Monday, February 13, 2017

Ask Slashdot: Why have you stopped reading Slashdot?

14 February 2017

Ask Slashdot: Why have you stopped reading Slashdot?

Oh. Wait! If you stopped reading Slashdot, then you won't read any questions on Slashdot.

Still, I really wish it were possible to ask the wits of yore "Why have you forsaken Slashdot?" Is my memory playing games again? I seem to remember lots of humor on Slashdot, but can't find many traces of late.

Perhaps a poll on the reverse question? "Why are you still reading Slashdot?"

Having a little problem drafting suitable options for that poll... Perhaps:

(1) I love reading the ads!
(2) I hate funny comments and I'm so glad all the wits have left!
(3) Wasting time is my life!
(4) I'm not reading it because I'm just a robotic sock puppet used to harvest mod points!
(5) Just waiting for Cowboy Neal's obituary so I can add a few rude comments!

Obviously my personal problem is that I've developed a rather negative opinion of Slashdot over the years. I want to blame my dashed hopes. Too bad hopes aren't "actors" worthy of blame. I keep hoping that one of the new "owners" of whatever "assets" Slashdot possesses will figure out new ways to enhance and improve those assets. Does that mean I should blame whipslash and his friends? Even though I think he's sincerely a nice person? Too bad sincerity and a ten-dollar bill are only worth a cup of fancy coffee these years.

In my first draft of these so-called thoughts, I approached it from a more historical perspective:

Ask Slashdot: Should the archives of Slashdot be preserved as a significant part of the early history of the Web, or should the latest owners just erase everything and pretend it never happened?

I still believe that the underlying problem is bad financial models, but I don't have the financial data to know for sure. Maybe there is no problem, though I think that assessment depends on the usage data, which is more complicated than it might appear... Do you believe that the quality of the usage also counts, not just the quantity? The quantity of traffic appears to be declining, but what does the data show? Maybe it's just my subjective opinion that the quality (as "measured" by mod points) has fallen off the cliff? Too bad I don't have access to the actual data. It would probably be fun and interesting to analyze it... Need to find my old sociologist hat?

Maybe we should look for a counterexample of a more successful financial model? Everyone agrees the google is successful, right? Oh wait. Making the world's knowledge accessible and useful has been re-prioritized by the economic model. Now the highest priority is making the "knowledge" in the ads available and the utility metric is the sales figures of the paying customers, who are not you or me. Google's massive profits are coming from the inhuman, even subhuman and anti-human, corporations.

Seem to have painted myself into an awkward corner again? Back to square one?

Ask Slashdot: Why am I still reading Slashdot?

As noted, I think it used to be for the combination of (1) Real-world wit, often discovered in posts that had been moderated as funny, (2) Well selected news stories, and (3) Juicy technical rumors that often turned out to be well founded. So let's break that down in more detail, eh?

What would a graph of "Funny mods versus time" look like? Does anyone even collect such trends? Or would it matter, considering how much abuse and gaming the moderation system suffers from? GIGO rulz? For now, all I have is my suspect memories that Slashdot used to be a much funnier place.

So on to the news. Well, that's a place where Slashdot has just failed to keep up with the technology. Hard to blame Slashdot for that one, however. It's like my manual blogging before blogs were defined to exist. Now we have various kinds of news amalgamation websites, and most of them have newer and better features than Slashdot. Is Google News the king of the hill now? If so, that's a really bad sign for Slashdot. Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure that Google news used to include links to Slashdot stories, but maybe my memory is wrong since I can't remember the last time I saw such a link...

Well-founded rumors? That one has also fallen off the cliff. Oversupply problem? Or just that the production costs of fake news are overwhelmingly cheap? Always hard to compete with free, and I never heard or even imagined that Slashdot was considering hiring any real journalists for such purposes. Now that I think of it, that might be the sort of project I would support if Slashdot had ever offered a financial model that allowed me to do so... Too bad I'm now persuaded that will never happen.

So do I have any grounds to complain?

Maybe not. My appearance might be funny, but I'm not funny and can't recall getting many funny mods for my writings. I do remember getting a lot of insightful mods, but maybe I'm just selectively remembering them

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Wikipedia to the dogs

Version 0.3

Wikipedia to the Dogs?

Mostly just feeling like summarizing my increasingly negative feelings about Wikipedia and noting why the good idea is coming to naught. Insofar as it's an Internet-based story and the Internet is so dominated by America, I nearly put it in the decline of America blog, but the top leadership of Wikipedia is quite British and the goal is quite international, so...

My last involvement with Wikipedia was a couple of months ago when there was controversy about the paid editors. I'm increasingly convinced that the entire NPV (Neutral Point of View) thing is a joke, but it's (intuitively) obvious (to the most casual observer) that an editor who is paid by a company that is related to the topic of an article cannot even pretend to be impartial or neutral. My own involvement was mostly in voting on the proposed solution, but at the same time I suggested ways to strengthen it. My basic position was that it couldn't be eliminated, but the best approach would be to make it visible in public, with a more serious public sanction for violations. The policy called for disclosure of such financial ties, but I felt that the disclosure should be made visible with a small annotation on the top of the article, whereas the detection of a violation (such as paid editing that is not disclosed) would result in a big permanent warning attached to the article in question.

At that time, no one at Wikipedia showed detectable interest. Upon reflection, I can imagine that they were worried about damaging their key assets: integrity and credibility. Integrity is about knowing the truth, but acknowledging paid editing has to cast a shadow on the how the truth may become slanted. In contrast, credibility is about being trusted to tell the truth, which would be weakened every time someone noticed a paid editing tag... However, those assets are valuable rather beyond Wikipedia, even including all journalists.

This week's unfunny interaction at Wikipedia involved spammer abuse of Wikipedia, which is obviously a successful but evil financial model. Some of the 419 scams include URLs that are exploiting the integrity and credibility of some website to fool more suckers. An excellent technical countermeasure is obvious, but as far as I know, not in use. (Perhaps some websites are using it, and therefore the spammers never use those URLs?) The countermeasure would be to add a warning to the cited webpage, something to the effect of "If spam led you here, you are NOT about to get big money after you 'help' by paying the scammer with some 'trivial' fee." The warning should obviously include a link to a more specific warning about that category of scam.

The situation is actually worse and better as regards Wikipedia compared to the most common targets, which are news websites. It's worse because the spammers could easily vandalize Wikipedia to support their scams, adding some juicy details to spice up the bait. If the scammers thought it was worth the effort, I'm sure they could add the bait a few weeks in advance, even with a citation to a plausible-looking external website that the scammer has set up. However, the Wikipedia situation is better in that anyone who receives the spam could pop over to Wikipedia and add a warning. Oh, wait. It just got worse again. The spammer could pop over and revert the article to remove the warning.

Now we're back to technical solutions that are (intuitively) obvious (to the most causual observer) and yet another suggestion that I've offered to Wikipedia a number of times over the years, always without detectable interest. There should be a convenient option to "Add a temporary warning" to an article. In a good implementation, it would let you paste in a copy of the spam and its headers, and you would categorize the scam and specify how long the warning should last. The warning would be temporary, but not easy to remove, so the spammer can't just pop over and zap it. Instead of fooling suckers, the potential suckers would see (for the next week or two) a warning such as (from this week's example): "Warning, if you received email claiming that you are about to receive a $10 million VISA card, it is a 419 scam", and including a link to the appropriate article on such scams.

My little story actually begin when I received such a spam this week (but only the latest of many times over the past years) and I added a warning (manually, since there is no such tool) to the spammer's Wikipedia article. A few hours later, I noticed that it had been reverted, so I looked at that person's page and discovered that the reverter of my warning was trying to become some kind of administrator or editor on Wikipedia. Therefore I went to the election page and said that I had to oppose the promotion because I was suspicious of anyone who seems to be helping spammers. I also included a short explanation of the scam in question and the obvious suggestion. That vote was quickly deleted, too, on grounds of some kind of club violation.

My new message to Wikipedia: "Sorry, but if you Wikipedia fools want to support spammers, you can shove your club where the sun don't shine. In addition, I hope the spammers pwn your children's computers to thank you for your contributions to their ongoing success."

I think the funny part is that I really like the idea of Wikipedia and think that broader and more democratic participation would improve the quality and value of Wikipedia. Contributing more to the joke is the oft-repeated claim that Wikipedia wants more support, but the punchline is that I was threatened in some manner for expressing my concerns. "Follow the money" is often a good way to figure out people's real motivations, so I still think my concerns are legitimate. Philosophy is nice but sound economic models are important, too.

Kind of a minor footnote, but maybe it's a karmic coincidence. Most of my involvement with Wikipedia has been to make minor grammatical corrections and ask a few questions on the so-called Talk pages (though perhaps this was the first time I was threatened for writing). However a few days ago I noticed some omissions on a Japanese page and I actually reserved a couple of books that contained the missing data. After this little episode, I dropped by the library and cancelled the reservations without opening the books.

I should make a boilerplate for this closing apology, but... I'm sorry about the need to moderate the comments, but unlike Wikipedia, I am strongly determined not to support any spammers. I welcome your comments and generally approve them within a day. I even prefer comments from which I learn something, which most often means critical comments, even if there's some sharpness in the tone.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Life, the universe, and everything considered as a helix of semiprecious Star Trek episodes

Version 0.2

Life, the Universe, and Everything Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Star Trek Episodes (and as explored with Internet search engines)

Well, it started as a kind of joke of a meme when I woke up this morning. Initially it seemed like a kind of zen collapse item, then as a humorous meme to claim, but now it feels like an overblown mockery of Delaney's truly original and creative story "Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones" from 1970. According to today's google report, the "considered as a helix" meme has 13.5 million. It appears Microsoft's bing is taking it more loosely, with 252 million hits on the unquoted form, but a mere 52,800 for the quoted string. Of course that leads back to a quoted search on the google, which yields 538,000 hits. All of the top hits are to the Delaney story, but this is clearly a highly contagious meme.

The titular form of this blog is then seen as a personal idiosyncrasy. I happened to be impressed by these three memes, with Delaney's as the natural uber-meme. to unify them. However, now I'm more interested in other people's extensions of the original Delaney meme, which I think is captured in the central phrase "considered as a helix"... Both of the unquoted searches quickly lead into unrecognizable territory, predictably dominated by the relatively unusual word "helix". My jumps are generally by 5 pages of search results at a time, and show an interesting range of wit and thought.

Actually, my most interesting discovery is that the google claims are misleading. Apparently the google runs out of steam at 217 results, while the hits are still dominated by references to the original meme, and it isn't clear how to force it to show the rest of the potentially more interesting hits that it claims to know about. That's only 22 pages of search results. In contrast, bing kept on trying to 605 results, when it suddenly decided it had had enough.

Adding -time to the search exposed many more of the derivative memes. Only 21 from bing versus 137,000 from the google? Interesting and stark contrast. In the next obvious step, it appears that I am the first to add "everything considered as a helix" to the Internet, insofar as both search engines reported no hits and unquoted the string for their searches... Kind of amazing how quickly we can get into the unexplored territory, isn't it?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Linear Humans Facing Logarithmic Cliffs

Version 0.2

Every Logarithmic Change Looks Like a Cliff to Linear Human Beings

Thesis: We're basically linear beings and we live on a linear time scale. Any logarithmic change will eventually look like a cliff to us.

The example I've been aware of for a while was population increase, starting from the perception of homo sapiens the hunter-gatherers. We evolved in small-scale societies where we could know all of the people who mattered, but now we live in an international society with so many people we could never meet all of them or learning anything about the vast majority of them. However, from the perspective of the thesis, it's probably best to consider the famous population S-curve, which is often used to depict logarithmic population growth and the eventual leveling off when arithmetic reality collides with and causes the end of the period of exponential growth. (Another extension is to consider how this interacts with the rapid spread of any important genetic mutation to sometimes make evolution appear sort of spastic...)

Now it's technological change that's getting in our faces. For a personal example, I used to feel I was almost up to date on computer technology, but it's increasingly obvious that it's running away from me-and from everyone else, too. I actually concluded that Thomas Jefferson was living in a time when it was still possible for an intelligent person with sufficient leisure to learn almost everything about science.

At this point, we're creating so much of anything that any individual human being can saturate any amount of human time. For example, you could never keep up with all of the movies that are being released or you could spend your entire life just watching the old movies we've already created. Ditto for books, and even for more narrow areas.

Kind of an extended 'application' of my thesis here, but in the Google IO keynote presentation a few weeks ago, Larry Page received a friendly question about showing people the search results they wanted to see rather than possibly more accurate answers that are less satisfying. He generally seemed to be seeing things through rose-called [Google?] glasses, and he replied that he didn't see any problem with this form of personalization. I actually predicted this problem a couple of years ago under the label of "pandering to the user", which has come to pass and is much worse than I thought it would be. (That may have been around 2005, but I can't easily check due to google censorship of the newsgroups.) My first research after Larry Page dismissed the problem was to google "obama birthplace kenya", which produces more than 2 million hits. If that's what I want to believe, the google just gave me enough "evidence" to saturate all of my free time for several years...

However, I've since thought of an even less friendly way to pose the question. I would ask "Did Google help kill Steve Jobs?" When his ultimately terminal cancer was first diagnosed, at least one of his doctors has said that it may have been treatable--but he delayed treatment. I don't blame Steve Jobs for wanting to believe that there were alternatives to immediate surgery, and now I wonder if the google helped him in making that fatal decision. My understanding is that he tried some kind of anti-cancer diet to control his cancer and it failed and he died. Did he get information about that diet from a google search? If just did the search "alternative cancer treatments", and several of those hits and ads look potentially dangerous, but personalization means that your hits will probably be different--and more attractive and specifically appealing to YOUR tastes and interests. As long as someone paid for the ads, I guess the google doesn't see any problem if Steve Jobs made a fatal mistake, eh?

In another perspective, perhaps the saturation of information is driving people nuts, which led me to the AI threat... One aspect is the increasingly difficulty of standing out in a positive way that might drive some people to try to stand out in a negative dimension. When you combine it with increased individual capacity to do good (or bad) things, we humans beings start looking rather dangerous. Maybe the solution to the Fermi Paradox is that any AI is led to a very unpleasant conclusion... If it's creators are fundamentally irrational and dangerous, perhaps the only conclusion is that they must be exterminated as soon as they can be replaced with suitable robots?

Or perhaps I'm just too frustrated by banging my own head against logarithm cliffs?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Wasting Other People's TIme as the Greatest Sin?

Version 0.1

Wasting Other People's Time as the Greatest Sin?

Just one of those early morning wanderings of the brain... So here's something of the logical chain. Actually started from recollections of a great teacher, Bill Martin, who lost his faith while attending the Harvard Divinity School. From the perspective of his deeply religious parents, that leads to speculations about the Harvard Profanity School. Then jumped to considering the nature of the greatest sin, which linked to thoughts of time-based economic theory, where are personal time is the most precious and limited resource of all. In conclusion, the greatest sin must be wasting other people's time.

To avoid the sin, I should just stop there, but I'll just note that I still haven't any answers to the questions posed in Couch Potatoes of the World, Unite. Not even a hint.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Free speech versus moderated comments

Version 0.5

Free Speech Versus Moderated Comments

I want to clarify my position on free speech in light of my settings for moderation on all blogger comments. I think there are several elements of confusion, especially about the use of the word "free".

First, let me be clear that I strong approve of free speech in the sense of freedom to say whatever you want. That means I am STRONGLY inclined to approve EVERY comment or reaction submitted in response to any of my blogs. Except for unsolicited commercial spam, I am unable to recall any comment that I did not approve, and I have even approved a couple of replies that came dangerously close, but which seemed sincere enough and strongly relevant to the topic of the comment.

Second, I want to thank you for disagreeing with me so strongly that you actually change my mind. It doesn't happen very often (except for corrections of typos or silly mistakes), but it is possible and I really want to learn about my misconceptions, incorrect reasoning, and especially about any false evidence I am relying upon or unknown and important evidence that I should consider. Even if you disagree with me vigorously, I want to approve your post. However, if you are sincerely trying to change my mind, you should focus on new evidence or analytic flaws in my reasoning.

Third, if you just call me a bunch of vile names, I'm just going to approve your post so I can hold you up and wave you around as effectively discrediting and disproving yourself because you are unable to provide anything more substantive. I actually think emotional writing can show sincerity and there is even research showing it is more persuasive, but I insist that I am an essentially reasonable person and I'm quite happy to say something along the lines of "This fellow strongly disagrees with me, but he is contradicting himself and can therefore be dismissed as some sort of liar without even trying to figure out which side of his own words he actually believes." That's just one example, but I'm frequently surprised by how inconsistent people are... There might be some limit of angry ranting where I would just decide not to approve the comment, but I'm having trouble seeing where it would be, because the crazier someone gets in their disagreement, the more reasonable I feel and the happier I am to use their craziness as evidence of my reasonableness.

Fourth, I want to address the confusion about "free speech", which is NOT related to free beer. Being able to speak freely has almost nothing to do with the actual financial costs of speaking, especially in these days of exceedingly cheap Internet-based publishing. I am moderating these comments because of unpaid COMMERCIAL speech, specifically the scams that are being "advertised" by spammers. Okay, I admit that I don't have many readers, but I am NOT going to help the spammers in harassing them as the spammers desperately search for the tiny number of suckers who can be fooled into sending money. If you are a spammer, your comments will NEVER be approved by me and I will do everything I can think of to put you out of business. I am NOT saying we can convert spammers into decent human beings, but I do believe that without the money, they will crawl under less visible rocks.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Couch Potatoes of the World Unite

Version 0.3

Couch Potatoes of the World, Unite!
You have nothing to lose but your humanity!

Yes, I'm being a bit tongue in cheek, but there's a serious notion underneath. We need to rethink economics, and I'm even going to outline a different way of thinking about it. I hope my conclusion surprises you: The couch potatoes are more valuable and more human than you think and they actually contribute more to our economy than they are usually given credit for.

Let's start by analyzing economic activity and classifying it into three categories. There is an essential category that keeps us afloat, an investment category that makes things better, and everything else that makes us enlightened human beings. The rest of this post is basically explaining those three ideas and offering a few of the most basic observations, but my real questions are about the numbers. I've been looking for this kind of information for some years, and so far I've been coming up dry. Isn't ANYONE else thinking along these lines? Please point me at the right economists. The comments are open for such purposes!

The essential category includes such things and producing food and clothing and maintaining houses and essential infrastructure. This is what you have to do just to keep life at the current physical level. One way to think about it is as a metric of the productivity of the civilization. A more advanced society will do this more efficiently. Think of it as an average of the total working time. In an advanced society, perhaps the average working time to produce the essentials will be 2 hours per week, and the rest of the economic activity is for other purposes, whereas a relatively less advanced society may require 30, 50, or even 80 hours of weekly work from each individual just to stay afloat. In other words, at some point a society cannot sustain itself because there aren't enough hours in the week, and there are poor and effectively dysfunctional societies that really are dependent upon outside assistance just to attempt to survive.

The investment category includes all of the spending that improves productivity and thus reduces the economic expense of the essential category. That includes things like building better infrastructure or creating better machinery for more efficient factories, but it also includes less obvious things like technical education and even abstract research where the results are years away and quite unpredictable. You can actually evaluate the spending in this category based on the RoI (Return on Investment). The easy calls are cases where you can calculate that developing a certain device will cost a certain amount of money and it will take a known amount of time to make profits that equal that amount of money. Yes, the future is never certain, but some things are relatively easy to predict and the investments in those cases are easy to justify. I actually think this part of the economy should be evaluated in competitive terms. A nation that wants to advance relative to other societies should spend more in this category, for example by tweaking the tax incentives to encourage people to shift more money from the next category...

Now we're ready for the category of everything else, and that's where the couch potatoes enter the picture as representatives of the leisure class. Yes, it's a stereotype with negative connotations, but there really are a lot of economic activities in the leisure class that are represented by the people who watch television or who read books. This category has a lot of interesting attributes. For example, it is divided into a creative and consuming side, and advanced societies have already passed the threshold of maxing out. Let's take a simple example of books: We already publish more new books than any person can possibly read, even if that person was free to spend all of his time reading new books. Another aspect is that the demand on the consuming side is never satisfied. You can only eat so much food or wear so much clothing, but the only limit on your leisure time is the time itself. A related aspect is that many of these leisure goods are not consumed, since the same movie can be viewed by any number of people. What mostly counts in this part of the economy is how people vote with their time. In the example of an advertising-based economy, it really matters to the advertisers if the couch potatoes vote for football or baseball.

Okay, I guess that's enough food for thought. As noted earlier, I've been thinking about these ideas for some years, but so far I haven't found any leads and especially I haven't been able to find any numbers. If you know of such, comments with pointers would be greatly appreciated.

Oh yeah, I better explain the subtitle about humanity... I suspect than an inhuman civilization of machines would skip the third category. It's the humanity, stupid.