Harrison Bergeron as the personification of the internet child

Where's your free will at?When I was in Mr. Duffy’s high school English class, he assigned a short story that altered the course of my life forever. Harrison Bergeron it was called, written in 1961 by a witty old fart, Kurt Vonnegut.

You see, at the time, I had been growing increasingly skeptical about whether any of my peers had free will. It concerned me that it seemed somehow that I was the only one in my whole high school who could manage an original thought in his head.
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Redesigns run amok!

A number of sites have redesigned lately including CivicSpace, SvN and VersionTracker. Do I smell a trend?

CivicSpace redesign
Well, if you haven’t seen it yet, we went live with the beta of the new CivicSpace redesign. I’ve had this on my plate since last fall, but only now after the logo has more or less been finalized (and business cards printed) did I feel ready to proceed with the site’s design.

…that and Zack and Andrew are touring the country this month going to various conferences and the old site just couldn’t be kept up any longer without seriously soiling our burgeoning reputation.

So within one week of returning from Belgium, CivicSpace got a brand new site thanks to the perserverence, determination and abandonment of sleep by members of CivicSpace and Music for America (watch for their redesign coming up soon).

Now what’s interesting to me is that on the same day that we go public with our redesign, I spot two other significant redesigns. Coincidence or serendipity?

SvN redesign

VersionTracker redesign

Well, I’m going to stick with the latter, though that’s certainly not a scientific observation.

And while we’re discussing redesigns… how about the “new” RSS icons? Is this variation a good thing? Do we need to stick to one look (besides just orange)? I’m all about moving away from the RSS mini-buttons but are we moving forward in a sensible way?

RSS Specimens

Bah! Here’s a picture of me doing my thing care of Miss Chang.

Networks in cities and fungi

Mushroom CongestionBala Pillai posted this to the Minciu Sodas mailing list… brilliant:

This is such a great example that I need to quote the entire thing. MeshForum wants contributions from people who have looked into this kind of thing. Monkeymagic: Traffic, Congestion and Information Flows

This is exciting from the New Scientist: apparently New roads can cause congestion. [via 3quarks daily]

Traffic should flow best in cities when only a limited number of roads lead to the centre. This counter-intuitive finding could allow planners to prevent gridlock by closing roads rather than building new ones.

It comes from a new way of thinking about complex networks developed by Neil Johnson, Douglas Ashton and Timothy Jarrett at the University of Oxford, UK.

Fascinatingly, the article goes on to say:

The same process of analysing the costs associated with moving across a network could help solve a long-standing problem in biology: why some natural networks are centralised like cities, whereas others are decentralised like the internet.

“Organisms such as fungi have managed to evolve a complex network in which there are centralised and decentralised pathways to move nutrients around,” Johnson says. “Now we can look at biological systems in terms of the ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ of the connections rather than in terms of the physical structures themselves,” he says.

The ACLU takes aim at Rumsfeld

ACLU takes on Rumsfeld I’ve been a card-carrying member of the ACLU for the past three years, having done a volunteer stint as the Chief Geek and co-captain of the volunteer Legal Observers Program at the ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter.

In all that time, it amazed me how much the organization did for people of all walks of life, whether their grievance against the government was legitimate or simply some half-baked theory stemming from a misunderstanding of what one’s constitutional rights really are.

I am very proud of the volunteering that I did and proud to be a part of an organization that is willing to do the unpopular thing when it’s the right thing to do.

With the ACLU taking aim at Donald Rumsfeld, I am again proud that I renewed my membership and with my dues, are going after the root source of a truly grave threat to society.

Though I highly doubt that this decision will turn into a popular one, it is still the right thing to do, and one that not many organizations are in the position to take on.

If you holistically examine the policies of this government, you begin to notice patterns… patterns that suggest that the torture abuses that happened in Iraq were merely the tip of the iceberg. Those incidents in Iraq was not the result of misbehavior of a few soldiers (as the government would like us all to believe), but rather a widespread assualt against any principle of law that might curtail the presumed efficacy of military-style investigations.

One need only to contemplate the similarities between the abuses at Guantanamo with the acts of torture perpetrated halfway around the world to realize that the justice department no longer practices nor preaches anything of the sort. And what with the confirmation of a living torture-apologist, it is quite apparent that the rule of law has been turned into an optional set of guideliness in campaign against “terror” that has blantantly gone awry.

If these remote incidents don’t suade you, consider the plight of Canadian Maher Arar and you’ll realize that Rumsfeld and Ashcroft (and now Gonzales) have followed a broken moral compass, leading moral decay of services that perhaps once were regarded with integrity.

Now it looks like it will take the ACLU to fight for the honor and dignity of the military and justice departments that Rumseld and co. have so brazenly dispensed with.

On designing the CivicSpace logo

CivicSpace LogoIf you haven’t seen it, the latest logo for CivicSpace is an aggressive, don’t-mess-with-us symbol of the new politics. The logotype is a mix between Neutraface Heavy and the wonderful handmade type of Michael Schwab. It’s bold, unique and classic. It’s also intentionally a throwback to 40s-style poster lettering, to invoke a sense of old-world patriotism found in WWII US propaganda.

The graphic elements are obviously stars and stripes, as the predominant leaning of CivicSpace has been towards the overtly political. After all, DeanSpace started out with the Howard Dean campaign, and we see a large number of our users directing the power of CivicSpace to grassroots political campaigns. To that typically American audience, we need to communicate strength, power, innovation and simplicity. The use of the stars and stripes are intended to communicate those qualities, despite the fact that to most folks outside the continent, those same symbols represent American hegemony, imperialism and all that’s so ugly about the United States.

The actual triangular design of the stripes and the detached stars have a greater symbolic meaning than the connotations I sought to invoke. In fact, my intention was to represent the kids in Eminem’s prolific Mosh video… rising up together against a political machine that has made their votes irrelevant and their ideas seem even less valued.

Each star represents a head; the stripe a body. And the triangular shape indicates perspective – that this grassroots “army” is made up of thousands of individuals – as far as the eye can see.

But just because my intention was to communicate these things through my design doesn’t mean that I was successful. Nor does it mean that I think that the current design is final or that I’ve even captured what CivicSpace really means to me yet.

In fact, I still feel like I need to find some way of communicating “grassroots”, “community”, “social networking”, “friendliness”, “ease of use”, and in general, more feminine attributes like “hope” and “inclusivity”. Already, the designs I’ve done for the CivicSpace homepage have started out overly masculine and only when I pulled away from the logo did I start to reveal something much more friendly, feminine and closer to what I actually envision using for the final design.

So after getting additional feedback last from some European and Canadian Drupalites, I’m considering yet another return to the drawing board – perhaps even returning to a prior design. The CivicSpace identity remains elusive and I’m not quite sure what’s going to bring about the kind of finality that I’m so ready for.

Better customer support for CivicSpace

I propose an improved model of software support based on community participation and an integrated support interface.

CivicSpace IconI had a thought this morning while talking to my roommates about the meager help system in CivicSpace. It so happened that we weren’t even talking about CivicSpace, but after the FLOSS Sprint this past weekend, my mind has been circling around ways for making web interfaces not only more usable but simultaneously more helpful.

More specifically, the standard help menu in any software, at least for me, is fairly worthless. It requires a massive investment on the part of the user in terms of time spent searching and reading. And generally, help ROI is quite low, meaning that for the amount of effort I put in to searching, reading and forum-browsing, I rarely get out in support what I put in.

Help is hard

Why is this? Because help is hard.

Help is both hard to write from the developer perspective and it’s hard to know what you’re looking for as a user. Terminology gets in the way as do the various mental models that people use to understand what software is or what it can do.

Therefore, in order for help to be truly helpful, help should not only be presented in a sensible, digestible format, but it should be timely, accurate, contextual and convenient and accommodate the different ways that people might conceptualize the support that they need.

To that particular end, I think that support systems should become more social in nature, providing direct access to communities and networks that can understand and cope with vague, non-descriptive or otherwise unclear assessments of someone’s needs. I propose that CivicSpace adopt a social model of support that increasing reliance on and participation in the greater CivicSpace community. Gmail seems to get this, although they’ve minimized its presence on the help page:

Gmail Groups Help

Support by RSS

So in addition to encouraging more community interaction for support, I also suggest that we tie actual help requests or bug reports into a CivicSpace user’s remote account in order to bring the history of support inquiries into a familiar and convenient environment. As it is now, the Help menu that CivicSpace ships with is all but completely useless for most of our users. You get a handbook for the installed modules and a glossary of terms… ok, not worthless, but certainly not helpful. What would be better, I think, is a menu like this:

New Help Menu

Granted, this is just a quick mockup, I think that it begins to bring the support process more in line with user needs and provides it in situ rather than externally, like bugzilla or the current CivicSpace Issue Tracker. With this kind of system, I imagine that clicking on the main Help menu would return a page with a special search field along with RSS feeds of your recent support tickets, of community support requests and updates of any support communications you’ve recently made.

So now that I’ve outlined this big idea, I wonder if anyone has any additional suggestions or comments on how my thinking could be improved or made to be more in line with your support needs?

Standalone IE7 destined for WinXP+ only

It turns out that Microsoft’s next point release of Internet Explorer will only be viable on machines running Windows XP or greater.

IE7?It turns out that Microsoft’s next point release of Internet Explorer will only be viable on machines running Windows XP or greater.

From a web development standpoint, this seems to be the primary argument against tying your browser to your operating system. Think about it: when IE7 hits, all of web developers are going to have learn all the new bugs that are sure to come with the updated version. As it is, we have a good dozen or more browsers to deal with. Add to that having to code for Windows 2000 and WinXP+ and Longhorn separately and you can see the size of the problem.

So it is rather significant news that Microsoft has decided to decouple IE7 from Longhorn and release it for WinXP. This cuts down the number of different operating systems to design for by one, and suggests that Firefox is indeed affecting the 800-lb gorilla’s strategy.

Because Longhorn is to WinXP what OS X was to OS 9, the upgrade process is going to be painful for more than just old Windows 2000 users. It’s also going to hurt for web developers who have become savvy to IE6’s standards support shortcomings and learned how to get around them. Adding a new browser to the mix is going to create a slew of new challenges; and just when you thought the world was getting safer for web design, Microsoft has decided to go and bust up our party.

Time to brush up on the new box models hacks. <Sigh>

The death of a software developer

It was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of a very excellent person and software developer… someone who I had never even met but with whom I had exchanged a few brief emails about regarding his iTunes software project, which he called Sofa.

Sofa ImageIt was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of a very excellent person and software developer… someone who I had never even met but with whom I had exchanged a few brief emails about regarding his iTunes software project, which he called Sofa.

What strikes me as so unfortunate and sad about this passing is… well I don’t know really. I guess that this is the first time I’ve ever experienced an “internet death” I guess. I mean, I knew Cédric through his work, through interacting with him on his forums… talking about his project, beta testing his software. I didn’t know him “offline”. I didn’t know what he looked like, how he talked — I only knew he spoke French.

But yet, when I received the mass email from his family, I was really taken aback. In broken English, they informed the huge community that knew Cédric that he had taken his life:

the Cédric Menard’s family and their friends have the terrible dirty of informing you that Cédric has left our world. He gave death to himself on sunday the 13th of february 2005 at 6:30 a.m Please, have a friendly thought to him………..

And because it was so raw and terse… so unexpected and yet so authentic — I couldn’t help but feel instantly involved, like a part of a great extended family to whom Cédric’s passing is indeed a tragedy. And indeed it is…

Au revoir, Cédric Menard, et adieu.

Civil libertarians should get hip to personal data harvesting

Despite my tonqe-in-cheek title, I wanted to take a moment to respond to this article, because, though it is likely well-intentioned and in fact rather truthful, it glosses over a more important discussion that should be going on.

Despite my tonqe-in-cheek title, I wanted to take a moment to respond to this article, because, though it is likely well-intentioned and in fact rather truthful, it glosses over a more important discussion that should be going on.

Whether anonymous Internet usage will ever exist is not important. What is important is that companies become aware that Internet activity is easy to monitor from a variety of locations, even when data encryption is in use.

In context:

There are several jokes and cartoons out there that play on the idea of the “anonymous” Web, an Internet where you can be whatever and whoever you want. Most mainstream computer users willingly buy into this concept, deceived by the ability to adopt cryptic usernames and e-mail addresses.

Anonymous Internet usage is an appealing concept to many people, but whether it’s actually possible is a different matter. Generally speaking, it’s relatively simple to intercept–and at the least, monitor–the transmission of digital information.

Every time you transmit data from a computer to or from somewhere else using the Internet, literally dozens of places can exist that are monitoring the transmission. Clear-text protocols offer no built-in protection from eavesdropping. In addition, the transmission leaves traces of “evidence” on your computer–regardless of if you use data encryption or one of those software “evidence eliminator” packages.

An anonymous Internet, if such a thing existed, would be immune to eavesdropping entirely, and it would have no record of a communication ever existing. Anonymous Internet usage is like a “cash” form of communication: It would leave no traceable evidence.

In certain countries, the government restricts and/or controls Internet use. For example, China has one of the most extensive Web proxy server and monitoring capabilities in the world, aptly dubbed the “Great Firewall of China.”

The Chinese government controls, monitors, and censors Internet access at will. Dissidents and those opposed to the Chinese government, including other governments, constantly try to bypass the censors, but the Great Firewall soon discovers and blocks these noncensored “anonymous” proxy servers.

So it’s understandable why some people see the benefits in leaving no traces of any communication, especially when there’s a fear of reprisal from a government or other organizations. It would be as if the transmission never happened. There’s no record of it ever occurring, and therefore it doesn’t exist.

But, however appealing this concept may be to some, the fact remains that it isn’t realistic. Companies and individuals alike need to be aware that there really is no such thing as anonymous Internet usage. If someone wants to determine what a computer is doing on the Internet, there’s always a trail to follow.

Computer users leave traces of information with almost every data transmission. In fact, an entire computer subindustry has evolved to deal with removing these traces of information, but these companies can only remove what’s on a computer. There are so many other points that can record the “digital footprints” of Internet activity that it’s impossible to completely guarantee anonymity.

Whether anonymous Internet usage will ever exist is not important. What is important is that companies become aware that Internet activity is easy to monitor from a variety of locations, even when data encryption is in use.

Jonathan Yarden is the senior UNIX system administrator, network security manager, and senior software architect for a regional ISP.

If we take the author’s premise as a given (that anonymous internet usage will never ever exist), then the important discussion to have is what information should be collected about you, and if collected, who has control over it and what can you, as the source of that information, do to control its use, administration and distribution?

If one persists with a blanket notion that personal information collected about one’s behavior on the internet is bad, the future will be very difficult to cope with. The fact is that more and more companies, big and small, are amassing huge databases of information about people. Frankly, if you’re really concerned about this kind of thing, you should stop using your ATM and credit cards because as it is now, it’s easier to track your behavior through your purchases than through your web browser.

But that is going to change. And the dangers are such that, unless a cogent counter-argument is made that fairly deals with the benefits that come with the harvesting of this data, it will be increasingly difficult to take back control or change corporate policies once they’re instated (as with a civil liberty lost is nearly impossible to get back).

So what am I driving at? Well, I think that a more realistic and proactive attitude is needed from the civil libertarian camp that shows its understanding of the value in this kind of data. I also think that a more nuanced attitude towards privacy is desperately needed because all or nothing is not going to cut it as technology gets simpler and better at collecting information about you. I also believe that civil libertarians can benefit from this kind of data collection in ways that I don’t think have been realized. Once we start to see data collection as a strategic tool rather than as an invasion of our private space, we may indeed become powerful enough to take back control over our data.

Flickr built my hotrod

It strikes me that my late entry into the written blogosphere has to do with two primary issues:

  • First, that I’ve been hyper-sensitive to my potential audience (which, I admit, will probably only ever hover around one or two lost souls per month).
  • And second, which is actually of more interest to me: that I haven’t felt confident with any of the blogging tools that have been available… thus far.

My Flickr HotrodAnd I’m not talking about WordPress (though the 1.5 nightly I’m running is admittedly the best blogging tool I’ve seen so far). Rather, I’m talking about Flickr.

Flickr is a phenomenon of the highest order. Its popularity, reputation and user dedication surely make other photo sharing sites drool. But while that’s interesting as well, what’s most significant about my use of Flickr is that it’s responsible for getting me to start this blog!

How’s that you ask? Well, it’s simple. I would posit that my Flickr page served as my first real blog; this site is merely a supplement to it, like directors’ interviews on DVDs.

Though that may change over time, I felt compelled to get this blog up to explain in greater detail the ideas, images and concepts that I’ve been posting on Flickr! There may be fewer words, for all intents and purposes, my first entry into “visual blogging” took place on Flickr.

That it is so simple to post to Flickr (using drag n’ drop tools like 1001) encouraged me to be very free with expressing my ideas at various stages of refinement. So despite the fact that I’ve dreamed of writing a blog for a long time, I’ve not done so for fear of publishing incomplete ideas… to my relief, my experience with Flickr changes all that!

Now all I need to do is get better at expressing myself in words as well and as efficiently as I do in images! <<sigh>>