Giving up

So let’s give this a go, shall we? I’m caving in. From brief experimentation, I think this is a much better idea than trying to cram everything together locally. I hate that it has come to this, but… why solve a problem that’s already been solved (and solved much more elegantly than I ever could)?

Forgive me, for I am turning into a Web 2.0 loser.

Learn to suffer

I would really appreciate it if someone could explain to me why I shouldn’t just say “screw it” and spend $24.95 on a Flickr account instead of fighting with locally installed software. Because it’s the manly thing to do? Because struggling with someone else’s design choices builds character? Because I need to rebuild my sysadmin cred? I realize that I will quite rapidly devolve into one of Those People with a Flickr account, and that the true He-Man solution is templating and scripting and a lot of little HTML files and some more scripting glue to hold it all together and publish… but life is short, and so is my patience.

What to do, what to do?

Philosophical technology

So there’s been this really interesting thread on nanog of late, about address allocation in IPv6 address space, which hinges on a very strange question: can you be too wasteful with something that seems like it shouldn’t run out?

The background, for the non-technically inclined, is this: at some point in the future, we are going to have to abandon the addressing scheme that has brought you the Internet so far (IPv4) and transition to a new scheme (IPv6) because we’re running out of physical addresses. Most people are aware that the name of a particular machine on the network is just an alias for a numeric address — it’s the numeric addresses we’re running out of, thanks to the limitations of the addressing scheme. IPv4 has a theoretical maximum of 4,294,967,296 addresses; I say “theoretical” because large chunks of the address space are reserved and can’t actually be assigned.

It’s a little bit like the problem we all had about a decade ago, when we discovered we were running out of phone numbers because suddenly everyone had cell phones and fax machines and modem lines. The difference is that we can’t just open up a whole new whack of prefixes by changing the area codes and introducing ten-digit dialing. In Internet land, we’ve hacked around this problem for a long time, pushed the day of reckoning back a couple of times with elegant and not-so-elegant solutions, but we’re going to have to face the music eventually, and deploy the new addressing scheme. Wiki, uncharacteristically, has a nice summary of the scope of the problem.

IPv6 offers the possibility of having 3.4 x 1038 hosts. That’s a lot of addresses. The way it works now is that when you call up your ISP to provision service to your house, you typically get an address. In IPv6-land, we can basically allocate you, as an individual customer, something like a current Internet’s worth of addresses for you to do with as you please. These wouldn’t be private or reserved addresses; they’d be globally routeable and globally accessible, and things like NAT and hiding the number of machines hooked up to your connection wouldn’t be necessary anymore. This has some profound implications.

The nanog thread I linked to has a simple question at its core: given the exceptional size of the IPv6 address space, is it in fact a good idea to hand out that many addresses in one go? Should we be conserving addresses by not handing out a couple billion to people who might use one or a dozen individual addresses? IPv4 worked like this for a while, at the beginning, when we handed out huge blocks of IPv4 space to people who never actually ended up using them (see visual example), and the various registries haven’t really worked very hard to reclaim them. We’d have the same problems under IPv6, too, but 3.4 x 1038 is a really big number — staggeringly big.

If you accept the premise that running out of addresses will take an absurdly long time, and/or require networking many many many things in our lives that may or may not come to fruition (and even then it’ll still take an absurdly long time), do you support giving people way more than they’d need? There are technical arguments for and against this strategy, but the philosophical question remains: given a really large resource, where you’d have to be staggeringly stupid and unlucky over a shockingly long period of time to run out of it, is there such a thing as being wasteful with its allocation?

Fair credit

Compare and contrast two candidate Web sites: Jessica Van Der Veen and Ida Chong. Clearly, we’re getting better at designing campaign Web sites, and candidates are using the Web more intelligently now than they used to.

It’s not so much the Web sites themselves that interest me, however. Look at the domain names:

jessicavanderveen.bcndp.ca versus idachong.com.

Ok, look, I know it’s 2009 and the whole namespace pollution horse has not only fled, but burned the barn down to cover its tracks, but still — candidates as third-level rather than second-level domains! This is great. I gotta give the BC NDP props for doing this right. I don’t know whether it was a deliberate choice to be good to the namespace, or whether it was an accident that came of the way the party is managing its IT infrastructure, but way to go, guys. (The only way it could have been better is if it had been fredflintstone.bc.ndp.ca, but I’ll settle for what we got.)

See also this and this (as a primer if you don’t understand why this is so significant).

(Said the guy who owns fumbling.com and vrinimi.net and is neither a network provider nor a corporation as far as he can tell…)

"… by *GOD* I know what this network is for…"

I was cleaning out a directory tonight (this is what I do these days when I’m tense or angry, I go and clean out my hard drive) and I came across the original version of Russ Allbery’s magnificent rant about… I’m not sure what it’s about, actually.

Superficially it’s about Usenet, my first true love on the net, but if you dig a bit deeper, read a bit between the lines, it gets at some of the core issues around the Internet and inter-networking generally — how the network itself, while interesting and fun to play with, is entirely secondary to the goal of allowing people to connect with each other; the value of the relationships forged on the network; the exclusivity of some of those relationships; the ability of this phenomenal tool to bring people together, and what happens when it is under threat from people who don’t understand that.

The post is ten years old this month. It feels, in its broad images, like it could have been written yesterday. It dates only because the technology and the specific source of the problem has changed; the essence, its core, is as true as it ever was.

Now nearing the end of my second decade on the Internet (and its predecessors), I see this more clearly now than I ever did. Spam, trolls, denials-of-service, flooding — all of this is, in some way, an attack on the infrastructure itself. Yet although no one cries when a router screams because its table is overloaded, a great many people cry when jerks invade their bboard or flood their favorite blog. We don’t care about the physical reality of the Internet — most of us probably never did, and wouldn’t know a router from a switch if it bit us in the face. We care about the space in our heads, the collective space we all made, the space that was special to us and meaningful, the space that got chewed up when some vandal came roaring through.

I used to argue about spam as though it were some kind of stolen resource. It is, in the purest sense of the term, but I didn’t get sad because my mail client had to spend a few more seconds processing mail. What saddens me about the e-mail spam problem is that I’ve had to implement filters, wall off entire countries, and disable even the most basic diagnostic messages because I can’t deal with the volume of junk flowing back to me. The platonic ideal of e-mail, to my mind, no longer works — and while there’s a technical side to this, I’m not really upset that no one with an e-mail address that ends in .hk or .tw can send me mail. I’m upset that no person with an e-mail address ending in .hk or .tw can reach me anymore. It’s sad that we’ve reached this point, yet I don’t know how a reasonable person can do anything else. This was, ultimately, one of Russ’s points. “The difference, to me, between those things that Usenet is for and those things that Usenet is not for, is one of manner and quantity. Not one of content. I do not want to see any person excluded from Usenet, even if they believe that Usenet should be used for machine-generated spew. I just want to stop the spew, because if it goes unchecked it will drown out and destroy the beauty of what Usenet is.”

Perhaps I am not explaining this well; perhaps I am rambling. It’s late and I’m up past my bedtime. But I am thinking about the things that I love, and have loved, and how they make me feel, and I think back to the arguments we used to have about the nature of the network, and I keep thinking that we were all missing the point — that maybe we’re all still missing the point. The point is the contact. The point is the connection — the ability to reach out and find someone to make you feel less lonely. I think we sometimes forget how precious and special that is, and how sad we are when other people ruin it for us.

Talking about the problem in that sense — in terms of the effect it has on people trying to reach each other — somehow feels more honest than worrying about computational cycles and mail server load. Russ’s rant was shocking because he put into words what many of us felt but could not explain; we couldn’t defend the emotional damage we felt when a part of Usenet (or the network generally) broke because of someone else’s malfeasance. But he could, and he could focus that hurt and anger like a laser beam on a very specific example, which gave his rant a shocking degree of power. It’s not the anger that amazes me, ten years later — I remember being plenty angry on Usenet. What amazes me is the passion.

I wish I could write such an empassioned defence of the Internet.

Open Letter #48: "Nice network you got here. Be a shame if anything were to, uh, happen to it…"

Dear Botnet Owners,

On behalf of the entire Internet, I would like to say “thank you!” for finally putting that “mailer-daemon” character in his place, and making sure that I will have to forever automatically delete any piece of e-mail that comes from him. I am so grateful that you’ve managed to make bounce messages so thoroughly useless I now have to start ignoring them, thus ensuring that I’ll never really know whether my mail got through or not.

Thanks again. I love my new broken Internet.

Fuck you very much,
Dr. Hazmat

Konichiwa! Pasocon desu!



It finally happened: An Apple commercial made me laugh. It may have something to do with the fact that it’s in another language, and that Mac doesn’t come off like quite the annoying prick he does elsewhere. But I give them credit — this is a funny ad.

The whole Japanese campaign works better for me than the obnoxious North American/UKnian one. Mac isn’t held out to be some ultra-hip asshole, and PC isn’t such a shocking loser. The problem is that you can’t brag about your accomplishments and your strengths in Japan, so you have to be more subtle about it; basically, what the campaign is saying is that Mac is a much calmer, more relaxed, more enjoyable person, while PC is a bit like your excitable younger brother. Mac isn’t the condescending jackass he is in North America; PC isn’t portrayed as such a fucking loser. (I could also talk about the different ways the two refer to themselves (the Japanese language has a lot of different ways to say “I,” most of which come into play through the various ads), but that’s a bit out of my depth — I don’t speak Japanese that well.) The subtleties of the interaction will be lost on a lot of non-Japanese speakers, but it’s very clear that the spirit behind this series of ads is one of harmony rather than superiority.

I still think the ads themselves are bogus. The premise is essentially flawed — it’s a technology choice, not a moral question. But this is a much less irritating way of making the case. I like it.

(As if that opinion carried any weight whatsoever…)

All right, that's IT.

The Internet is officially out of money. All you new-media punks and johnny-come-latelies (and by that I mean, “anyone who got on-line sometime after about 1995”) can go home right goddamn now.

I’ve been thinking this for a while. 15+ years into the mass-popularization of the Internet, we continually see the re-emergence of trends in on-line communities that we saw before. The problems and the dynamics are the same; the only thing that changes is the interface. We’ve always had trolls and agents provocateur; now, instead of infesting newsgroups, they infest blog comment sections and Web bboard fora. People are continually trying to solve the same problems we solved back in the Dark Ages, usually with less grace and less skill than we did. I won’t belabor the point, but the problem essentially boils down to a failure to correctly disseminate information, and a tendency to disregard prior art and experience as a guide to developing contemporary solutions. It isn’t uncommon to run into Internet software developers who are wholly ignorant of the history of their chosen medium, so it probably isn’t surprising that we see the same solutions to the same problems re-invented over and over (and frequently less elegantly than in the past).

It’s bad enough that the Web as a whole goes through these phases where we seem to be trying to solve the same problems we solved on Usenet in the 1980s, but we’ve now reached a point where the Web is dealing with the same phenomena we dealt with eight years ago. By which, of course, I mean the goddamn blahgs.

The current meme in the circles of blogs that I read is the New Media Mob: A collection of young writers who’ve managed to parlay their blogs into paying gigs at formerly respectable publications. Roy and Sadly, No — particularly directed at this post by Cool Kid Garance Franke-Ruta — sum it up quite nicely. It comes down to this: A group of people have, for reasons that are not fully explained by their literary or cognitive skills, been elevated to the status of superstars within a particular community, and everyone else wonders why that happened.

We’ve been here before in the blog world. Oh, my, how we’ve been here before.

If you flash back to 1999 or 2000, back when blogging was beginning to take the world by storm, you remember the A-List. You may even remember the prescient article by Joe Clark that described the phenomenon. At the time the blog was primarily personal and anecdotal, driven by technology, and its superstars were technology “pioneers” and developers; now, seven years later, the blog is primarily political, driven by people who seem to complain about the current crop of pundits while at the same time lusting after those gigs themselves.

I mean, Clark basically nails it (to use an old hoary blogging cliche):

The A-List: “Jason Kottke… is widely admired among bloggers as a thoughtful critic of Web culture…. Getting blogged by Kottke, or by Meg Hourihan or one of her colleagues at Pyra, is the blog equivalent of having your book featured on Oprah.”

  • Finally, independent confirmation of an obvious fact that is self-servingly denied by the Weblog aristocracy itself: Despite no appreciable difference in the “thoughtfulness” of their respective Web criticism, some Webloggers are superstars.
  • The myth, of course, holds that all bloggers are equal, because we all can set out our wares on the great egalitarian Internet, where the best ideas bubble to the surface. This free-market theory of information has superficial appeal, but reality is rather different.
  • Jason’s commentary is quite good (Meg’s less so), but so is the commentary written by literally a dozen other bloggers I read, none of whom can create a miniature Slashdot effect by mentioning you. (I’m not citing any other bloggers here, by the way, whatever their fame or acumen. I’m limiting the name-dropping to the bloggers Rebecca Mead introduced into the discourse.)
  • Jason’s fame cannot be attributed solely to his cuteness (mentioned explicitly by Mead). I can think of two other A-list bloggers who are better-looking, not to mention having a bit more meat on the bones, and I am aware that there are a lot of attractive bloggeuses. Moreover, one A-list blogger is spectacularly ugly, but that has not impeded his star status.
  • Web-design skills cannot account for everything, either. Jason’s site, in its various forms, offers a middling level of programming complexity. Yet I can name three other A-list bloggers, and a far greater number digging for coal with their bare hands in the caverns of the net, whose sites are more complex and better-looking.
  • A small number of A-list bloggers run Weblogs that are effectively undesigned, a positioning statement that aims to showcase their ideas more prominently, but their ideas aren’t markedly superior to other bloggers’ in the first place.
  • Any way you cut it, there is no rational or even pseudo-rational explanation for the distribution of fame in the blog biz. Fame is like that.

It’s exactly the same thing, seven years later, and we’re all acting like it’s a brand-new phenomenon. Replace “Jason Kottke” and “Meg Hourihan” with “Matt Yglesias” and “Megan McArdle”, and “web design” with “commentary,” and Joe Clark has managed to preemptively capture the annoyance of a number of bloggers. That no one that I’ve found so far has managed to notice this is, frankly, shocking — and we should all be ashamed at how fast we collectively forget the history of our own medium.

This does not, however, detract from the fundamental irritation that most of us feel when we read this stuff. There isn’t a whole heap of difference between this:

Rio just came out with a new MP3 player shaped like a walnut – and about the same size. They say it’ll sync with my Palm, which is too damn new for me to have synced it with my old Palm, let alone the Cube or the PowerBook. Anyway, something to pick up on Saturday morning.

And this:

Brian is/was Ezra’s roommate. Sommer is Matt’s friend. Ezra is staying with Matt here in NYC while we are all up here for the Clinton Global Initiative. Alex and I are friends, as are Alex and Megan. Matt and Ezra and Megan went shooting together on Yom Kippur (bad Jews!), along with Dave, who is throwing a joint birthday party with Brian later this week. Also, Megan and Matt work together. And I used to work with Matt and still work with Ezra. And I think we are all Facebook friends.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We’ll come back to this idea in a second.

Once again, we see the development of an us/them dichotomy between the blog superstars and the common masses toiling away in relative obscurity, and, once again, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to differentiate the two groups in terms of quality of output — there is no clear reason why, for instance, Matt Yglesias should be given a prominent place at The Atlantic and someone like Amanda Marcotte or Jim Henley or Radley Balko isn’t, at least not on the basis of the quality of their commentary — just as there was no clear reason why Jason Kottke and Meg Hourihan were elevated to the status of blogstars in their day. (I suspect that the real reason has to do with comfort levels: Radley and Jim and Amanda all suffer from fairly advanced cases of Stickittothemaniosis.) The qualifications Brian/Ezra/Sommer/Matt/Alex/Garance/Megan bring to the table — an Ivy League degree, connections, and an Establishment Media gig — seem to be more fungible and even less impressive than the qualifications the Original A-List possessed; at least Hourihan could, by working at Pyra, claim to have played some role in the development of the medium she would ultimately represent in the pages of the New Yorker. I’m not sure you could make the same argument for McArdle and her merry band.

Clark again, with his own emphasis:

I would be less inclined to complain if I were able to share in the Internet bounty in even the most trivial way. None of us Webloggers is particularly wealthy; few of us became dot-com millionaires. It’s just that everyone but me gets to make a living. It bugs me that the A-list kids are not really any smarter, or any better at Web design, or have anything particularly better to say than so many of the plebes. Their fame is inexplicable, but famous they are – and able to keep their heads above water. It’s the combination I resent.

Elizabeth Taylor was at least beautiful and could act, when not knocking back the sauce and buying diamonds by the barrel. What causes an anointed cadre of objectively undifferentiable Webloggers to be viewed as demigods escapes me. And it does in fact chafe against my egalitarian instincts. Many of us are as good as they are.

What’s worse this time around — and the big difference between this A-List and the last A-List — is the degree of incestuousness. It’s truly shocking. These kids all come from the same part of the world, have roughly the same educational background, have the same upbringing, have worked at the same places, and essentially think the same way on every given topic. Again, we’ve seen this before — Jason would link to Meg who would link to Robert who would link to Dave, and round and round we went, and it was rare to find one who disagreed with the others. Which was creepy enough, but ultimately harmless when the topic of discussion was blogging itself, or Web standards, or whatever. Now, however, we’re turning to blogs as an alternative to traditional media, to discuss issues of vital importance, and we’re still seeing mass agreement and bland traditionalism. Because the New Media Mob hang out together and work together — because, as Garance says, it’s a cocktail party with the same 50 people over and over again. This isn’t good. It suppresses minority and radical viewpoints, the same viewpoints that desperately need to be heard — the same ones that, paradoxically, the Internet and the blog revolution was supposed to promote. That bland conformity was bad enough when it was on the editorial pages of the major daily newspapers, but the blogosphere was supposed to be the antidote to that. Instead of competing with Maureen Dowd, we have a group of writers working hard to be the next Maureen Dowd. And they’re not even interesting Maureen Dowds.

How is this helping, again?

Circumvention technology

I bought a Lexmark E210 printer a few years ago, before it became readily apparent what a bunch of bozos they are. It doesn’t really matter to me whether they won the case or not; the fact that they’d go to those lengths to stop consumers from using third-party products in their printers was pathetic in and of itself. Regardless of the dickheadedness of their behavior, I was still stuck with this printer which takes insanely expensive toner cartridges.

The E210 is basically a re-badged Samsung ML 1210 laser printer. It’s logical to assume that the ML 1210 toner cartridges would fit in the E210, right? Wrong! They don’t! Buying an approved Lexmark toner cartridge costs $128.95 at my local Staples; the Samsung cartridge is $78.95. Did I mention the Samsung cartridges are good for another 500 pages? Yeah, they are.

It turns out the reason they don’t fit is about a half-inch of plastic on the toner cartridge itself, and that fixing this problem is ridiculously simple. It took ten minutes, five of which were spent looking for a screwdriver. (I did a major cleaning around here recently, and as a result, I cannot find anything.) The instructions actually overstate things a bit; you don’t really need to remove the rear cover, though if you do the front cover probably goes on a bit more easily.

I mention all of this merely to wonder idly at the logic of some companies. Lexmark re-badged and re-branded a Samsung product, mostly by slapping a different plastic case over the insides, but in order to justify having a Lexmark label on the printer, they added about $0.03 of material (I figure $0.02 for the aluminum bracket and $0.01 for the screw), jacked the cost of the toner cartridge up by almost $50, and made it so it doesn’t last as long. Their entire revenue strategy seems to involve fleecing the consumer on the back end, though to be fair this isn’t something that’s restricted to Lexmark since most printer manufacturers do exactly the same thing. There seems to be something slightly awry here, something vaguely unethical or immoral, yet I can’t quite put my finger on it. I don’t know why companies have to behave like this — is fucking over your customers ever a good idea?

When I discovered this, I was all set to go on a self-righteous rant about it, but then I realized that by removing this tab and converting my printer to use the cheap cartridges, I’ve done something better than ranting: I’ve cost Lexmark money. Granted, it’s not very much money, and I doubt they really care that some people who bought E210s are opening them up and getting around their very crude technology, but as a method for sticking it to the man this is hard to beat, and it’s a lot more satisfying than merely complaining on the Internet — it puts money back in my pocket, and it’s an act of defiance. Yay!