Friday, December 21, 2007

Holidays are upon us

The holidays are almost upon us, and that means I'm going to be paying less attention to Wikipedia and Wikimedia for a few days while I enjoy some time with friends and family. Don't expect any new posts for a while. There'll be new stuff in the new year, though. I can't imagine that the drama will abate just because it's Christmas.

Seasons greetings to all (even you, Jimbo), and to all a good night!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

On Cade Metz

A few people have mentioned that Cade Metz, a reporter from the Register, has been contacting Wikipedians and asking them questions. Apparently he's mentioned that he keeps his sources confidential and is giving me as a reference. At least one person has suggested that there is some irony here ("I don't reveal my sources, just ask my source, [name]"). There is not, as he has permission to list me as a source.

I have given Cade two telephone interviews, and we have exchanged a number of emails. Cade has been fastidiously honorable in his reporting; he has been careful to quote me accurately and has not attributed to me any statement which I have not given him permission to do so. He has done nothing to abuse my trust, and I feel safe that he can be trusted.

Oops!

So, for all of you who weren't yet convinced that Jayjg and company use email to coordinate their actions, this email (to the WikiEN-l public mailing list) should leave very little doubt.... Jay acknowledges sending the email here. Inquiring minds want to know, Jay: what secret mailing list were you sending that to, and who was on it? Oh, wait. A little bird just tweeted in my ear to tell me that the other people were Avi <aviwiki@gmail.com>, Pinchas Cohen <PinchasC@gmail.com>, Beit Or <beitor06@gmail.com>, and Humus Sapiens <humus.sapiens@gmail.com>. And presumably, one other person, who is right next to "English Wikipedia" on your contact list, eh, Jay?

Anyone with any doubt that Jay is one of a "cabal" of editors who seek to control the content and tone of articles about Judaism needs to put that doubt to rest, now. Wikipedia's articles about Judaism are embarrassingly biased, and Jay's convenient little slip-up is just the smoking gun that proves it.

Jay, I reiterate my call from August: Please leave. When I recently wrote that Wikipedia should "get rid of people who are using Wikipedia as a battleground for their personal wars", you were one of the people I was thinking of.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Foundation's budget

I commented just the other day on how the Foundation seems likely to fall short of its budget with the way the current fundraiser is going. I did some poking around, and actually this year's fundraising is pretty much on par with last year's: in the first 31 days of the fundraiser this year, Wikimedia raised $797,418.54. In the 31 days of last year's fundraiser, Wikimedia raised $983,058.43, but $286,800 of that was in the form of a single large anonymous donation. If you consider funds raised from the community only (and not the extraordinary donation) fundraising this year slightly outperformed last year. Given the declining economic conditions, especially in the United States, this is actually quite good. (Quite frankly, if people have a choice between giving to their local food bank and to Wikimedia, please give to the food bank. A website does no good to someone who is starving.)

And, it's probably also enough. Yes, it's well short of the $4.6 million that is budgeted for the upcoming year, and it's even well short of the 2.5 million that is allocated to "technology". But that number is larger than is absolutely required; it includes significant expenses for hardware replacement and expansion that could, if necessary, be deferred. A more realistic number for the absolute minimum required to provide the core services is about $1 million, although that number probably entails some reduction in service quality. With over $800,000 down from the fundraiser, it seems reasonable that ongoing base ratea donations will net the remaining amounts to meet core services over the next year. So while the situation certainly is not rosy, it's not dire either. The Foundation can continue its core mission, although perhaps with some compromise of quality of service.

On one condition: it must not squander money on extravagances that are outside that core mission. I've seen lots of talk from people about the "educational opportunities" that have been passed by. And the simple fact is that now is not the time to go chasing them. The Foundation still doesn't have the infrastructure to be looking to expand its scope of operations. It still needs to build a solid infrastructure to support its core mission (publishing Wikipedia and its sister projects) before it tackles other lines of activity. And it still needs to develop a stable, coherent system of community-based governance. Until such time as Wikimedia can complete an audit on time and without pain, it's not ready to do that. It's bad enough that the Foundation is already committed to an expensive cross-country move; that will absorb a lot of money that could otherwise be spent elsewhere.

And that's going to remain the case even if someone comes up with a bunch of "angel money" from somewhere. Setting aside issues related to the "public support test" (charities in the US aren't supposed to take more than 2% of their income from any one source), the governance just isn't there yet. In some ways, the two are related: the lack of governance is why the money isn't there yet. After all, it was a lack of governance that led to the books being in total disarray in the first place. Throwing money at the problem won't solve it; the culture has to change. And I don't see that it has yet; too many people have been actively trying to prevent the development of effective governance.

As to why that would be going on, I think I will wait until the next post.

Kicked out of the Wikicult

I suggested a while back that Wikipedia is turning into a cult. At least one other site has decided to run with this idea, although they seem mainly to be collecting links instead of actually putting up an argument for how Wikipedia is a cult. I got first-hand exposure to the cultic side of Wikipedia—or at least Wikimedia—yesterday. Apparently, my comments yesterday, specifically about the contents of Sue's email to the Wikimedia "internal" mailing list, triggered a very cultic response from Jimbo. Not only did Jimbo go around telling people that I'm a "liar" (without actually identifying what content in my post was a lie—behavior which induced at least one person I talked to be convinced that in fact what I was saying was completely true), but he also went to the members of that list and demanded that the person who leaked to me "voluntarily" come forward. (I asked Jimbo to explain why he called me a liar, but he did not reply to that email. He is, however, reading emails from me, as we will see below.)

Not long after Jimbo made his demand, I was notified of it—by at least three people. Jimbo's "plea" for the "leaker" to come forward is laced in moral condemnation for the malfeasor. He promised to keep the confessions confidential. Why he would make such a promise eludes me; clearly anyone who does come forward will be immediately struck from Jimbo's "trustworthy" list, which means that he or she will not be invited to join the "really internal" list that Sue has already proposed creating; this list would contain only "really trustworthy" people and formally require nondisclosure of its participants. Failure to come forward is painted as a grave moral offense: "Anything less is a moral offense against people who have trusted you." The whole approach and language used reminds me terribly much of the inner workings of some of the cults I studied back in the 90s, especially the use of the threat of withdrawal of the good will of the founder as an incentive to act against personal interest.

Upon hearing this, I decided to send Jimbo another email:
You're not going to get anywhere with your witchhunt. Multiple people leaked that email to me, including at least one person who, as far as I know, is not actually on the internal-l list. Even if you find one of the leaks, you'll have missed two or three more.

Internal-l leaks like a sieve. There's over 100 people on that list and lots of them feel free to share all sorts of information from it with others not on the list. This is nothing new.

All you will accomplish with this witchhunt is increase hostility, decrease trust, and hurt even more feelings than you have already. And people will still leak to me.
Jimbo's response was to forward my entire email, without comment, to the internal mailing list. In a normal environment, this would make no sense. In a cultic environment, however, it's perfectly reasonable: it serves to reinforce the need for immediate action and for the person who has sinned against the founder to come forth and confess his sin. Until the guilty party comes forward, all parties present are considered to share in that person's guilt, so the others would be strongly incented to identify the malfeasor and push him or her forward. Evidence that the leak is ongoing just amplifies the need for immediate compliance. Fortunately for Wikimedia (and for my plentitude of sources, as well as all the others in the community that rely on this unofficial channel to find out what is really going on in the Foundation), there are enough people on the internal list who haven't bought into Jimmy's cult, too many for Jimbo to credibly declare all of them untrustworthy. In a followup demand, Jimbo said, "I just want to understand who thinks that sending internal stuff to this person is a good idea... and why". The way he used "this person" just reeks of "disgusting slimeball that nobody in their right mind would talk to". It's quite obvious that Jimbo has declared me a "suppressive person" and is expecting others to act accordingly.

There's over 100 people on the Wikimedia "internal" mailing list. I've never been a subscriber, but I've been privy to a significant portion of its content, simply because people on it have felt that I had a need or right to know, for whatever purpose. I don't go asking for people to tell me what's going on there; people come to me unbidden and tell me. I'm not the only one, either; I often hear about internal goings on from people who, as far as I know, aren't on the internal list themselves. Wikimedia has a very powerful gossip engine, it would seem; small surprise, that. Ironically, the reason why there is so much unofficial communication like this going on is the gross lack of transparency in official communications from the Foundation. At this point, it should be glaringly obvious who is to blame for that, so I won't go to the trouble to actually say the name. The answer is left as an exercise to the reader.

Jimbo, just one parting request: can I please have a copy of my SP declare? I think it would go down in nice irony next to my Wikimania 2006 Speaker's badge. Too bad Wikimedia never issued membership cards.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The other shoe drops

As I'm sure you're all well-aware now, Erik Moeller has resigned his board membership in order to take up the role of "deputy director" of the Foundation. (See Erik's smarmy acceptance note here.)

This situation brings up a number of issues, but I think trying to talk about all of them in one blog post is a bad idea. So we'll drag this out over a few days, just so people don't get too confused. Let's start with process.

Deputy director? There was no listing on the Wikimedia Foundation wiki for this position. Apparently nobody, outside of Erik and Sue, knew that the Foundation was looking for a deputy director. My contacts in the Board tell me that the Board (except for Erik, and maybe Jimmy) was not aware that the Foundation was looking for a deputy director, and so far as far as I can find no specific authorization exists to hire for this role or to fund the position. The conclusion is that Sue has elected to staff this role herself and to fund it out of the Office of the Executive Director's budget, without consulting anyone except, presumably, Erik. This is perhaps within her discretion, but it certainly seems like a bad idea to go about this process in such a nontransparent way. Closed hiring processes are not a good way to comply with equal opportunity laws, and there are aspects of her announcement that raise at least yellow flags in the EOE sense. I also can't see how she can show compliance with immigration regulations; before she can hire Erik—who, as a German national, needs a work visa to work in the United States—she has to prove that she searched exhaustively for an American who could perform the role, and was unable to find one. With no public posting for the position, it beggars belief that she can honestly make the required affirmations for the visa application. Especially troubling was Sue's decision (as reportedly indicated in an email to the Foundation's "internal" mailing list) to make "preferably not an American" a qualification for this position; not only does that violate the Foundation's own EOE policy, but several aspects of the law as well. Earth to Mike Godwin? Hello? Are you listening?

There's also the appearance of impropriety issue. There's always inurement concerns when a nonpaid member of the board of a nonprofit organization is hired by that organization into a paid role, because there's the possibility that the board member influenced the decision to hire himself or herself, which would be an disallowed inurement under nonprofit law. In this case, I don't believe that Erik actually used his formal power as a Board member to influence the decision; as I stated above, the Board appears to not have been involved in the decision at all. However, there is still the appearance of impropriety, and given the Foundation's long history of playing hard and loose with such principles of governance, that's exactly not the sort of thing that the Foundation needs.

All in all, I find this entire episode remarkably ironic, given the near-total lack of transparency surrounding Moeller, who has run twice for the Board promising both times to increase transparency. I suspect the only reason the weight of all the irony hasn't crushed Erik outright is that his own ultraexpansive ego exactly counterbalances it.

Erik's departure does mean that the Board needs a new secretary. We can only hope that the new secretary will be more open about the Board's minutes. Perhaps now that our advocate for transparency is gone, we can actually get some transparency in the operation of the Foundation.

Update: I'm advised that the Foundation, as a "small employer", is not subject to EOE regulation, and that some of the immigration rules don't apply to them either. Doesn't change the fact that they have an internal policy that prohibits discriminatory behavior. So they're legal here -- just not terribly ethical.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Change is in the air

My sooper-sekret informers are all atwitter about a big change about to happen at the Foundation. Wouldn't it be great if Jimbo were announcing his resignation? But I have my doubts that'll be it. I can't imagine they'd be hiring someone; with the fundraiser basically run dry and way short of the expected goals there just isn't money to pay any more staff. I mean, they've budgeted five million and only raised a fraction of that; where do they think the rest of the money is going to come from? Angel investors?

The details should be out in the next day or so, or so I'm told. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Well, now we know....

Some time ago, I noted the rather quiet way in which Carolyn Doran was removed from the Foundation's roster. It seems we now know why, thanks to Cade Metz of the Register.

The only real question now is, how long before the Foundation rewrites history to claim that Carolyn Doran was never an employee?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Wikipedia's Al Qaeda

It's quite fascinating to watch how "cyberstalkers" has become Wikipedia's equivalent of George Bush's "terrorists". That there are terrorists out there, seeking to wreak havoc with American interests and Americans themselves, is without question. However (and here my liberal political streak is going to show), the Bush administration has used the excuse of "combating terrorism" to chuck so many of our supposedly cherished liberties out the window, predicated on the constantly renewed fear that if we don't do this, the terrorists will attack. In some sense, the administration has elected to, in part, destroy the Constitution in order to save the country founded upon it. The response has been (by my liberal standards, at least) both inappropriate and disproportionate: many of the measures have been poorly-calculated to deal with the problem and have restrained more legitimate activity than is required.

Wikipedia, too, has its "terrorists": so-called "cyberstalkers". These really do exist: there are a handful of very unpleasant people out there who have stalked and harassed Wikipedia editors. Some have done so to get revenge; others have been out of sheer malice; and yet others are likely grounded in mental illness. I know of at least one case where a very old USENET feud got extended into Wikipedia. And other cases seem to me to be cases where someone's obsession with their pet cause simply allows them to justify in their mind the use of "all possible measures" to defeat an opponent. There aren't all that many cases of this happening. Many of the cases are actually serial offenses by the same person. The problem is that the response to these events has, likewise, been both inappropriate and disproportionate.

Initiallly, Wikipedia did at least a semblance of the right thing: the individuals in question were as formally disinvited from Wikipedia as Wikipedia's informal culture of governance allows, and the Foundation turned over to the appropriate authorities such information as it had for those authorities to use in the appropriate criminal investigations. However, Wikipedia didn't go far enough. It failed to warn its members of the inherent risks of editing an online encyclopedia (especially one that contains articles about living people), nor did it establish and enforce policies that would limit risk or curtail known existing risks. The Foundation also failed to take the appropriate actions that would have allowed the direct filing of criminal charges against the stalkers. Hadthe Foundation formally notified a stalker that he or she was denied permission to access Wikipedia, the Foundation could then press charges for computer trespass against the stalker when he or she subsequently accessed the site. Such charges would give the authorities leverage to put the perp away; proving that case is far easier than proving the much harder stalking or harassment case -- especially when the victim refuses to personally identify himself or herself to authorities.

Instead of actually dealing with the stalking problem by taking steps to reduce exposure (by strictly enforcing Wikipedia's existing policy regarding biographies of living people and its existing policy of forcefully ejecting those use Wikipedia as a battleground for outside disputes), Wikipedia instead established its own investigative office, where they basically sanctioned the stalking of people they identified as stalkers. In seeking to destroy this perceived enemy, Wikipedia became one as with it. In so doing, they destroyed the collaborative environment and the assumption of trust that Wikipedia was founded upon. Just as George Bush has done with the Constitution, Wikipedia's leadership chose to sacrifice the core principles of the encyclopedia project in order to save the community that was founded to create it.

And just as George Bush cries that "we cannot be soft on terrorists" anytime someone talks about rolling back one of the restrictions on civil liberties imposed in the name of fighting terrorists, the counterstalking crowd whimpers about blaming the victim and generally invokes "rape victim" imagery whenever someone objects to their investigative strategies. As someone who has been a victim both of rape and of "wikistalking", I assure you that there is rather little in common, and I'm quite offended at the ready willingness that some of the counterstalking crowd has to make that parallel.

The real solution? Several steps are needed. First, get rid of people who are using Wikipedia as a battleground for their personal wars. Wikipedia is overrun by editors who will stop at nothing to win their point of view battles. We've seen this most strongly in people editing to push jingoistic points of view, mainly with regard to Eastern European nationalism, but I've also seen it with regard to animal rights issues, nuclear energy, global warming, creationism, Zionism, and really all sorts of other highly controversial topics.

Second, strictly enforce the "biography of living people" policy. It is my impression that the majority of cyberstalking incidents have been the result of the subject of an article being extremely upset about the article. Put plainly, there are enough people out there who will react poorly to being written about that once in a while bad things will happen. There are enough other good reasons to tightly control articles about living persons anyway that this is just a pleasant side benefit of a responsible editorial policy.

Third, clearly warn editors that their actions are not without consequence. Editors who edit articles about controversial topics, and especially about controversial people, need to be warned in no uncertain terms that their activities may draw attention to them, attention that they do not want. While it would be nice if the Foundation could "protect" editors in such cases, in reality it cannot, and pleas for the Foundation, or the community, to do so are misplaced.

Fourth, make it clear to editors who wish to remain anonymous that it is their responsibility—and theirs alone—to protect their anonymity. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to remain fully anonymous on the Internet in general. This is doubly true with respect to a project like Wikipedia, where reputation is so important. It is possible to establish and maintain an anonymous reputation, but doing so is very difficult because the sort of activities that help to build one's reputation are exactly the same activities that tend to reveal information about oneself that might lead to being deanonymized. Furthermore, anonymity is like virginity: once lost, you cannot get it back; the only option after a disclosure is to disappear and start over. The community is justified in making rules for its own members that prohibit efforts to reveal another member's identity, but they cannot expect those outside the community to observe those rules, and they certainly cannot hope to stuff the genie back in the bottle once it escapes. Losing your anonymity is distressing, but it's not nearly so bad as being raped (trust me, I know). Editors who seek leadership roles should be especially warned that their anonymity is likely to come under attack; Wikipedia is a very prominent website, one which draws both media and legal attention, and it is simply human nature to attempt to identify prominent anonymous people.

Fifth, absolutely stop all vigilante stalking actions. Editors who edit nondisruptively must be allowed to do so unhindered. Editors who edit disruptively should be dealt with fairly and appropriately. The key must be the behavior, not the perceived identity of the editor—and not whether the editor "appears to be too experience" but rather whether the editor is actually causing real problems. One of the unfortunate consequences of counterstalking is that it has made it very difficult for an editor who is actually being stalked to abandon their identity and start a new one, because the counterstalking people are likely to latch onto the disappeared editor's new identity as a "possible stalker" and investigate it, which merely repeats whatever injury led the editor to disappear in the first place. (This is exactly what happened with !!.) If an editor does, in fact, engage in behavior which qualifies as harassment or as stalking by a reasonably objective standard, ban the editor and turn their information over to law enforcement. Until that threshhold is reached, leave them alone and let them edit. (Even if they edit badly. Lots of Wikipedia's editors edit badly.) Oh, and for the record, mere disagreement over a policy, no matter how spirited, is not stalking. Neither is being rude. Neither is calling someone names, even vile names (although that might be harassment). It's not stalking until you get to the level of publishing information that one would normally expect to be private.

The main key in all this is to stop treating stalkers the same way George Bush treats terrorists. Wikipedia won't work if it turns into a police state. Or a cult, which is the other thing I think Wikipedia is very much in danger of turning into—but that'll have to be a followup article, I think.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Durova takes the dramatic low road

Not quite two weeks ago, I commented on what Durova would do now that she's no longer an admin. I left open the possibility that she would go troll, but thought it was unlikely. Well, it seems I was wrong. In the two weeks since her desysop, Durova has done her damndest to create maximal drama. She has, to date:
In the case of Angela's article (which has been proposed for deletion several times before), Angela is capable of asking plenty of people besides Durova to nominate it for deletion, or even doing it herself. The same can be said for this anonymous Harvard student, who could have turned to any of several hundred other admins for the same service.

It is plainly obvious to me that Durova is seeking attention -- that is, trolling. It does seem that she is attempting to make herself seem important ("I receive communications from Angela Beesley as well as important Harvard students"). Her choice to go public on the request for Brandt's article was clearly drama-seeking; she could have easily gone to any of a number of people (say, Guy Chapman, who is still an admin last I checked) to obtain the deleted revisions for this anonymous individual privately, which would have served the needs of this "friend" without any of the drama. I suppose she could argue that her choice to make the request publicly is respecting "transparency", but I believe the real reason is to create drama.

Add to this her very dramatic publication of a satirical sockpuppet report, and it's all very clear that she's going for maximum drama. Good show, dear; I didn't think you had it in you.

An unanswered question (and one that I don't expect will be answered) is what Angela's role in the deletion request really was. Did Angela really ask Durova? Was the deletion request Angela's idea, or Durova's? Does Angela really think that this was a good idea? Is Angela trying to help rehabilitate Durova's image? If so, why?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Register disses Wikipedia, this time with class

I was interviewed last week by a reporter from the Register about this whole Durova thing. The article is out now. It's actually a pretty good read; the Register has a history of, um, poor coverage of Wikipedia and I was a bit hesitant to do the interview at first, but I'm glad that I did. (I'm sure the dedicated Wikipedians are all slamming it; they have to. It's required as part of maintaining their culture of identified external enemies.)

Slashdot ("we haven't broken a new story since 1997!") has, of course, an article about the Register article. Normally I don't read Slashdot, but just this once I did. Most of the comments are crap, of course, but this one was actually insightful:
Most of us have some idea that there is a class of people who, to a varying degree, want to be part of an "in group". To create an in group you also have to create an out group. Then you differentiate the in group and the out group, ascribe exaggerated virtue to the in group and look for scapegoats in the out group. You do this because in this way you focus power into the in group. It's essential to have secret, restricted means of communication between in group members.

These people will of course seek to infiltrate and take over any organization perceived as having any kind of power, whether it is over ideas, money or people. That's because, after all, this is what they are after.

It makes no difference whether it is religion, politics or an Internet encyclopedia, offer an entry for the people with psychopathic tendencies and they will come. The rant quoted in the Register article is simply typical of the breed.

To get people to do moderation work unpaid, you have to offer them something. That something is described above -a small amount of power and the feeling of being in an in-group and privy to secret knowledge. Depressingly, what I conclude from this is that the only real answer is to pay people and have competition. Payment offers rewards to people who do not care about power or exclusivity. Competition means that disgruntled customers and competitors go elsewhere, i.e. they can escape from an abusive in group. What Wikipedia needs is a commercial model and competition. That way, the psychopaths and compulsive neurotics are unlikely to take over the shop (and the ones on the staff can waste their energy litigating, which seems to be the main way we keep psychopaths out of trouble in the English speaking world.)

I don't know who Kupfernigk is, but he (or she) is spot on here. Unfortunately, he doesn't offer a viable solution to the problem. That's been my problem, too: I can readily see that there's a problem (unlike so many Wikipedians, who insist that all is well in Wikiland despite evidence to the contrary) but I have no idea what the solution is. (Well, actually, I have some ideas for solutions, but no idea how to make them happen. The power dynamics of Wikipedia are really deeply entrenched.) What I do know is that the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge that it exists. So far, Wikipedia refuses to do that. Until it does, there will be no improvement.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Is the sleuthing still going on, even after all this?

I'm hearing a rumor that someone was blocked on Wikipedia simply because they showed up on IRC with a username that someone else didn't like. That doesn't seem like a very good idea to me....

Open Letter to SlimVirgin

Dear SlimVirgin (no, I won't use your real name; we all know what it is anyway):

I've sent you a couple of private emails previously, but your really quite lunatic rantings on Wikipedia deserve a public reply as well. So, here we go:
  1. I have never tried to out another arbitrator on my blog. In fact, I have never tried to out anyone. This is defamatory, but as you are not a credible person it's not actionable.
  2. As far as I can recall I've never published on my blog any information that came to me directly from someone on the ArbCom that I didn't confirm by another source first. Any information in my blog that you think I got from the ArbCom I actually got from some other source. Wikipedia leaks like a sponge; I sometimes hear the same rumor from three or four sources. (No, I will not identify my sources.) The closest I've come to revealing information from ArbCom was to discuss my own reactions upon rereading an email from a former arbitrator on the ArbCom's lists. I don't believe that discussing my own reactions to an email is the same as revealing the email.
  3. I still haven't seen Durova's screed against !! (nor do I particularly care to; I've seen summaries of it from people who I have no reason to distrust that are more than sufficient to satisfy my curiosity), but I do have a very good idea who leaked it outside your circle of security. That person is not on the Arbitration Committee. There are people close to you who you evidently cannot trust, and those people are not on the Arbitration Committee.
Krimpet is correct: it is time for you to resign. Your paranoia is, here, being brought to bear on the collegial attitude of the Arbitration Committee. I speak from experience: being an Arbitrator is not easy. Your attempt to drive wedges between the Arbitrators by heinously accusing James of being untrustworthy is disgusting. Wikipedia relies on a collegial attitude founded in trust to meet its purpose. Wikipedia relies on having processes that are as transparent as possible. Your nonstop efforts to destroy that fundamental trust, and to build barriers to transparency, are vile and inexcuseable. If you cannot trust your fellow Wikipedians, then you should leave. If you refuse to leave, and persist in this toxic and destructive behavior, then the only reasonable option left to Wikipedia is to expel you for the toxic snake that you are. Enough is enough. Be gone with you. And kindly take what few minions (they are not friends, for those such as you are not capable of having friends) you have left with you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Power apparently does tend to corrupt....

So, the word has gotten out on who the members of the "super secret" list that Durova supposedly ran her evidence by for confirmation. It's also been confirmed that this list was created specifically to conduct "sleuthing" style investigations of, well, anybody. The participants include a Foundation employee (Greg Kohs will be pleased, since I suspect this might actually create an avenue for legal liability for the Foundation, open them to suit, and possibly even undermine their Section 230 defense), two members of ArbCom (neither of whom recused in the case against Durova) and another person with Checkuser. The full list can be found at Wikipedia Review.

I'm especially bothered by the failure of the two arbitrators to recuse from Durova's case, although really they couldn't actually do so because it would have exposed them as collaborators. And while one of them was known to me to be a snake, the other one was someone I had considered reasonable in the past. Such a sad situation.

I said some time ago that I hold the Arbitration Committee in contempt and give no credence to their findings, decrees, or edicts. I've added to this by formally revoking my consent to the governance of the Committee. The Committee may huff and puff all it likes; its output remains a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound of fury, signifying nothing" (with apologies to the Great Bard). Ban me if you want. It won't matter; you cannot regain your honor by banning people who point out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

On Durova

When I wrote a couple weeks ago, "Durova: Why choose the lesser of two evils?" I had no idea how prophetic those comments would be. At the time, I had no real idea who Durova was; all I knew is that there were a good supply of people who disliked her, mainly at Wikipedia Review, which doesn't really say much: Wikipedia Review, like Wikipedia, is full of people who dislike other people, for reasons that span the whole gamut from perfectly reasonable to totally bizarre. How was I to know that, at the time, she had circulated a document amongst the Cabal (that is, SlimVirgin's WikiHarassment mailing list, hosted at wikia) purporting to prove that a productive editor with the amusing username of "!!" was in fact some sort of evil confidence troll (possibly sent by Wikipedia Review) to undermine the wiki by editing too well, and was preparing to indefinitely block said user in what would prove to be the most dramatic event on the English Wikipedia since Essjay's secret identity got out?

The drama is largely over now; Durova has resigned her adminship and the ArbCom is well on its way to another kneejerk ruling (including the obligatory "controversial circumstances" stain that will likely ensure that Durova will never regain adminship again). An interesting side note, I think, is the ire directed at Giano for having the temerity to be righteously indignant at Durova's flatly bizarre logic for concluding that !! was a malicious editor. Giano is only a problem when other Wikipedians are being stupid. When people aren't behaving stupid enough to set him off, he's a perfectly productive (and in fact quite good) article editor. But when he detects stupidity in progress, he turns into some sort of FrankenGiano and goes off on a rampage, tearing through the pretty paper walls the wikicommunity has set up to protect its sensibilities while trying, in his unimitable and somewhat lovable way, to protect the project he quite clearly cares about deeply. I used to strongly dislike Giano, mainly because I and others I identified with had been the target of his rage. Having watched him go off on someone who, at least this time, I agree deserved it, gives me a new respect for him, and I'm much more inclined to forgive him for the arrows he slung at me back in the day. Giano isn't perfect, and I think sometimes his indignance is misplaced, but I can't question his commitment to the project. Jimbo's threat to ban him was stupid, and reflects how badly Jimbo has lost his way on this project. But then again, Jimbo is a large part of the problem.

The problem with Wikipedia is that, for so many in the project, it's no longer about the encyclopedia. Rather, it has become about the personalities. Durova's ceaseless hunting of vile troll sockpuppets is just a symptom of this. The problem is that Wikipedia's community has defined itself not in terms of the encyclopedia it is supposedly producing, but instead of the people it venerates and the people it abhors. Durova was honored (and remains honored, as witnessed by the syrupy outpouring of commiseration on her talk page) because she was so effective at ensuring that the "wrong people" were kept out of the club, not because she actually aided the encyclopedia. While I truly do think she thinks she was acting for the best of the "project", really she was acting in the best interests of the Wikipedia Club -- and the Club doesn't really do that good a job of tracking the needs of the project.

And this is how Jimbo becomes part of the problem. Jimbo wants to be popular. This is obvious to anyone who puts much effort into watching him. He abhors conflict and wants everyone to just get along. In order to satisfy this, he draws to him people who are willing to venerate him as the club leader. Jimbo has been very active in SlimVirgin's private "wikistalking" list, which ostensibly is supposed to be a discussion about how to deal with online stalking of contributors to wiki projects, but in reality operates as an elite backchannel for deciding who is "in" and "out" of the Club. Since this forum is dominated by SlimVirgin, whose paranoia knows almost no bounds, it exhibits strong paranoid tendencies. It was this list that Durova used as her "sounding board" for her own paranoid investigations; small wonder nobody there blew the whistle. We'll probably never know if there was active encouragement of Durova or not, as it is unlikely that any of the participants in that list are going to talk about it. And, it seems, they've already established a new, even more secret list now; anybody want to bet whether Jimbo is on it?

Furthermore, it seems quite clear from what I've read (and especially private correspondence) that the information that led Durova to conclude that her identification that !! wasn't actually a Wikipedia Review deep-cover troll wasn't someone telling her that "look, your evidence doesn't support anything". Rather, it was someone going to her and telling her who !! really is. From what I've been able to gather, !! isn't this editor's first account. This is disenheartening; what it tells me is that Durova still hasn't accepted that her methods are unfounded, just that this one time her net snared a "good fish" by mistake.

There are three possibilities going forward from here. First, Durova leaves Wikipedia. That's a distinct possibility, but one I think unlikely. She has too much personal involvement in her status to do that. Second, she continues to do her "sleuthing", passing on her findings to others in the Club (say, JzG), who will enforce her findings for her. Really, her mistake here was in letting it be known that she was acting based on confidential information, which itself is the result of becoming drunk on power and convinced of one's own invincibility (the same mistake I made, actually). In effect, she was bragging that she had more access than Ordinary People. I sense a kindred soul here, actually. The third possibility is that she will renounce her ways and return to writing articles, as she once did quite some time ago. I deem this unlikely, but not entirely impossible. If this does happen, it'll take her several months.

A less likely possibility is that she will turn to trolling Wikipedia the way I did after I stepped down. Anybody who does not recognize that my ArbCom run last year was a giant troll, set specifically to catch Geogre, is a fool. Likewise, the adminship nomination I "allowed" a few months ago was also trolling. Wikipedia is terribly easy to troll and has become progressively easier as the exclusionary, paranoid tendencies that Jimbo has allowed to set root have threaded their way deeper into the community. All it takes is the offhand suggestion that one has sockpuppets to set people off. (Yes, I do have sockpuppets. Technically I do have about two dozen, but most of them are accounts with no or only one edit, and as I've misplaced the file that lists what their names are I can't even use them anymore.)

I had a private conversation with James Forrester yesterday. I like James; he is typically a sensible guy. Has some blind spots, but that's to be expected. The main takeaway from that conversation was to confirm that Wikipedia is basically dead to me, in any role beyond that of casual editor. The portion of Wikipedia's leadership that cares more about actual substance is too small and too powerless to have any real influence against the portion that cares mainly about personality -- and most of that portion is actively antagonistic toward me. He has also recognized, as I've known for some time, that I have the "kiss of death": I can kill almost any idea for improving Wikipedia, merely by supporting it. (I caught Newyorkbrad the other day acting on this, when he commented to me privately that I had no standing to comment on anyone else's conduct in Wikipedia. I like NYB, too, but he's very much a part of the Club mentality. He, like Jimbo, wants everyone to get along, and is far more concerned about Community than Encyclopedia, although he justifies this by claiming that a happy community is good for the encyclopedia. I remain quite unconvinced of this notion.) The problem I have with contributing to Wikipedia, as it stands today, is that the site is so not committed to quality that I feel I'm wasting my time improving articles that will just regress within a short time anyway. There's no coordinated commitment to quality, mainly because the community is more interested in playing silly power politics than it is in writing an encyclopedia, and even when there is agreement that something needs to be done, the "bikeshed problem" ensures that nothing is actually ever done.

I could work on Veropedia, but the problem there is that I don't want to make commitments of time that I can't keep. I have a job that frequently makes unexpected demands on my time, such that I can't say "Ok, I will copyedit ten articles a week for you" because then something will come up and I won't be able to. Sadly, I've already seen articles get approved onto Veropedia that were still in need of copyediting, but Wikipedia has always been short on copyeditors (Wikipedia offers even less reward to copyeditors than it does to article authors, which is why the cleanup list is so incredibly long) and Veropedia doesn't have a good pool to draw from there. If there were an easy way for me to go somewhere and push a button and have it drop an article that needed copyediting in my lap where I could either copyedit it or push "Not this one, give me another", that would help. I can't imagine this would be hard to write, but I don't have the time to write it. And, of course, nobody else will, because nobody else cares enough (and besides, it certainly won't happened because I suggested it). Lack of time is the same reason I don't return to writing articles. Writing articles is hard. It takes a lot of time to write a well-researched article, time I just don't have to spend. I suppose I could go back to doing vandalism patrol, but I find vandalism patrol so utterly boring that I'd rather leave it to the kids with attention deficit disorder; besides, it would probably just exacerbate the RSI I've had in my wrist for the past ten years.

So what does that leave? Trolling, I guess. That's kinda fun, but as I noted earlier Wikipedia is getting so easy to troll that it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Also quite boring. Such a shame to see such a noble idea dragged down by basic human frailty. If only something would come along to replace it.... and I don't mean Citizendium!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Nerds

So, there's this blog post that is making the rounds that purports to be a "nerd handbook", or advice on how to relate to the nerd in your life. Cyde points out, in his blog, how this article is way off base, filled with overgeneralizations and misfounded beliefs. Anyone who knows Cyde realizes that Cyde is pretty nerdish (although I think personally he's starting to disqualify for the term and is starting to move more solidly into geekdom, but that's aside the point here), and yet he doesn't, either on his own statements or in my evaluation of him based on what I know, come close to meeting most, or even any, of the nerdly characteristics that our blogging friend sets out in his article.

Indeed, as Cyde comments in his closing, our feckless author seems to be describing something more like autism than nerdism. Autistic people, including many Aspies and others in various places along the autistic spectrum, have a great deal of trouble relating with other people's emotions. The comments that I've heard from so-called "high functioning autistics" and Aspies is that they do not instinctively understand emotions and must cope using cognitive modelling strategies. As I understand it, more intelligent autistics are able to build and use more complex system models in their efforts to approximate the instinctive emotional intelligence that comes automatically and instinctively to nonautistic people. This modelling is exactly what our blogging friend is referring to when he talks about nerds seeing "the world as a system which, given enough time and effort, is completely knowable". It's therefore quite obvious to me, at least, that what he's writing about is the way high-functioning autistic people adjust to the world, and I said as much in a comment on his blog (you will have to scroll down quite a ways). Several of his other points also speak to autism, but I won't make that argument here -- I don't have to.

His response was to issue an ineptly conclusory denial of my point. Rather than presenting a coherent argument, he instead went through the core points of his argument, drawing razor-fine distinctions between autism and nerdism that, in his eyes, convince him that he's successfully distinguished nerdism from autism -- and just as likely convinced anyone not already invested in believing otherwise that there's a great deal in common if not a clear connection between the two. Cyde initially told me that I had been "fisk[ed] ... in a very inept manner" but really that's not what happened. He didn't fisk me; he fisked himself. How droll.

Of course, the observation that a lot of nerds (and geeks) are autistic, or at least somewhere on the autistic spectrum, is nothing new. A more interesting discussion can be had on the implications created by the high prevalence of people with emotional intelligence disabilities in online communities, but this post is not that discussion. And neither is the one on the Rands in Repose blog.

Monday, November 12, 2007

It's ArbCom time again!

I normally don't pay much attention to Wikipedia goings on, but I've been asked by too many people to take a position on the Arbcom candidates, so here you go.
  • Adam Cuerden: Don't know him, but his statement, that he wants to speed up the Arbitration process, indicates that he does not fully appreciate the true purpose of the process.
  • Cbrown1023: How could I fail to endorse this little puppy dog who just wants to be my friend? Seriously, it's really funny how many private messages I've gotten from Cbrown over the years telling me how much he loves me.
  • David Fuchs: I vaguely recall David Fuchs from his AMA days. As the AMA's main function was to drag out Arbitrations, thereby increasing the opportunity to create Drama, I'm sure he'll be quite suitable for the role he now seeks.
  • Deskana: Deskana is obviously a very adept navigator of Wikipedia's inner political games, having managed to score checkuser rights. Might as well let him punch another slot in his scorecard. Don't let his fundamental incompetence and laziness interfere; Arbitrators don't have to do any work anyway (just ask Raul654).
  • Dreamafter: People who've failed an RfA are, almost by default, highly qualified to serve as Arbitrators. At least Dreamafter isn't a member of Wikipedia's inner sycophantic circle -- yet.
  • Durova: Why choose the lesser of two evils?
  • Endlessdan: One of the few candidates who isn't obviously invovled in Wikipolitics. Sadly, I think his creative originality would be quickly stifled. Still, definitely in the top three.
  • Giano: Ah, the grand master of all drama. Clearly the top candidate in the field, although White Cat gives him a close run. A vote for Giano is a vote for maximal drama; the Arbitration process would certainly be improved by the occasional Arbitrator temper-tantrum, and with Fred Bauder leaving the Committee will be in need of a court jester.
  • Hemlock Martinis: Has shown some talent for drama in the past. Not terrible, but I can't bring myself to endorse nonetheless.
  • JoshuaZ: tl;dr.
  • Messedrocker: At least he's unlikely to die before the end of his term -- he won't even be driving yet.
  • Misza13: Because Arbcom is the ultimate in playing whack-a-mole!
  • Monsieurdl: Might as well vote for him; he'll burn out within six months and then Jimbo can appoint a crony to better maximize drama. Certainly better than voting for Newyorkbrad.
  • Moreschi: Demonstrated his ability to generate drama when he conominated me for admin. That took moxie, it did.
  • Newyorkbrad: Too stuffy, and his attitudes toward arbitration are totally not structured toward generating drama. And he has shown no propensity for creating drama and in fact seems to try to minimize it. Clearly unsuitable. And worse, he's likely to stick to the job if elected.
  • NHRHS2010: Name too random. Get a real username and try again.
  • Phil Sandifer: Only vote for Phil if you vote for Giano too. Then you could sell tickets to committee meetings.
  • Physchim62: Abuses apostrophes.
  • Pilotguy: Don't vote for him. He has better things to do, like go to fraternity parties. Really.
  • Raul654: Raul has demonstrated very well over the past three years how one can take membership in the Committee and use it to further one's own ego without actually doing all that much work. Just show up every few months and vote on a few random cases, plus make sure you do whatever the FA wankers say so they'll continue to worship you. Not reelecting Raul might lead to instability in the community due to massive ego unloading, so it's imperative that he be reelected.
  • Ryan Postlethwaite: Just reading his name makes me spit on my screen.
  • Shell Kinney: Doesn't understand that the ArbCom is about dispute prolongation, not about dispute resolution.
  • Stifle: Never heard of this person. By the looks of it, is too good of an article author to have his time wasted on Arbitration.
  • Swatjester: Highly qualified; very adept at creating drama by making snap judgments on issues without bothering to examine the facts or contemplate likely reaction to his actions. Kneejerk reactions are always good at creating drama -- definitely a strong candidate.
  • Thebainer: Just what Wikipedia needs, another junior lawyer.
  • White Cat: White Cat would be my top candidate, except for Giano being in the race. His ability to keep grudges for years at a time and to remember small details that everyone else has long since forgotten will serve him very well as an Arbitrator. Also, his recent removal as an op in the #wikipedia channel is just proof of his commitment to fighting corruption whereever it might be found.
  • Wizardman: Needs to run for bureaucrat first.
Note: I don't plan to be voting myself. Arbcom is completely irrelevant to anyone who is participating in Wikipedia for the purpose of writing an encyclopedia, so there's really no reason for sane people to be voting on it at all -- or even acknowledging its existence. My recommendations take this reality into consideration, and are therefore based mainly on who I think would make the ArbCom the most amusing, that being the most it could possibly hope to aspire to. Please consider not voting in the elections; you will be happier if you don't.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

RIP, dear old Maxtor 71084A

I have an old computer, purchased in 1996, which has been serving for many years as our Internet gateway, firewall, DNS, and mail server. For an 11 year old computer I think it's doing pretty well. Aside from the CD-ROM, which died several years ago, it's held up pretty well. Until Sunday. Sunday, the primary hard drive, a venerable Maxtor 71084A manufactured in 1996, developed a handful of bad sectors, rendering the machine rather ill. One of the files affected was /bin/sh, which really hampered the usability of the machine.

The guy at Fry's was clearly amused when I told him I was replacing a 1 GB hard drive. The biggest problem I have replacing this drive is that IDE is on its way out; virtually everything is SATA now, and what IDE drives remain are, for the most part, superbig things over 200 GB in size. I'm not even sure that this old computer can handle a 200GB drive -- or that its motherboard would accept an accessory IDE or SATA controller. I mean, this computer has ISA slots, one of which holds a genuine 3C509B Etherlink III card complete with dual-media connectors (10-Base-T and 10-Base-2). Fortunately, it's still possible to get IDE drives as small as 40GB. The BIOS on this box can only see the first 8GB, but of course I'm a wise Linux admin and already have a small boot partition to hold the kernel and so forth, so I didn't have to cope with the issues that can raise. Recovery, after getting the drive, wasn't too hard: hang the old drive off my other Linux box, dd off the three live partitions (the fourth partition is a swap partition and can just be mkswaped) and the partition table, then attach the new drive, dd the partition table and the partitions onto the new drive, fsck each partition in turn, and restore any damaged files from backup. After doing all this, then, a little parted magic takes advantage of the fact that the drive is 38 times larger than it used to be, and now /home is 32GB instead of 0.5GB. Put the new drive into the old box, and it rebooted straightaway into Linux.

What truly amazes me is that this computer is the machine I used for so many years for GIMP development. And, for much of that, with just the 1GB drive that just finally died after 11 years of faithful service. If only all my hard drives would last so long.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Illness makes the code grow longer

I'm been stuck at home with a rather nasty cold the past few days, which has meant that about all I've been up to is sitting at the computer and typing (when I'm not asleep, that is, which I've also been doing a lot of). As a result, I've made significant progress on Myrtle. Basically all of the PHP code has been rough-translated, and the 105,000 lines of resulting code all compiles now. I'm now working on eliminating the PHP stub methods I created during the rough port. After that I'll have to take out the "array" class I had to define to cope with the fact that PHP arrays are weird. That will take somewhat longer as MediaWiki uses arrays in several different ways, and the replacement strategy varies (e.g. native language array, ArrayList, HashMap, or custom class) depending on the situation.

As always, progress is visible at svn.pyrzqxgl.org/websvn.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The disappointment of Citizendium

Citizendium officially launched in March of 2007. And still today, they have failed to develop any real identity for themselves; it still seems that virtually all discourse about what Citizendium is continues be "whatever we are, we're not Wikipedia!" and very little more. This is brought to my attention as I read some of the the essays being written by Citizendium contributors as Citizendium tries to decide what license to use for their content. Here we have Anthony Argyriou arguing for the CC-BY-SA-NC license; his main concern in choosing a license is to ensure that Citizendium's work cannot be reused by Wikipedia, which to me appears to be very little more than pettiness. Utkarshraj Atmaram's rebuttal is good (and he even recognizes that Citizendium might possibly have an identity other than "the site that isn't Wikipedia"). Unfortunately, his position seems to be in the minority; most of the commentators appear quite afraid that Citizendium content might be used on Wikipedia, thereby "harming participation", presumably because it would make Citizendium less unlike Wikipedia.

Of course, Citizendium continues to sport, as a defining document, a thorough explanation of how Citizendium is not Wikipedia. They really need to go past this and start working on defining Citizendium by what they are, and not by what they are not. Otherwise, they'll end up the Wicca of the internet, filled primarily with bitter ex-Wikipedians who can't agree on anything except for one thing: Jimbo isn't the godking.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Is that drama I smell?

No, it's just the lovely scent of the Hillside Landfill. But I digress.

It's been about a week since my last post, so I'd though I'd fill y'all in. I've been steadily working on Myrtle, which is now up to around 85,000 lines of code. I spent most of the weekend asleep, fighting off what was most likely a rotavirus, and what little time wasn't engaged in one of those activities was spent either dividing up and replanting the hostas along the front walk, or doing some preliminary data analysis on Wikimedia page view data that Greg Maxwell has graciously shared with me. (Our conclusions so far is that we need to collect the data again, with a better geolocator and more filtering of clearly invalid data.)

I probably won't be writing too very much about Wikipedia and Wikimedia anymore. It takes too much time to keep up with the drama there, and I have better things to do with that time than waste it on that. I'm certainly hoping that I'll be able to make it to November's WikiWednesday in Chicago, which (as far as I can tell) is being organized by the estimable Ted Ernst, of aboutus.org. I know some of my regular readers are familiar with AboutUs; Ted introduced it to me at the Chicago Wiki-Meetup that I organized back in September. It looks like an interesting project. (Don't worry, guys, I'm not planning on joining. You don't need the trolls it would bring.)

For the rest of the Chicago folk, sorry, I won't be arranging any more wiki meetups. Tony did as much work to arrange the September one as I did; perhaps he'll take over the role and arrange another one now that the UofC students are back. (Hint: I'm told that Jimbo will be in Chicago sometime this month. Might want to see if you can make use of that.) If you do, let me know, and I'll stop in.

I suppose I'll have to change the subtitle of this blog; it's a bit inappropriate now given that it will probably have a lot more to do with things other than Wikipedia or Wikimedia. Anyone for some good ol' Illinois politics?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Another Wikimania I won't be going to

Well, my spies have informed me that the Wikimedia Travel and Entertainment Committee has decided to hold the 2008 Wikimania in Alexandria. I objected to the Alexandria bid in 2007 on concerns about GLBT safety, but apparently this factor was not a significant consideration for the "jury" in its deliberations.

I won't be going, not even if someone offers to pay all costs of attendance. Not a chance in hell. And it seems I'm not alone in this. If someone schedules a US/North America alternate event, though, I'll definitely consider going to that.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The seething idiocy continues

For the last several months, I've had the occasional person ask me if I would run for admin again on the English Wikipedia. I've rebuffed those requests, feeling that it hadn't been long enough. The one year anniversary of my resignation just passed, however, and in recognition of that I decided to set the conditions under which I'd allow a request for adminship to take place: three separate people (none of them anyone I consider a troll), or "fools", would have to jointly nominate me. I put notice of this on my user page; within 24 hours a group of my more ardent "fans" predictably popped into my talk page to tell me what a vile person I was to even consider the possibility of ever being an admin again, prompting me to issue a clarification. (It's impressive how obsessed some Wikipedians can be with their petty feuds.) And only a few days after that, I was contacted on IRC to inform me that three fools had come together and intended to nominate me. A few days later, their nomination was ready, and the RfA was off.

Unsurprisingly, it's failing, and failing badly, after less than 24 hours. As I fully expected; my "fans" hate me too much to miss this. Newyorkbrad (having previously tried to convince me not to allow the RfA) is now trying to convince me to allow it to be withdrawn. Apparently, it would be "bad" for Wikipedia for this RfA to run the usual seven days, since it has "no chance of passing". As I feared, the community is unwilling to actually discuss anything. I had a sliver of hope that a meaningful discussion would arise from the RfA, and there has been a small smattering of comments that I think might have led in that direction. Newyorkbrad's long, thoughtful comment could have been a step in that direction, but it was immediately met by a "tl;dr" from Nishkid64.

It would be my preference that the RfA be allowed to run the full seven days. I doubt it will; too many people will decide that having this "discussion" will do more harm than good and will cut it off. I'm going to save my comments for individual "opinions" expressed in the RfA until after it's over. The only thing I will say is that the almost continuous assumptions of bad faith are just astounding.

The outcome of this RfA notwithstanding, my "three fools" offer will remain; the community can repeat this show as many times as three members wish it. You all know how to reach me.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Open Letter to Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois Toll Highway Authority, and the Illinois Department of Transportation

Dear Governor Blagojevich:

Thank you ever so much for making the newly-renamed Jane Addams Memorial Tollway so much less usable by implementing open-road tolling. Ever since the eastbound O'Hare toll plaza was restructured, the congestion there has been horrible. And it's entirely because of open-road tolling.

The entire open-road tolling project has operated on the assumption that the doubled tolls for cash payers would incent frequent users of the tollway system to purchase I-Pass units, because I-Pass holders can use the rolling toll facilities which permit tolls to be collected at full highway speed, meaning less delay for travelers, as well as a significant discount on the tolls themselves. A nice side effect is the Toll Highway Authority gets a ton of personalized data on the usage of the tollway system and saves on labor costs because it costs a lot less to collect tolls electronically than manually. I'm not arguing this at all. And, from what I've seen, it actually seems to have helped on the Tri-State, which is mostly commuter traffic. But, it's made things worse on the Jane Addams. Here's why.

The Jane Addams is, of course, also Interstate 90. Those of us who live in Chicago and the near suburbs probably think of this as "the road you use to get to Woodfield". When I lived in Niles, it was one of our routes to visit friends in Palatine, especially on weekends when the congestion would be relatively light. But for anybody living west of the Mississippi and north of the 40th parallel, it's "the road you use to get to New York City". Interstate 90, the nation's longest interstate, runs from Seattle all the way to Boston, and is heavily used by cross-country travelers (not to mention truckers). As a result, there are a lot of people on this road -- at all hours of the day and night -- who are not residents of northern Illinois and have no reason to obtain an I-Pass. These people will all have to go through the manual toll plazas and pay the penalty toll that the Toll Highway Authority charges to try to convince people to buy I-Passes. There are so many of these travelers that the congestion backs up from the small number of toll plazas that remain here (the conversion to open road tolling cut the number of manual and automatic toll collection units at least in half, if not more so) past the point where the high-speed open road tolling lanes separate off from the mainstream. As a result, I-Pass holders have to wait for non-I-Pass holders to pay their tolls, just compounding the congestion. I've gone through here at 11pm on a Saturday and encountered substantial congestion at this plaza. There's simply no excuse for that.

I don't have a problem with the Toll Highway Authority charging penalty tolls to out-of-area travelers; that means more money for the Tollway Authority taken mainly from people who aren't Illinois taxpayers, which brings money into the state and gives the system more cash to keep the roads improved. But can we please do one little thing? How about advising through traffic heading to Indiana and points east to divert from Interstate 90 onto Interstate 290 (the Eisenhower Extension) in Schaumburg, and then from there, onto Interstate 294 (the southbound Tri-State) in Hillside and then Interstate 80 into Indiana. They can then pick up Interstate 90 again when 80 and 90 interchange in northern Indiana. This will actually increase toll revenues for the Toll Highway Authority because there are either two or three toll plazas on the Tri-State that this traffic will pass through, instead of the single plaza at the end of the Addams. It will, of course, reduce revenue on the Skyway (sorry, Mayor Daley) and the Indiana Toll Road, but at the same time it'll also reduce congestion on the Kennedy and Dan Ryan.

Another thing that might help is if you tried to convince the route mapping services to recommend the bypass routes around Chicago instead of the direct through route. I ran test routes from Minneapolis to New York on both Google Maps and Mapquest. Both advises me to take I-90 all the way through Illinois, which means taking the Kennedy and Dan Ryan straight through the city. That is certainly the shorter route, but it's almost never the faster route.

How hard would it be to put up "THROUGH TRAFFIC TO INDIANA USE I-290 EAST" signs approaching the I-90/I-290 interchange in Schaumberg (and then "THROUGH TRAFFIC TO INDIANA USE I-294 SOUTH" on the Eisenhower near Elmhurst)? Doesn't seem like it would be that hard. And it might make the Jane Addams more useful for the people who actually live in and around Chicagoland -- and vote for things like Governor.

Just a thought. I suppose this might make congestion on the Ike and the Tri-State worse. Maybe we should just get rid of the tollways entirely. That would be better for the environment, too, you know....

Thursday, September 27, 2007

More on my MediaWiki port

So, some people have inquired about my port of MediaWiki to Java.

One commentator implied that this is a foolish/wasted venture because it's "already done". JAMWiki is a pure Java wiki that resembles MediaWiki, but it is not a port; rather, it is a scratch implementation that uses MediaWiki's markup syntax and resembles its behavior. However, it does not use MediaWiki's database schema (a situation that they attribute to licensing issues). I have nothing but respect for what they're doing, but what they're doing is not what I'm doing. There are a number of other Java-implemented wikis out there, but I'm not attempting to compete with any of them. And, given my motivations (see below) even if it had already been done I'd still likely want to do it.

Another intriguing project that has been brought to my attention is Quercus, a native Java implementation of PHP. The Quercus people claim that Quercus runs PHP code significantly faster than the standard mod_php interpreter and is on a par with the performance offered by PHP accelerated by APC. Certainly an option for incremental development would be to run MediaWiki under Quercus, and then incrementally port portions of it to pure Java. It has occurred to me that the Wikimedia Foundation might benefit from doing this (if nothing else, it would likely significantly simplify their interface with Lucene, which at the moment is done with a really grotty .NET interface), but of course it's not my place to advise Brion and company how to run their show. But at the moment I don't want to take the time to immerse myself into another product. Might be something to look at down the road, though.

But, fundamentally, neither of these really serves my interests. As I've noted before, more than once, I don't like PHP very much. On the other hand, I would like to better understand the MediaWiki code. What better way to understand a body of code than to port it to another language? At the end of this, not only will I have a better understanding of MediaWiki's codebase (I've already submitted three bug reports, all for admittedly minor items) as well as even more reasons to hate PHP, but hopefully also I will have a product that is a drop-in replacement for MediaWiki that also outperforms it and can be more easily modified, to boot.

As to why Java? At the moment, Java is my favorite language for large applications. I actually prefer C#'s generics to Java's, but I do not trust Microsoft enough to feel comfortable committing my labors to a language and runtime with dubious intellectual property issues. Java is far more open than C#, and so I'm much more comfortable (philosophically) developing to that environment. Furthermore, there is an open source Web engine for Java already (Tomcat) as well as well-known compatible high-performance enterprise products from Sun and IBM for someone who might want to use this product in an enterprise environment. I haven't worked much with Java in quite a while (I was a Java programmer back in 2001 for a while, but not much since) so this is also a chance to resharpen my skills.

Syntactically, PHP and Java are actually pretty close. I can mechanically convert PHP code to pretty-close-to-Java with just a handful of Perl scripts. I'm probably about half-way done with the first pass of rough code conversion (although admittedly the parser has not yet been done, which will likely demand considerably more attention than many of the other modules I've already done). Certainly it will be quite a long time before an actually executable product comes out of this, but I'm not on any timeline here. (Fortunately, MediaWiki makes very little use of the parts of PHP that are especially hard to port.)

The curious may observe my progress via SVN. I chose "Myrtle" because I am fond of wood (my other main hobby these days is woodworking) and because my full name anagrams to "Kill Nanny Myrtle".

Once I've finished this project, I am very likely to work on automated PHP-to-Java porting tools. That's going to require writing a PHP parser, but that can't be terribly hard, now, can it?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Clowning around

I've been hard at work on my port of MediaWiki to Java, which is why I've been largely ignoring Wikipedia and its remarkable ability to generate drama. However, it was virtually impossible to escape hearing about Fred Bauder's proposal to redirect the articles of people Wikipedia decides it doesn't like to the article about clowns. I'm still not sure what Fred had in mind there. Perhaps it was a stunt on his part to get the arbitrators to stop bickering amongst themselves and actually pay some attention to the case; that's the most charitable conclusion I can come to. (Lord knows the arbs are experts at bickering; rumor has it that they've traded over 600 emails to date on their internal mailing list discussing what to do about SlimVirgin and Jayjg, without coming to any decision or conclusion.)

The thing that really got me about Fred's proposals is the way that Fred is evidently very willing to sacrifice the encyclopedia to protect peace in the community. In other words, the community has become more important than the encyclopedic product. This is bankrupt, and firmly demonstrates the general illness that pervades Wikipedia today. And, while Fred's off calling in the clowns, some other clowns were busy trying very hard to undermine the Article Rescue Squadron, a group of editors who make a point to parachute into articles about encyclopedic topics that are nominated for deletion and improve the articles to the point where they ought not be deleted. The ARS was inspired by Andrew Lih's indignance at Wikipedia's decision to delete its article about Pownce, which I blogged about here some time ago. In the past week, there have been two attempts to delete the ARS's project page, and also an attempt (still ongoing, although unlikely to succeed) to delete the "rescue" template it uses to tag articles that it thinks can be saved by appropriate editing. In all three cases, assertions that the group is engaging in "votestacking" (see also my previous complaints about Wikipedia's canvassing policies) feature prominently in the arguments for deletion, even though there is absolutely no evidence of this, and in general the arguments for deletion seem to me mainly to be petty annoyance at the existence of a project that interferes with the rapid deletion of content deemed unsuitable by a small subset of Wikipedia editors by the totally egregious method of making such content encyclopedic! In short, a significant fraction of Wikipedia's community believes that encouraging people to improve the encyclopedia by improving borderline content is bad and must be stopped.

So, in the first place we have the Arbitration Committee proposing to put the community ahead of content, and in this latter matter we have the community putting its process machine ahead of content. People, wake up. Wikipedia is supposed to be an encyclopedia. Nothing is supposed to come ahead of content. This shouldn't even require a whole lot of thought. And yet I, and others, keep having to repeat this over and over again. What is wrong with you people?

I noticed something else in the deletion discussion, though, which bothered me even more. Several people (the one that comes to mind is EliminatorJr) have claimed that "these people do not understand Wikipedia policy", without apparently noticing that they are talking about long-term experienced Wikipedians who can reasonably assumed to have at least a moderate understanding of, if not the minute details of policy as it stands today, at least the general principles under which Wikipedia operates. Some of them helped write those policies, after all. And I realized that it's terribly common in discussion in Wikipedia for all sides to insist that its interpretation of policy is the only correct one and accuse all others of "not understanding policy". I, myself, have been guilty of this in the past, something which I regret now as I suspect many of the people doing it today are modeling behavior they learned from me (even if they don't realize it). People's interpretation of policy differ, and virtually none of Wikipedia's policy is written in stone. Articles for Deletion, and in fact all Wikipedia community discussion pages, are supposed to be places for discussion, not firing lines where people spit out policy snippets like bullets, or moves in Street Fighter. (Hm. Why do I keep coming back to gaming metaphors for Wikipedia?) Flatly accusing one's opponent of "not understanding policy" is never good faith debate.

Anyway. I'm going to go back to rewriting MediaWiki; wrangling code is a far more rewarding activity than trying to make sense of the seething idiocy that increasingly pervades Wikipedia. Even if the code in question is (or at least once was) PHP.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Devolving power

One of Wikipedia's major problems today is the role of administrator. Administrators have substantially more power than non-administrators; they and only they get to decide what stays and what goes, and for that matter who stays and who goes. Although Jimbo has long tried to impose the notion that "administrators are no big deal", the simple fact is that being an administrator is a big deal and people will go to considerable lengths to gain that power.

Devolving power from administrators seems an obvious thing to do. The problem is finding ways to diffuse the power currently held by administrators and devolve it into the community without creating a lot of bureaucracy. The community already votes on deletions, and it's quite obvious that this isn't working too terribly well. Voting on blocks is even more problematic, because a block decision amounts practically to a trial, and really trials by popular vote are a really bad idea.

Deletion is especially easy to devolve, so easy in fact that there's been a proposal to do it since October 2003. The so-called "pure wiki deletion system" (which is labeled on the English Wikipedia as a "rejected policy") effectively devolves the deletion decision away from administrators by allowing any editors to delete any article. It also resolves one of my personal gripes with deletion on Wikipedia: the fact that most editors cannot retrieve deleted articles, even when those articles have been deleted for being "nonnotable". Right now, deletion on Wikipedia is used for two totally different purposes: one is to remove articles deemed "unworthy of inclusion in the encyclopedia", and the other is to remove content which is legally, morally, or ethically problematic. The problem with using the same mechanism for both is that the first leaves too few people with the ability to see the "unworthy" article, while the second leaves the dangerous content where too many can see it -- any of 1300+ admins, who we really have no reason to trust because the selection process does a piss-poor job of screening for trustworthiness.

The pure wiki deletion system allows for "ordinary" deletions to be made, and reversed, by anyone; anyone can also come along, examine the prior content, and either reuse it in some other article (or for some other purpose entirely), restore any prior version of the article, or write a better version. The current practice loses the history, which encourages people to repeat the same mistakes that came before. "Extraordinary" deletions, the sort that are required by copyright, libel, or other legal, moral, or ethical standards, would be exercised by a much smaller, more carefully chosen group with a deletion power similar to the current badly-named "oversight" privilege. I don't see any way around that power being held by a small group; the risk of abuse is too high, as we already well know. Devolving this power is one of the ones I haven't figured out how to deal with.... fundamentally, some things are going to have to be held only by a limited number of people; the trick becomes choosing those people wisely, something which the Wikipedia community has not shown a great deal of capability of to date.

So the real question is, why hasn't the pure wiki deletion system been implemented? It's not technically very challenging; I suspect I could make the necessary code changes in a few days, and someone more familiar with the MediaWiki codebase could probably do it faster than that. No, the problem here is that it devolves power from those who have it. And since the people who would be losing the power are the people who at least have a large say in whether or not they will lose that power, they naturally resist it. Entrenchment's a bitch, isn't it?

So, while it's certainly quite possible to think of ways to make Wikipedia run better or more reasonably, there's no hope of getting them implemented, precisely because the people who stand to lose the most through such changes are in a position to prevent them from happening. There is no leadership, and in fact a very strong community attitude against having leaders of any sort, to push any real efforts at reform.

So at this point I don't have much hope that any of my proposals, suggestions, or ideas will ever see the light of day on Wikipedia, but I do hope that they will inform the people who build the next online encyclopedia project -- the one that will eventually replace Wikipedia, so that they at least do not mindlessly repeat the same mistakes that Wikipedia made.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Why I hate PHP

I've been working quite a bit lately on my project to rewrite MediaWiki in Java. Doing so has reminded me of why I dislike languages like PHP. There's a couple of specific things that I'm referring to here, so I'll elaborate.

First, PHP is a weakly typed language. Any variable can hold a value of any type supported by the language, and the runtime will gleefully convert between types nilly-willy in the even that one accidentially tries to, for example, use a variable containing an array to something that more reasonably expects an integer. A strongly-typed language like Java (or, to some degree, C) will refuse to let you do something like this; either the compiler will throw an error or the runtime (in Java, at least) will throw an exception. PHP, though, assumes that the programmer intended to do this and provides a result, although not necessarily a useful one. While this is ocasionally useful (and in fact many PHP and Perl programmers take advantage of implicit type conversions to save typing and make their code "more clever"), it also introduces many opportunities for bugs. The same is true of PHP's lazy handling of function/method arguments; putting the wrong number or type of arguments on a function call is an error in Java, but is gleefully ignored in PHP. I've found at least two instances in MediaWiki 1.11 where there's a mismatch between a function's definition and its invocation, although both are in low-probability codepaths as far as I can tell.

Another aspect that makes PHP a less desirable language for me is that data structures in PHP are way too fluid. An object's class only determines what methods are available to it; they don't determine what the class instance variables are. A object can have members that aren't even mentioned directly anywhere, because PHP lets you both create and access instance variables indirectly. Java allows indirect access using reflection, but there's no way to create members at run time. The programmer can also create local (and global) variables with names that could be completely arbitrary (using $$var or extract) and totally unable to be predicted at compile time. This also introduces great opportunity for bugs and other forms of unexpected behavior, and also results in terribly cryptic code at times. The "mysql_fetch_object" function is an especial pet peeve.

But the real problem I have with PHP (and also with Perl and to a lesser degree with Python) is the use of the regular expression as the universal solution to virtually any problem. MediaWiki is an especially fine example of this particular syndrome: MediaWiki's parser is written basically as a very complicated series of regular expressions. This leads to a number of related problems. First, regular expressions are typically not cheap to use, and especially not PCRE extended regular expressions. What looks to be a simple regexp match may actually be a very expensive operation. Regular expressions are also cryptic, which makes them difficult to understand and to modify. This is yet another factor that adds to the unmaintainability of PHP code.

Another pet peeve (which I've blogged about before) that shows up in PHP and Perl code a lot is the use of array
types as anonymous structure types. This is bad for a bunch of different reasons; first, it decreases maintainability for all the same reasons already mentioned above, and it can also impair performance because of the cost of pulling data out of a general purpose array structure (although really you end up paying those costs all the time in PHP, because all objects are a "general purpose array structure", instead of using quick offsets into a fixed structure the way you can with a dedicated data structure object).

I'm doing my port to Java not specifically because I like Java but because Java is the best general purpose language for which I have a good IDE and compiler. I actually like C# better (C#'s generics are better than Java's), but there's no C# environment that isn't Microsoft-encumbered and so I don't use it, in part because I don't want to pay for it and in part because I don't want to deal with Microsoft's licensing. C++ has its own set of problems; one of my major gripe is with operator overloading, which allows a programmer to create counterintuitive definitions for primitive operations and frequently conceals expensive operations from the programmer, which leads to inefficient code.

Some time ago, Greg Maxwell shared with me the results of profiling one of Wikimedia's Apache servers (running, of course, MediaWiki). I seem to recall that the server spent a good chunk of its time in either the regular expression handler or various PHP symbol table manipulation functions. (See, for example, these profiling results and note that 8.8% of the CPU is being used either to find things in hash tables or update things in hash tables, most of which is symbol table and array index manipulation, and almost 2.5% is being used to run match, which is PHP's primary regexp processing routine.) There has to be a way to eliminate at least some of that overhead.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

On Ignoring All Rules

One of Wikipedia's most important, and most embattled, policies is the infamous "Ignore All Rules". It's been there for a very long time, and in that time has changed quite a good deal from the original "If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the Wiki, then ignore them and go about your business" (which is the same form it had when I joined up in 2004, although more bits of it were wikilinked then than in the original). Today's "If the rules prevent you from working with others to improve or maintain Wikipedia, ignore them" is different from this in a very subtle and pernicious way: you are only permitted to ignore the rules if you are supported by a clique. Sadly, IAR has been subjected to constant attacks of this sort, almost entirely by people who either fail to understand IAR, or understand it but object to the principle behind it.

I admit that I don't pay a lot of attention to what IAR (or any other policy on Wikipedia) actually says. My experience is that Wikipedia policy documents are edited mainly by "policy wonks": people who seem to have a fetish for generate huge reams of policy without necessarily contemplating whether the policies they write either reflect actual practice or are actually calculated to benefit the encyclopedia. (There are also quite a few people who are constantly manipulating policy for "nefarious" purposes, but I don't want to dwell on that.) These people mean well, but that doesn't mean that their efforts yield positive results. The road to hell, after all, is paved with good intentions.

IAR is especially problematic to policy wonks. By and large, these are people who would prefer that everything be governed by well-defined, clear rules that anyone can understand so there is no excuse for not following them. The problem with IAR is that it gives explicit license to not follow the rules: anathema! Their preference would be to get rid of IAR, but Jimbo won't let them. Since they can't get rid of it, they spend a great deal of energy trying to find a way to write it that narrows its scope as much as possible while not offending the Jimbo-God by actually deleting the policy. The two thousand edits IAR has experienced in the past two years are the collective papercuts of these editors circling about, seeking to find the chink in IAR's armor that allows them to stab it dead, and never understanding that IAR reflects a attitude of the "old core" Wikipedia community that cannot be killed without killing that core.

The real problem here is that IAR is the "Zen koan" of Wikipedia policy: if you understand it, you don't need the words, and if you don't understand it the words (no matter what they are) won't help. Unfortunately, the proportion of Wikipedia's editor base today that understand what Zen is, or more generally understand how to balance opposing tensions, is small and shrinking fast. Many of Wikipedia's policies are in opposition to one another, and it is necessary to strike a balance between two extremes in order to move forward in a reasonable way. (This is not the sum total of IAR, but it is a significant part of it.) Unfortunately, the "follow the rules at all expenses" crowd (many of whom are Aspies, or so it seems) doesn't tolerate balancing tests well: they want hard, immutable, objective, brightline rules, not multifactor tests that evaluate competing interests in what is inevitably a subjective way.

I don't have a solution to this problem. We can't ban all the Aspies, or even exclude them from editing policy. The best we can hope for is that people will make more of an effort to try to teach new editors what things like IAR really mean. But we've been trying to do that for the past two years and it hasn't helped worth a damn.