensics research department. They proved - PROOOOOOVED - that the Ron Paul campaign for the 2008 election was spamming the Internet in 2007.

That's three years old, it's thoroughly documented, it's thoroughly established, it is incontrovertible, set in concrete, established fact, accepted dogma, gospel, carved into the face of the moon - a cliche.

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Isn't It Strange That Microsoft Only Singles Out *Linux* As "Infringing On Its Patents"?

Date/Time Permalink: 05/02/10 04:18:33 pm
Category: General

Good ol' Roy Schestowitz continues the quest for truth over at a new site, techrights.org. And while pursuing the latest scoop on Microsoft's continued puppetry of the media, a lightning bolt suddenly hit me. So even though I retired from direct Linux activism, I'll visit this one time since I've had an idea which I don't see anyone else raising:

Funny how it's always Linux which Microsoft is alleging is infringing on Microsoft's patent portfolio, isn't it? Not FreeBSD, not OpenBSD, not NetBSD, not Solaris (open or closed), not Plan Nine From Bell Labs, not ReactOS, not Minix, not GNU-HURD, not any of the flavors of proprietary Unix.

Very, very odd. It's amazing how Linux could have so much in common with so many other Unix-related/ derived/ inspired operating systems, and yet its just Linux, specifically, that gets all the fire. Those of you who have tried one of the BSDs or Solaris know what I'm talking about. If Linux infringes soooooooo many Microsoft patents, then how do the other Unix-like systems manage to infringe none at all? Because from the desktop and from a good part of the command line, you almost can't tell one from the other when they're running. For instance, I've run KDE on all three of Linux, BSD, and Solaris, and it feels like the same system, widgets and all. ls still ls's, locate still locates, grep still greps, I've shared files between all three.

On a side thought, you know one Linux distro I'll bet Microsoft never goes after for "patent infringement"? Oracle Unbreakable Linux! Because Larry Ellison can match Gates, Ballmer, and company almost dollar for dollar on money and lawyers, has the chutzpah to not be pushed around, and damn sure can beat them in the brains department.

Just one of those things that makes me go "Hmmmm" today...

highway sign

Update 5/10/10: Somebody else is going "hmmmm" too, and they're concluding that when it comes to software patents, Microsoft ain't got nothin'. As Mr. Spock observed in The Corbomite Maneuver: "A most interesting game, this... poker."

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