The Laboratorium
August 2006

Sound Familiar?

The modest sales of the PDP-1 set the stage for Digital’s next step. That was to establish a close relationship between supplier and customer that differed radically from those of IBM and its competitors. From the time of its founding, IBM’s policy had been to lease, not sell, its equipment.  … That policy implied that the machine on the customer’s premises was not his or hers to do with as he wished; it belonged to IBM, and only IBM was allowed to modify it.  … The relationship DEC developed with its customers grew to be precisely the opposite. The PDP-1 was sold, not leased. DEC not only permitted, it encouraged modification by its customers.  … This policy of encouraging its customers to learn about and modify its products was one borne of necessity, The tiny company, operating in a corner of the Assabe Mills, could not afford to develop the specialized interfaces, installation hardware, and software that were needed to turn a general-purpose computer into a useful product. IBM could afford to do that, but DEC had no choice but to let its customers in on what, for other companies, were jealously guarded secrets of the inner workings of its products. DEC found, to the surprise of many, that not only did the customers not mind the work but they welcomed the opportunity.

Paul E. Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing (2d ed. 2003), pp. 128-29.

Hello Obuibo

Obuibo has been emailing me stories of his adventures for a while—it’s always a treat for me when someone stumbles across one of my more obscure posts. They say no one’s ever beaten Landing High Japan, but gentlemen, I tell you this - he came as close as anyone ever has. I’m happy to say that’s he’s gotten himself a blog. Let’s all give Obuibo a nice warm blogospheric welcome.

Seven Wikipedia Fallacies

Please pardon the tone of this philippic. I’ve read too many ignorant complaints about Wikipedia recently, and I’m of a mind to set some things straight. Without further ado, please allow me to present rejoinders to seven common but fallacious claims about Wikipedia.

Wikipedia Modifies Entries

We begin with a category error. Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” not “the free encyclopedia that edits itself.” Every addition, change, or deletion is carried out by some individual Wikipedia contributor. To say that it was Wikipedia that made the modification is to confuse the encyclopedia with the editor. It’s like saying that New York City mugged you.

In other contexts, this kind of verbal slippage is harmless. There’s nothing particularly fallacious about saying that “the New York Times reported so-and-so” rather than naming the reporter, editor, and printing-press operator. If something shows up in the Times, then N times out of N+1, the Times as a bureaucracy has made a conscious decision that it ought to be printed. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to treat the actions of the individual as the actions of the entity.

Wikipedia doesn’t work this way. It’s open. Anyone can edit it. It does not necessarily follow that because some contributor made a particular modification, it must be the case that the modification reflects an official position of the Wikimedia foundation, a consensus among the Wikipedia community, absolute truth, or anything else. It might. Frequently, it does not. Asking whether it does is the beginning of wisdom, because now you are engaged with the often messy processes by which Wikipedia evolves. But as long as you speak of Wikipedia itself as the source of the change, you are hiding the ball from yourself.

It is fine to black-box Wikipedia if all you are doing is looking up information in it. But if you wish to make statements about how it does or doesn’t work, it is necessary to look under the hood.

The Latest Word is the Last Word

More times than I would like to remember, I have seen someone complain that Wikipedia gets something wrong, as though that were the end of the matter. In the time it took to write your mournful post about the brokenness of the Wikipedia model, you could have gone in and made the necessary change. Indeed, in every case I have ever seen, the mere fact that someone took the time to complain has caused the Wikipedian platelets to swing into action and fix the mistake themselves. Pointing to specific examples of wrongness in Wikipedia is self-negating; in a month’s time, it is more likely that Wikipedia will have corrected the issue than that you will have acknowledged the correction.

This phenomenon is an instance of a more general point Wikipedia is as much a process as it is a product. The process is designed to produce an encyclopedia of constantly improving quality. The encyclopedia is a constantly moving target. Thus, while it is reasonable to say that at present Wikipedia is defective for X purpose and in its coverage of Y, one should be cautious with attempts to extrapolate these failings too far into the future. (After all, if it’s extrapolation we’re engaged in, any fair assessment of how quickly Wikipedia has become as useful as it is would suggest that within a decade it will easily be the most comprehensive and useful reference work of all time.)

This fallacy is closely related to the first, in that both treat Wikipedia as monolithic and wholly consistent in all it does. It is not. Any change can always later be undone; many are. Entries change course as editors smooth them over; sudden outbreaks of attention cause entries that have gone astray to be sharply reworked by more experienced hands; experts who discover factual muddles in their fields clean up some of the muddles. Sometimes the reverse happens, too; Wikipedia’s improvement is hardly monotonic.

You cannot make sweeping claims about Wikipedia’s behavior in the limit merely by looking at the latest change. Or, at least, you cannot make such claims with much hope of correctness.

Wikipedia is Chaotic

The freedom inherent in the Wikipedia model is confusing and frightening. If assuming that Wikipedia will always and forever say what it says now is a prevalent mistake, the opposite mistake also claims many victims. They assert that because of its openness, Wikipedia must be a roiling sea, caught in a neverending process of constant flux. They see a million monkeys and a million typewriters. That something as ordered and stable as an encyclopedia could emerge from such tumult seems inconceivable.

This error is endemic to popular understandings of evolutionary processes. The same argument would “prove” that biological evolution is impossible, that free markets cannot work, and that the human brain is no more capable of thought than a bowl of oatmeal. Wikipedia, like other complex adaptive systems, exhibits different properties overall than it does at the micro scale. Yes, any given article may swing back and forth between two equally wrong claims. Yes, a random new user make one change and muck up the grammar of the entry he touches. But the average edit, all in all, improves Wikipedia’s quality,—and there are a lot of edits.

One of things you quickly realize if you spend any significant time editing Wikipedia—or reading about Wikipedia—is that it has a rich and quite structured editing community. From its high-level editorial policies down through the nits of article naming conventions and linking styles, Wikipedians have an extensive library of best practices and wisdom-pooling processes to draw upon. The community makes decisions by persuasion, by consensus, by voting, and, if necessary, by fiat—but never forget that it makes decisions. That its decision-making takes place mostly bottom-up and on a self-directed as-needed basis does not mean that it doesn’t happen. Wikipedia is not an atomistic universe of monkeys each at its own typewriter; its contributors share, converse, debate, cajole, shout, and much much more. This surfeit of collective (and occasionally dictatorial) decision-making may irk some—and has led to some high-profile defections over the years—but it has also enabled Wikipedia to set any number of policies for itself. None are perfectly observed (nor could they be in such an open editing model), but again, on average they add order and direction.

To talk about Wikipedia as an encyclopedia and ignore the community is to miss much of the point.

The Vandals Will Have Their Way

It is also tempting to look at Wikipedia’s openness and assume that it cannot work. (That it has worked, and remarkably well, should have been proof against such temptation. The flesh is weak, it would appear.) If anyone can edit it, well then, what’s to stop the jerks from coming in and trying to trash the place? There are, after all, an awful lot of jerks out there.

Well, there are a lot of jerks out there, and they do try a lot of fairly antisocial tricks, but they don’t make much headway, all in all. Why not? First, because it is exceedingly hard to mess up Wikipedia or any individual entry in a way that cannot easily—trivially, even—be fixed. Keeping complete histories of every page (an underappreciated characteristic of Wikipedia to which we shall return) means that actual destruction is out of the question; the worst your average intruder can do is mess up the current state of a page. But in the revert war that will soon follow, Wikipedia enjoys a second advantage. There are far more people who are motivated to help Wikipedia than who are motivated to hurt it. The griefers, vandals, and script kiddies are up against committed and conscientious monitors who look both for widespread damage and for questionable edits. Third, the good guys have interior lines and the high ground. From IP banning to recent change monitoring, they have a toolkit that has been designed, in substantial part, to help them preserve the encyclopedia from its foes.

If you look at Wikipedia as it actually is, these factors together make it largely vandalism-free. While the number of malicious edits and the number of edits to fix the damage may be comparable, the average time that articles spend in damaged states is much smaller than the average time that they spend in fixed states. Large attacks are quickly detected and fixed; while small and malevolent changes may last longer, they are comparatively few and far between. (Anything more systematic would draw enough attention to itself that it would be quickly rooted out.) Thus, while it is always possible that a vandal, a propagandist, or prankster will have come through recently, it is usually highly unlikely.

Once again, Wikipedia has good statistical properties. The correctness of any given claim it makes is not guaranteed; it is merely likely. And, as we have noted, that likelihood is growing with time.

Wikipedia is Unaccountable

Perhaps the favorite anti-Wikipedia talking point of those who have spent significant time in journalism is that Wikipedia cannot be authoritative because its editing model cannot properly vouch for the assertions it makes. This claim says less about Wikipedia than it does about the mental blocks of those who make it.

Is the problem that Wikipedia is anonymous, that each article does not prominently bear the byline of an author willing to stand behind it? The Economist is anonymous, and so is the Oxford English Dictionary. Indeed, Wikipedia is less anonymous than many stalwart fact-transmitting institutions. Just have a look through the edit history of your favorite page. You can see exactly who added which words, and with a few more clicks, what other articles they’ve contributed to. That’s a level of transparency that few other institutions achieve. Most of the time, you know exactly who made a particular assertion—and whether others have questioned or qualified it.

Is the problem that Wikipedia’s contributors aren’t credentialled experts? Scholars understand that transparency matters more than credentials. Wikipedia may not cite sources often, but it cites them more often than most of the competition.

Is the problem that Wikipedia doesn’t have institutional credibility, the way that a newspaper or publisher would? If so, then the argument is circular. If Wikipedia’s ability to return mostly-reliable facts quickly doesn’t help it build institutional credibility, what exactly would? It’s not always right, but it’s usually right.

Or is the problem simply that Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, rather than a large media corporation or a professional working for one? The last few years have not been good for scholars and journalists who say, “Trust me; I’m a professional.” Perhaps the Wikipedia model might have something to offer, here. Not so much “Trust me; I’m an amateur” as “Trust us, we’re a whole huge bunch of amateurs, and our biases and blind spots mostly cancel out.”

Wikipedia Pays Too Much Attention to Trivial Topics

It is sometimes noted that Wikipedia’s coverage is disproportionately heavy on pop culture and Internet phenomena. The sort of stuff that Wikipedia contributors would be likely to care about, as is frequently claimed. That is as may be; there’s no denying that Star Trek, say, receives far more extensive coverage in Wikipedia than in any traditional encyclopedia ever printed. It remains to be shown, however, why there’s anything wrong with extensive Star Trek coverage.

In the first place, it is not as though the entry on the Rules of Acquisition is taking up precious space that could have gone to expanding the entry on Ignatius Loyola Donnelly. They coexist in complete harmony; one’s gain need not come at the other’s expense. Such are the virtues of online publication.

Thus, perhaps the complaint is that all the time spent cataloguing the sayings of the Ferengi could have been better spent on the link between Donnelly’s Populism and his belief in Atlantis. Perhaps. But it is not as though Wikipedia has a budget that it squandered on the Grand Nagus. I sincerely doubt that there is a significant relationship between effort devoted to the one and effort devoted to the other. If Wikipedia were somehow to shut down its Star Trek section, it is not as though the editing pace in its other sections would pick up the slack. The limiting factor on revisions to Ignatius Loyola Donnelly’s entry is probably, well, the anemic level of interest in Ignatius Loyola Donnelly. Once again, the allegedly trivial entries neither help nor hurt the supposedly serious ones.

So maybe the argument is that the fluff somehow degrades the tone of the encyclopedia. But that can’t be much of a concern either. Are we really going to discredit something useful because it also chooses to be fun? No one ever forces you to read about Star Trek. If you want to know how a Geneva drive works, what matters to you is that Wikipedia have a damn good entry on it. That the same web site also contains a multi-part list of fictional cities is neither here nor there.

In the end, I suspect that this complaint is really based in a sense that certain topics are unworthy of serious attention, and that Wikipedia makes the world worse by giving them such attention. Put another way, certain stuff just doesn’t belong in an encyclopedia. To which I—and the thousands of Wikipedia contributors responsible for that stuff—say “Ack Thbbbt .” If this many people care about it, and care about it enough to curate extensive and well-organized expositions of it, who is to say that they are wrong? The argument that these topics degrade the quality of Wikipedia amounts to an argument not just that the plebs is wrong to care about the things it cares about, but that it should not be given the resources to learn about them. While I can be as snooty about my media diet as the next guy, you won’t find me saying that Entertainment Tonight should be banned—or that the Star Trek section of Wikipedia should be deleted.

Wikipedia is Perfect

Having just debunked six attacks on the possibility of Wikipedia, I may appear something of a booster. I had better reestablish my credibility as a realist with some pointed observations about the genuine issues that Wikipedia does face.

Wikipedia as it now exists has many problems. Many entries have small factual errors; many more are terribly organized. There are duplications and inconsistencies and strange taxonomies galore. Its coverage of many subjects is thin; its references to good further reading are often highly spotty. The great majority of entries could use a good copy-editing.

Wikipedia’s editing conventions are not particularly legible to outsiders or to new contributors. You can quickly figure out Wiki syntax, but it is less easy to figure out how you should categorize and cross-link a new entry. Do you need to figure out how to participate in a deletion debate? Good luck understanding all the relevant conventions your first time through. Many of the hurt feelings and crossed lines that contribute to the confusions above are side effects of this steep learning curve.

The Wikipedia community is very much a work in progress. Many of its purported policies are observed mostly in the breach. It has developed any number of healthy habits and productive practices, but it also has a fair number of difficult personalities and frustrating tics. Some of these unfortunate tendencies may be cleaned up as its norms evolve and solidify, but that same process of regularization may squeeze out some of the flexibility that has allowed Wikipedia to grow so quickly. It has a suspicion of expertise that is not just unwarranted but actively counter-productive. And, oh man, if I had a dollar for every time a Wikipedian has jumped to conclusions or been too abrupt in dealing with an outsider’s attempt to engage with Wikipedia.

I’m optimistic about Wikipedia’s future. It’s done great things in an astonishingly brief time. Every time I turn around, it’s just gotten better and better. I see no fundamental obstacles that would keep it from being the universal encyclopedia it aspires to be. But it also faces some significant challenges. There are security, social, legal, academic, cultural, technical, and financial shoals ahead. It is quite possible that any one of these could sink it.

But perhaps the best way to appreciate how remarkable the Wikipedia model and the Wikipedia community are is to ask what would happen if something did go catastrophically wrong and Wikipedia became unusable. We would still have the encyclopedia that Wikipedia is today. Thanks to the open license under which Wikipedia has been developed and made available, anyone with a snapshot of it—and there are many people with snapshots, even if most of them are link farmers—could continue to serve it up to the world. In the last half decade, almost entirely with volunteer labor, Wikipedia has created a quite credible first cut at an encyclopedia. That’s no mean feat. That the community is thriving and shows every sign of producing credible second, third, and further cuts … well, that’s just our extraordinary good fortune.

Bar Review Courses Make You Dumber

Courtesy of our nation’s great judicial system (and by way of Daniel Solove) comes news confirming something I have long suspected: bar review courses feed their students wrong answers. The folks behind PMBR (the three- or six-day cram course that sells itself as a multistate supplement to the much more extensive months-long Bar/Bri review) just lost a copyright suit brought by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. After a four-day bench trial, the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Fullam, Sr. J.) held that PMBR’s questions—many of which were direct knockoffs of MBE questions—infringed the NCBE’s copyrights.

That’s the legal case, at least. But the opinion also contains some sly digs at the quality of PMBR’s services. My favorite:

This question tests the same legal concept using the same fictitious statute and four virtually identical answer choices in the same order. As with a number of PMBE questions, the answer key here is incorrect, further undermining Mr. Feinberg’s claims that he derived his questions independently from authoritative legal sources.

That’s right: PMBR copied the question but got the answer wrong. And these are the people that thousands of law students are paying handsomely to guide them through the shoals of the bar exam. When I was studying for it last year, I would occasionally come across a question in one of my sample question books whose answer I simply disagreed with, even after careful reflection.

Now, I think I have a better idea why.

A Question for the Mac Masters

What graphical (S)FTP program do you recommend? I can limp by with command-line tools, but would prefer to use something powerful and intuitive. Something genuinely at home on the Mac, that is.

When Virtual Banks Fail

Comes now the news that the Eve Intergalactic Bank was a scam. First, what that sentence means, and then, what it means.

EVE-Online is a virtual world with an outer space theme. It allows for nearly unlimited player-on-player conflict, in which winners can often keep quite extensive spoils. It also features a very complicated resource model, with lots of opportunities for extensive investment, manufacture, and trading. It has a system of in-world corporations that function much as real-world ones do: commercial, capitalist ventures. It has a completely permissive attitude towards trading virtual items for real money. And it has a completely permissive attitude towards sharp dealing, player-killing, and even outright scams. Whatever you do in-world is at your own risk.

The Eve Intergalactic Bank was more or less what its name implies: an in-world bank. Players could deposit in-game currency (called ISK) with the EIB, which would pay interest of a few percent a month. That may be high by offline standards, but it’s low for in-world ventures, abductively suggesting low risk. Indeed, the falling value of the ISK versus the dollar (50% or more a year) made the EIB the practical equivalent of treading water. It just beat holding useless ISK yourself and watching them depreciate.

In turn, the EIB promised to loan its funds to promising investment projects. It would take a cut of the profts in exchange for fronting them. Although I’m not quite clear on the details (and, for reasons that may be obvious, neither was the EIB), it sounded as though it was going to act as a genuine debtholder or equity partner, rather than taking any kind of management role. Thus, the EIB was doing what offline banks do—using its deposits to make investments, and profiting from the spread in rates of return between them. Thus, it was acting as a true financial intermediary, greasing the wheels of capitalism and, in effect, helping depositors and entrepreneurs find each other. ISK were going to productive use, and presumably the economy was humming along just a little faster.

Except, as noted above, it was all a scam. Or rather, if it wasn’t one at first, it became one as its principal proprietor, a player whose avatar was named Cally, at some point decided to take the money and run. This being EVE, there wasn’t much anyone could do about it once he made that call. He now has enough wealth to be utterly and absolutely pimped out at all times. (Indeed, it appears that he may be having fun taking out bounties on himself and enjoying the resulting battles.) The players who vouched for the EIB are now coming under some pretty intense scrutiny; some have pointed out that their endorsements were hardly unequivocal, others may be in line to lose a fair amount of credibility.

Okay, so that’s what happened. But I promised to say what it means.

My take is that the EIB came dangerously close to actionable real-world fraud. There could be trouble with real-life banking regulators, there could be criminal fraud prosecutions, and there could be serious trouble with tort suits by disgruntled investors. I don’t know that any of these would succeed, but it does not strike me as out of the question. Keep in mind that had the EIB existed in the United States and dealt in U.S. dollars, what Cally did would have been illegal six ways from Sunday. He took investors’ money with promises of a generous return and pocketed it.

The problem here is that EVE Online, as fascinating a place as it may be, has set up its world to send some very mixed signals. Their absolutely hands-off attitude towards player conflict, on the one hand, encourages one to think of it as “just a game.” All of the player-versus-player combat, all of the fantastic betrayals and scams, all of the sudden reverses—these are the elements of an exciting and unpredictable game. It’s like Diplomacy writ large and in real time with laser cannons. For those dedicated enough to master the world’s steep learning curve and the grind of its resource extraction system, it sounds like a real rush of intelligent adrenaline. We’re talking about a serious contest of cunning here. Lots of fun.

On the other hand, EVE Online’s absolutely hands-off attitude towards real-money tradig and what we might call virtual property undercuts this first tendency. This attitude also ecourages players to regard EVE Online as an exciting place. Now, you can make good money if you play your cards and cruisers right. You can also throw a few offline dollars in to get yourself up to a nice stake quickly; you can take advantage of the liquid markets to buy and sell your holdings expeditiously. All of these features add further economic excitement to the world, but they also bind EVE Online more closely to the offline world. They make it more reasonable to regard ISK as essentially interchangeable with offline dollars. And if the EIB was defrauding people of something with a demonstrable offline value, well, that’s the the “thing of value” element of fraud.

The main remaining defense is that the investors all understood that the EIB was “part of the game.” This defense seems intuitively reasonable when we think about a common bit of space combat or stab-in-the-back between asteroid miners. It’s why we don’t look at EVE Online and automatically immediately see gambling and nothing but. But the EIB was advertised on its on (now defunct) web site and on out-of-world forums.

Yes, its direct investors had to invest in-world. But the EIB flirted awfully closely with the prospect that one of them might not have understood the implicit “it’s a game” disclaimer, and been quite reasonable in so doing. These claims come awfully close to promises directed at investors not familiar enough with EVE Online to understand the dog-eat-dog context; they also come awfully close to promises that notwithstanding the dog-eat-dog context, the EIB actually is a secure investment. Either way, the EIB and EIB-like schemes are all but crying out to be judged by offline rules, rather than in-world ones.

This isn’t just a matter of EVE Online’s attitudes. The stronger a system of virtual property becomes, the shakier a defense based on “it’s just a game”-itude becomes. If you think that players have enforceable offline rights in their virtual items, then you are saying that they can turn to the real-world legal system if those items are confiscated or stolen. Why not let them turn to the real-world legal system if those items are taken not by hacking or by force but by fraud? That line of reasoning will be attractive to the courts and regulators that will be asked to consider such questions. With legal rights come legal duties; virtual property is not an unmixed blessing for players.

In fact, my wild hand-wavy prediction is that this is the route by which we will actually see virtual property rights develop in the West. The disputes will not be the ones between players and companies; for the moment, EULAs have the security of contract. Instead, player-to-player disputes over deals gone bad will require courts to sort out the relative rights to virtual wealth as between different players. Here, a EULA disclaimer that the company owns everything and the players own nothing is not the end of the matter. If I take your Bone Crusher by pointing a gun at you in the offline world and forcing you to log into your account and give it to me, it’s a good bet that I’m going to prison and you’re getting your Bone Crusher back. The path from there to restoring virtaul wealth taken by fraud is not a long one, and neither is the path to ordering players to carry out offline contracts involving in-world items. True, there are some difficult doctrinal hurdles along the way, but nothing necessarily insurmountable.

Virtual acts increasingly have offline consequences—at least in those worlds with permeable borders. I would not like to be planning the next masive EVE Onine scam, or the one after it, or the one after that. For now the comforting strains of “it’s just a game” are paying, but some day, some day soon, the weasel will pop.

On Pluto

Am I alone in having no particular opinion as to whether Pluto should be considered a planet? I just can’t see what cartoon dog I have in this fight.

Am I also alone in thinking that there’s something slightly unsettling about the sudden outpouring of sentimental support for Pluto’s full-planet status? I can’t put my finger quite on it, but it strikes me as vaguely anti-intellectual. Perhaps it’s that the actual categorization of Pluto as planet, dwarf planet, or non-planetary body is wholly a matter of terminology, and not really a question of any scientific moment. I’m not sure whether the heavy layers of irony involved make matters better or worse.

I Smell a Mash-Up

Man, the RIAA has got to be ticked at Weird Al Yankovic. Right as they’re releasing a new video telling students not to download music, Weird Al comes along and releases a song entitled Don’t Download This Song (available for free download, naturally) that parodies their anti-downloading line with swipes at them and at stereotypical rich music stars.

Mysteries of the Dirt Devil

Somewhere in my many moves over the last decade, I acquired a hand-held vacuum cleaner that a former tenant had left behind. I remember thinking that it felt too heavy to be really useful.

Today, I discovered why. It had been used not just to the capacity of its dustbag, but beyond. The bag was one disgusting solid lump of congealed dust, and there were also disgusting solid lumps of congealed dust well up into the mechanism of the vacuum. Once I’d finished cleaning out the dust plugs (and washing my hands well after), it weighed about half as much as before.

Curiously, there were also something like a dozen spare dust bags in the box. They had price tags on them. The previous owner had clearly contemplated changing the dust bag with sufficient determination to buy spares, but had then for some unknown reason stopped short of actually changing the bag.

If I didn’t do equally pointless and absentminded deeds on a regular basis, I’d be amazed at what people are capable of. As it is, I’m just sneezy.

I Told Them So

I generally try to avoid naming my undergraduate college in this space because of all the snooty associations. Today, however, the snooty associations are key to the story.

For a few years, I was an alumni interviewer for Harvard. My job was to meet with applicants, spend a half hour or an hour talking to them and getting to know them, answer any questions they might have, and write up the experience for Harvard, which would then reject them. The admissions rate was something like one in ten at the time, so with an average of four interviews or so a year, I wasn’t exactly looking at the faces of the next first-year class, statistically speaking.

The most interesting and best qualified candidate I ever met had come to the U.S. knowing almost no English, and within two years had blown through almost all of her high school requirements. She’d worked at an aquarium and helped them set up new educational programs, played onstage at the local symphony hall, taken scads of advanced classes, read Roman history for fun, spearheaded a book donation drive for needy urban schools, and a bunch of other stuff I’ve since forgotten. She was also kind, thoughtful, admirably polite, and generally pleasant to talk to. I gave her a far stronger recommendation than I gave anyone else I interviewed.

Harvard wait-listed her.

I have it on what I consider unimpeachable authority that Harvard sometimes wait-lists applicants, not because it ever anticipates letting them in, but just to encourage their high schools to funnel more applicants in Harvard’s direction. I don’t think that was the case here—her high school was no mean shakes, either. Just something to chalk up to Harvard’s infinite caprice.

In any event, I Googled her today out of curiosity. I’d known that she was attending another fine university—she’d been nice enough to send me not just a thank-you note but a second brief thank-you when she accepted a place in the entering class at Another Fine U. Well, it turns out she’s done swimmingly well. She was named to the USA Today All-Academic First Team, was a varsity rower, won a research award from the NIH (not to mention the honors heaped on her by AFU), and was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women. And, oh yes, she was a Rhodes Scholar.

I’d like to say, “I told you so.” Well, I checked my letter to the admissions office bureaucracy, and I did. I called her “the smartest candidate I’ve interviewed,” said she “would have been one of the top students” in the computer science section I taught, asserted that she’d be “more likely to take full advantage of the scope of Harvard’s offerings than many people I knew from there,” and compared her to another notable Harvard student who “strolled through a very demanding schedule, racking up awards and honors and leadership roles.”

I may have told them so, but Harvard always laughs last. She’ll be going there for medical school.

Bad Design Decisions, Supermarket and Productivity Software Edition

The automated self-checkout lanes at Acme are all but unusable if you try to bag your items in your own reusable tote bags. The security system—which appears to work by making sure that the weight of the bag increases by exactly the weight of a scanned item—gets very confused when you use your own bags with their non-negligible weight. It didn’t like my placing my bag in the bagging area; it didn’t like my trying to bag items in an open bag on the floor. Eventually, I had to give up and go to a regular line. Please, waste our plastic bags! No, we insist!

Office 2004 for Mac sure doesn’t make it easy to get text out of Excel and into Word. Oh, copying is easy, but copying without having to fiddle with the formatting seems unnecessarily hard. Office appears to set the font size of pasted text not based on the font size of the source or destination documents, but on how far you’ve zoomed in on the source spreadsheet. I suppose this behavior might have sounded appealing to a program manager somewhere at Microsoft, but I can’t imagine the user who’d find it useful. It breaks all sorts of user interface guidelines. And don’t even get me started on how copying from a spreasheet in Times New Roman to a letter in Times New Roman can result in text set in Verdana.

A Word from Our Sponsor

Today was the last day of my clerkship with Judge Barry. It was a wonderful year, in every way.

Today also, therefore, marks my proper return to blogging. I won’t say that it’s a return to wholly uninhibited blogging—this blog has never at any time been wholly uninhibited—but I will henceforth be able to be somewhat freer in my choice of topics and opinions. The old disclaimers remain in force, although one would hope that they would be less necessary. Nothing I say here should be taken as reflecting the views of Judge Barry or the United States courts.

Given the occasion, it seems worth repeating some of the guiding principles behind my blogging here:

The present author is no philosopher, he has not understood the System, nor does he know if there really is one, or if it has been completed. As far as his own weak head is concerned the thought of what huge heads everyone must have in order to have such huge thoughts is already enough. … The present author is not philosopher, he is poetice et eleganter, a freelancer who neither writes the System nor makes any promises about it, who pledges neither anything about the System nor himself to it. He writes because for him doing so is a luxury, the more agreeable and conspicuous the fewer who buy and read what he write. … No, I prostrate myself before any systematic bag-searcher; this is not the System, it hasn’t the slightest thing to do with the System. I wish all good on the System and on the Danish shareholders in that omnibus; for it will hardly become a tower. I wish them good luck and prosperity one and all.

The text is from Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Alastair Hannay trans., Penguin Books 1985).

Back On the AIM Gang

About half a year ago, I became absolutely and utterly convinced that my AIM account was gone forever. When I graduated from law school, I’d stopped regularly logging in. In January, I fired Trillian up again (for Mystery Hunt purposes) only to discover that I’d accidentally logged myself out at some point. To my horror, I discovered that what I thought was my password no longer worked. I must have changed it at some point during law school and then gone so long without needing to type it in that I’d plum forgotten the new one.

No problem, I thought. That’s what password resets are for. Too bad my security question was utterly inscrutable (I’d written it somthing like five years prior) and the email address I’d used when signing up no longer exists. And with that, I hit a dead end.

And then, when copying files over to Holophonor, I discovered that on my old desktop PC I was still logged in. Now, you can’t change your password without typing in the old one, so my joy turned to despair, and then promptly turned back when I discovered that the AIM client (I’m not even going to say what version number it was, only that it was probably out of date when I installed it) lets you change your secondary email address.

That was all I needed. On my old desktop, I changed my email address to my current one. Then I went to the password reset page, and had it email me a reset-your-password link. That arrived on my new computer, I followed it, and bingo. Now I’m up and running again with iChat.

This behavior, note, partly undermines the security advantages of requiring you to type your old password to change your password from the client. After all, I just successfully changed my password without ever knowing the old one or anything else. All it took was access to a logged-in AIM account. If that account had been someone else’s, AIM wouldn’t have been able to stop me from changing first the email address and then the password.

My best guess as to what’s going on is that the 72-hour waiting period is there not because it takes that long to update the servers (altough this is AOL we’re talking about here) but to slow up the hijacking process and allow time for the real owner to see a “we’re changing your address” email sent to the old address.

In any event, I’m going to be on fairly infrequently, but it will be more than I have been in the past. I’m also looking to try out the AV features of iChat. Email me if you want to know my screenname.

Sell Stock in PolyFuel

I’ve ranted about this one before. From a New York Times article on battery capacity:

Methanol-based microcells, for instance, have roughly 10 times the energy density, creating the prospect of wireless laptops that could run all day without recharging, according to Rick Cooper, vice president for business development of PolyFuel Inc. The company, based in Mountain View, Calif., supplies components to several Asian manufacturers that have been working on such devices.

“The energy capacity of batteries is increasing 5 percent to 8 percent annually, but demand is increasing exponentially,” Mr. Cooper said.

5 percent growth per year is exponential growth.

On Computer Naming

When I was in college, the computer society was asked by the university’s IT people to come up with a naming scheme for its (the computer society’s) servers. We debated possible namespaces for a while, looking for a related set that was both memorable and extensive. We finally settled on psychotropic medications. The IT admins nixed it, and that was the end of student self-determination, at least when it came to computer names, and at least for a little while.

I think I’ve had better luck naming my own computers: * I first had to christen a computer the summer after junior year, when I was doing the first stages of research towards my senior thesis. I’d gotten permission to park myself in a spare office in the computer engineering building, and to put my computer on a departmental network. At the time, they were naming servers after Dlibert characters, including Catbert, Dogbert, Alice, and Wally. (This example demonstrates the problems that arise when you select a namespace with too few names in it; the print server was named Printbert.) I named my computer Umberto, after Umberto Eco, thus neatly slotting into the local bert-based naming conventions. As a further tip of the hat to Eco, I named my hard drvie Abulafia—after the computer from Foucault’s Pendulum. * My printer in college I named Gustav, for Gustav Mahler. * The laptop I got when I went to law school was Martin Farkus (“farkus” for short), which is almost certainly the most obscure reference among my electronic names. It comes from The Lady or the Tiger?, a book of puzzles by Raymond Smullyan. The second half of the book consists of an extended series of puzzles leading up to the “Monte Carlo Lock Problem,” a great puzzle inspired by Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem (if you know the proof of the Theorem, it’s fairly straightforward to solve; if you don’t, as I didn’t when I first read the book, it’s damn near impossible). A character named Martin Farkus makes a meta-appearance (that is, another character talks about him, but he never appears to the reader) to provide the key facts that define the MCLP. The name is still not, to my knowledge, Googlable. (If there’s some connection to the Catholic blogger of the same name who turns up when you try, I’m unaware of what it might be.) You either know the reference or you don’t. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t have known it had someone shown it to me. Once I had the idea, I pulled the book from my shelf, confirmed that yes, the name was distinctive, and ran with it.

I’ve also had some fun naming wireless networks: * My first network was Threepwood, after Guybrush Threepwood, from the Monkey Island games. (I really ought to get around to playing Escape from.) I admit that the name doesn’t quite make sense, since Threepwood is a person. Still, I wanted something that a wandering traveler might be amused by. I also went to the Monkey Island well when creating a gamertag for Xbox Live: my first ID there was Gorbush, one of the more memorably mangled versions of “Guybrush” that the other characters in the game come up with. That turned out to be a bad idea. Never log on to a service heavily populated by adolescent and preadolescent boys using a name that contains “bush.” When I was lucky, I got comments about it being some kind of political reference. And that was when I was lucky. * When I set up a wireless network for my mom and stepfather, I called it Canterbury, as in Thomas Becket comma Archbishop of. It all makes perfect sense when you remember that their dog then was named Becket. They later set up (or rather, I set up for them) a second base station, so that they’d have coverage upstairs and downstairs. That was easy; the downstairs one was Canterbury and the upstairs one was York. * My current network is Jotunheim, the Norse home of the frost giants. It was almost as though I knew that my attic apartment was going to get cold in the winter. * Aislinn’s network is Kobenhavn, the Danish spelling (modulo the glyphic limits of the Latin alphabet) of Copenhagen. We liked Copenhagen when we visited it. We iked it a lot.

All of which is an extended introduction to the announcement of the name of my new MacBook. I’ve dubbed it Holophonor. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on “Holophonor”, but be warned that the entry doesn’t (yet) do the concept justice. It’s a musical instrument from Futurama, which produces images as well as music. It’s allegedly incredibly hard to play (although the holophonor recital in one episode suggests a little otherwise) but is capable of intoxicatingly immersive effects. As soon as I came up with the metaphor when titling my previous post, I knew I had a winner on my hands.

Names are like that—when you find the right one, you just know.

Annals of Backwards Compatibility

This spring, we bought Aislinn a printer. She needed to print large black-and-white handouts for school, so we wanted a cheap laser printer. We found an absurdly good special at our local OfficeDespot (or OfficeMash—I can never keep them straight) on an HP LaserJet 1020. It’s cute, it’s small, it’s reasonably quick, it doesn’t burn through the Dom Perignon the way an inkjet would, and thanks to the loss-leader rebate involved, it cost less than some textbooks. The only hitch was that it doesn’t support Macs.

At least not officially, that is. Some diligent digging around online revealed that while HP doesn’t offer an OS X driver for the 1020, it does offer a “1020 Series” driver with the 1022. Some enterprising souls had tried out the driver with the 1020 and reported that it worked fine. Confident in our ability to make a go of it (or to take advantage of the return period) we went ahead and bought it. It worked like a charm—indeed, we printed our wedding invitations on it.

Well, as you may be aware, I just switched to a Mac. That meant that I needed to reinstall printer drivers for the printer on my new computer. It turns out that in the interim, HP has frobbed the driver for the 1022. Whether deliberately or not, they broke its compatibility with the 1020. I spent some quite frustrating time earlier today trying to figure out why the damn driver wasn’t showing up.

Then I got clever. I poked about online to learn where printer drivers live in OS X (in this case, inside of /Library/Printers) and what HP’s driver installer does. Then I turned on file sharing on Aislinn’s computer, logged in through the network, copied the old drivers off her computer, and manually dropped them in the correct spot on mine. The next time I opened the Printer Setup Utility, there it was, a bright shiny new driver for the 1020, all set and ready to go. Two minutes later, the first sheets were emerging from the printer.

Well played, HP. But not nearly well enough.

The Holophonor

The more I play with my new MacBook, the more impressed I am. Things work the way I expect them to. Generalizations from known behaviors hold valid. Everything is simple enough that a neophyte could be up and running with minimal assistance—but a determined expert could wield it with infinite grace and unimaginable power. Perhaps most impressive of all, the road from the one to the other is smooth. There is no discontinuity, no sudden need to switch from basic mode to advanced and start again from scratch. It works at all scales.

I purchased the remarkable Mac OS X: The Missing Manual I wouldn’t have needed it to do any of the things I need this computer to do, but it’s been tuning me in to some of the more, shall we say elegant ways of doing those things. Just in the first chapter, I’ve learned such details as: * The close button on a wndow shows a small dot in its center if you have usaved data in that window. * You can operate any control in an inactive window without bringing the window to the front by holding down the Apple button while you do it. * The Sidebar in the Finder window is customizeable on the fly. Just drag items into and out of it.

All is not sweetnes and light. (the built-in email client) now uses a non-standard and absurdly profligate format to store email. I’ve switched systems and email clients enough times in the past that even my infatuation with OS X couldn’t convince me to go with a mail program from which I couldn’t easil extract my mail. So I’m running Thunderbird, and so far, so good. In fact, things here on the Mac make enough sense that I’ve been able to pull together my scattered archives from my previous email lives. For the first time in a decade, I have an email collection that goes all the way back (with a few unfortunate gaps due to poor backup habits) to 1995. In the end, a bad decision by the Apple engineers isn’t going to be too much trouble for me; it’s the sort of thing I can route around. (Now, to keep my fingers crossed and hope that Address Book integration makes its way into the next release of Thunderbird. The code is written and is apparently running fine in some dev builds; it just needs to be integrated into the main branch, tested, and extended.)

Perhaps similarly, I’ve been going through some contortions having to do with converting a whole mess of photos from TIFF into PNG or other more broadly useful online format. I tried to install the UNIX ImageMagick utilities, but the compiled versions wouldn’t install due to some strange file-dependency issues. I suspect that the PowerPC-to-Intel transition has exposed an incompatibility. No problem, I thought—OS X is just UNIX under the hood, so I’ll grab the source and build it. Whoops. Not only do I not have the right compiler (since my computer came without the development tools installed), but the fink package-management system itself has some serious issues running on the MacBook. The experience included all of the inscrutability of UNIX without the compensating functionality. It turns out that iPhoto does batch conversion just fine; there may be a moral in here.

One should not make a mountain of a molehill. These experiences were two days ago, and since then it’s been smooth sailing. My previous Windows XP computer (which I loved dearly and was quite happy with) required me to reinstall Windows on its very first day out of the box. Fun fun fun, let me tell you. The Mac is still, all in all, giving me the sort of new-computer euphoria I haven’t felt in many a year.

CAPTCHA the Flag

The increasing dfficulty of CAPTCHAs is starting to worry me. There are times now, with some of the more recent and unreadable ones, when I simply cannot distinguish, say, a lower-case “c” from a lower-case “e”. I recognize that it might be necessary to keep moving as older and simpler systems fail, and that it makes sense to seek out higher and more obfuscated ground, but stil. In this arms race, the CAPTCHAs and the automated CAPTCHA readers are both getting more sophisticated, but we puny humans are stuck with the same text-recognition skills we’ve already got. Isn’t the end-state of this process a set of CAPTCHAs that can only be read by machines?

Experiental Separateness

It is most accurate, I think, to say that the utopian theory of cyberspace as separate place failed not in its presumption of regulatory separateness but in its presumption of experiential separateness.

Not to be confused with Cyberspace as Place, with Place and Cyberspace, or with Cyberplace.

See also Pig in Space.


I am posting this entry from my new computer—a white 1.83 GHz MacBook, fully stocked with as much memory and hard drive capacity as they’d sell it to me with. This is my first Mac, and I have no intention of going back.

Wedding Photography, Good and Bad

We agonized a lot in choosing a photographer, in part because sorting through lots of superficially indistinguishable ads and web sites didn’t particularly appeal to us and in part because we didn’t want to be ordered around by the photographer. We’ve been to some weddings at which the photographer all but assumed control of the festivities, keeping the wedding party away from everyone else for endless rounds of photographs. We didn’t want that, and the stress just of imagining it made us reluctant to have photography at all.

A videographer, as Monty Python would say, was right out.

I think we were also afraid we’d wind up with a photographer like this guy, who got three years in prison for fraud. He’d quote couples a price for taking pictures, four hours of his time at a “design session,” and 80 prints. At the wedding, he’d stop other people—even the bride’s mother, in one case—from taking photographs. And then, when the design session came, he’d hold the prints and negatives hostage, refusing for the sake of ” artistic flow” to create a set of the promised size. Instead, he’d give the couple a Hobson’s choice: buy a much larger set of prints (at a much higher price) or walk away, utterly pictureless.

He got his, in the end, and there’s even a neat copyright angle.

And we got our photographer in the end, too. My stepmother reminded us of a family friend who believes in unobtrusion, and things just went right from there. People actually mentioned that the’d enjoyed having their pictures taken, which is not something I think you hear about most wedding photography. I met with her earlier today; in between narrated exhbitions of her artistic and political work, she showed me contact sheets as I told her who all of the people she’d been taking pictures of were. And then, at the end, she gave me four CDs with the pictures, utterly rights-unencumbered. The ones worth sharing (of which there are many, but that’s why she’s a great photographer and I’m not) will be online soon.

It’s quite a difference in attitude.

(And yes, many of you have also mentioned how much you liked our DJ. Playlists coming soon to an online near you.)

Firemen to the Rescue

About half an hour ago, I got a phone call. It was my landlord (female), asking if I could hear the alarm.

“What alarm?” I asked. I’d been in my one air-condiitoned room, as close to the air conditioner as possible.

Well, she explained, the burglar alarm had gone off, for obscure reasons perhaps connected to a blackout this afternoon, and there was a fireman in the house trying to fix it. (The local fire squad, it would seem, is of the friendly getting-cats-down-from trees sort, willing to perform good deeds over and above the dousing of fires.) He might need to come up to my third-floor garret apartment to deactivate the alarm. Sure enough, he did.

It was fairly obvious, once I stepped into the sauna that was the rest of my apartment, that there was an alarm going off somewhere on the outside of the house. The fireman, my landlord (male), and I trooped over to the nearest window. The fireman stuck his head out the window, pointed to the alarm somewhere on the side of the (sloped) roof a few feet away, and promptly stuck the rest of himself out the window so he could get closer.

My landlord (male) and I didn’t particularly want to watch, mostly out of a sense that if South Orange’s finest were to fall to his death while bracing his feet against the gutter and leaning on his back on the room trying to disconnect the alarm, it would be traumatic enough merely hearing the fall, without also seeing his fatal plunge as well. So we made (comparatively) small talk. My landlord (male), seeing my Pinky and the Brain print, commented that it must have been on in the 1990s, because the theme song contains the phrase, “Bill Clinton plays the sax.” This led him to start talking about the time he met Clinton. Clinton talked to him about The Mayor of Casterbridge, with great passion, for several minutes. Then Clinton turned to a nearby woman and started talking to her about radish farming with equally intense interest.

At about this point, the alarm stopped and the fireman made his way back inside, none the worse for wear. I think we were more relieved than he was.

So why, I wanted to know, was there an alarm on the outside of the house, on the third floor roof? Apparently, the original owners had been quite the collectors. They regularly went on safari and had filled the house with stuffed bears, seashells, and other exotic treasures. They had needed an alarm system to protect the house when they went off to their other house … on St. Thomas. This explanation didn’t really answer my question, unless one assumes that collector-explorers are the sort of eccentrics who would stick an alarm bell and sensor on the outside of a house roof. Perhaps they were afraid that thieves would come along and stick a twenty-five foot ladder up on the side of the house and come in through a trap door from the crawl space above the attic. Perhaps it was the sort of derring-do they themselves would have gone in for, were they cat burglars instead of explorers. Perhaps they were cat burglars, too, or maybe even just cat burglars who had stolen all their stuffed bears and seashells.

In any event, my landlords (male and female) thought they had thoroughly deactivated and disconnected the alarm system when they moved in almost a decade ago. It would appear that they had not. I’m glad of it, because it sure livened up what had been a pretty uneventful evening.

Annals of Marginal Numeracy

Lifehacker is running the following “tip” to convert a time specified in 24-hour notation to one in 12-hour notation:

Subtract 10 then 2 to get the 12 hour clock time.

This is not so much a “tip” as a restatement of the definition. 24-hour times between 13:00 and 23:59 correspond to 12-hour times that are … yes, 12 less in the hours place. When challenged on the triviality of this algorithm, the author, Gina Trapani, responded:

I think because 10 and 2 are easier to subtract than 12 or 6.

The comments thread has been filling with well-deserved ridicule, which, to her credit, Trapani has been taking with good humor. Still, the only difference I can see between this “handy” technique and the good old-fashioned method called “subtracting 12” is that the old-fashioned method first subtracts 2 and then subtracts 10, instead of vice-versa. Apparently, the target Lifehacker audience consists of people who can hold in their memory numbers up through and including 14 but not numbers as exorbitantly large as 22.

Fast Approaching

Why do we sometimes say that a given event or deadline is “fast approaching?” Whatever it is, it’s approaching no faster or slower than anything else in the future—-at a constant rate of one minute per minute.

For that matter, is it really approaching us, or are we approaching it? Perhaps neither, perhaps both. Dictionaries insist that “approach” can be intransitive, but I’m not so sure. I think it may always have at least an implied object.

Even more fundamentally, there’s something screwy about the idea of measuring change in time per unit of time. We can speak sensibly of times being “near” or “far” with respect to one another, but in the naive definition of the time equivalent to velocity, the exact same quantity is the numerator and the denominator.