Kadin2048's Weblog
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Wed, 31 Oct 2007

I have a love/hate relationship with Wikipedia. On one hand, it’s a great project, and I use it — mostly as a ‘casual reference’ for settling friendly arguments or digging up little gems of information — all the time. But on the other hand, sometimes I’m pained by Wikipedia, because I can’t help but look at it and see how much potential it has, for going above and beyond what it is right now. And that’s frustrating.

There have been lots of criticisms of Wikipedia since its inception, and I’m not going to go over the well-trod ground of reliability or factual correctness. Wikipedia is “good enough,” apparently, for lots of people to use, and that’s what matters.

No, what gets me about Wikipedia is its desire to be ‘encyclopediac,’ manifested in its ‘notability’ requirements for articles. I think this is a huge misstep.

Our notions of what an “encyclopedia” is — for all but the very youngest among us — is driven by memories of the old, dead-tree variety. Paper encyclopedias, by their very nature, couldn’t contain everything about everything; it would just be impractical. There isn’t enough paper to print such a beast, and even if there was, certainly you couldn’t economically mass-produce it. So when we think about an encyclopedia, we think about a series of relatively short, introductory articles, on key topics. The best encyclopedias had the most and longest articles — the greatest breadth and depth of content — but they were still limited.

But that’s not what it has to be. That’s a limitation borne of physical restrictions, which don’t necessarily exist in the digital electronic realm, particularly with the ever-falling price of bandwidth and mass storage.

The Wikipedia Gods seem to get this, to a certain extent. One of WP’s tenets is that it’s ‘not paper.’ But despite this, it still sticks to certain key assumptions about what is fit for an encyclopedia, about what an encyclopedia is, that are based on analog premises and ideas.

Put simply, there’s no reason to reject any content that’s well-written and well-researched, on ‘notability’ grounds. There’s just no reason to do it. There is no such thing as bad information, as long as it’s correct.

There are better ways to keep the main namespace clear, and the signal-to-noise ratio high, than by constantly destroying information. Articles that get crufty can (and should!) be rewritten and pared down; cruft can be left in the historical versions for those that want to find it. Articles that get top-heavy with trivia or ‘popular culture’ sections can move the extra content to sub-pages within the main article’s namespace, to preserve the cleanliness of the main page, without deleting anything. The result would be a resource with much more depth in its articles, and potentially much more breadth as well.

Wikipedia as it currently exists strikes me as a terrible waste of potential. Within a generation, Wikipedia and other online resources like it are going to own the concept of ‘encyclopedia’ within the public consciousness. Young people growing up today will probably never think of a stack of large books when they hear that word — yet the online resources are being designed with constraints thoughtlessly inherited from their dead-tree ancestors.

I love Wikipedia for what it is, but sometimes I can’t help but hate it for what it is, too, because of the gap between what it is and what it could and can be.

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Tue, 30 Oct 2007

While reading Ars Technica’s excellent new review of Mac OS 10.5, I ran across a link to IndieHIG, a rather fascinating effort to produce a consistent set of Human Interface Guidelines for the Mac, to replace the official ones that Apple has neglected for so long.

I think it’s a really interesting effort, and I sure hope it’s successful — if only to shame Apple a little into producing a useful HIG. But more than that, if they do produce something that is widely used (and I suspect getting developers to adopt it may be more difficult than coming up with the guidelines themselves), it could be an interesting model for other environments where there is no central authority to promulgate an interface guideline.

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Sat, 27 Oct 2007

After an afternoon of fiddling, I’ve managed to get GNU nano working on my Mac with full UTF-8 support. Although I’m monolingual, this allows the use of nice things like “smartquotes” and emdashes, right in the actual text file.

The version of nano that ships with Mac OS 10.4 doesn’t support Unicode. In order to get it, you’ll need to install Darwinports and then install nano through it, explicitly enabling UTF-8 as you do so. I recommend using the command

sudo port install nano +utf8 +wrap +mouse +color

This enables not only UTF-8, but also support for automatic line-wrapping (which can be disabled on command and is disabled by default for root, for ease in editing config files that don’t like hardwrapped lines), mouse, and color.

Once Darwinports does its thing, you’ll probably want to rename the old version of nano, located in /usr/bin, to something like ‘nano-1.2.4’, and then make a symlink from /usr/bin/nano to the newly installed version in /opt/local/bin/nano. This isn’t required if you have /opt/local/bin in your PATH, but it’s just nice to do in case other users don’t. (Just type sudo ln -s /opt/local/bin/nano /usr/bin/nano)

To make sure it worked, type nano --version and make sure it shows version 2.0.6 or newer, and that --enable-utf8 is shown as one of the compiled options. On my system, the following is shown:

$ nano --version
GNU nano version 2.0.6 (compiled 17:26:26, Oct 27 2007)
Email: nano@nano-editor.org    Web: http://www.nano-editor.org/
Compiled options: --disable-nls --disable-speller 
--disable-wrapping-as-root --enable-color --enable-nanorc --enable-utf8

Now, there’s one final step: you need to set your LANG environment variable to a locale that specifies UTF-8, or nano won’t use it. This is as easy as adding export LANG=en_US.UTF-8 to the bottom of your .bash_profile file. You’ll need to close and reopen your terminal window or SSH session in order for this to take effect.

To test, open nano and try using the curly-open-quote character ( Option-[ ). If you see a quote, it worked. If you see a bunch of question marks, something’s wrong.

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A few days after they started rolling it out, the Google Gods finally saw fit to smile on me and grant me the gift of IMAP. And, oh, what a gift it is. Gmail and IMAP are two systems that just seem made for each other, and despite some oddities, I’m shuddering just thinking of POP.

However, I have noticed a few interesting caveats with Gmail. These apply to Gmail as of 10/27/07 used with Apple Mail 2.1.

  • You will get many copies of the same outgoing message in your “All mail” folder/store on Gmail, if you have the “Store draft messages on server” option (in Preferences:Accounts:Mailbox Behaviors) set. Basically, every time Mail sends a new draft version to the server (which seems to happen about once a minute or whenever you pause typing), Gmail interprets this and stores it as a new message, which will appear in your “All mail” view. For some people, this might be a feature — looking back, you can actually see the process of composing all your messages. But for most of us, I think it’ll just be clutter and take up space. Better to leave it off.

  • You will get duplicate sent messages if you have “Store sent messages on server” checked. This option isn’t necessary as long as you’re using Gmail’s outgoing SMTP server to send messages — you can feel free to uncheck it, and you’ll still get sent messages in your “Sent Mail” folder/view. If you have it checked, when you send a message, Mail will send it twice: once via SMTP, and then it will upload it via IMAP to a ‘Sent Items’ folder that it creates itself (which is not the usual Gmail ‘Sent Items’ view). Since Google is unusually smart and intercepts the outgoing SMTP message, you don’t need the second IMAP copy. Therefore, you probably want this off.

  • If you don’t want to mess with Google’s folder structure, turn “Store Junk messages on server” and “Move deleted messages to the Trash mailbox” off also.

  • There is no way in Apple Mail to switch an account from POP to IMAP. You just have to delete or mark the POP one as inactive, and then create a new IMAP one. (You may want to back up the POP one first, since deleting it will erase all mail stored under that account on the local system.) At the very least, make sure the IMAP one is working and fully replicated locally before you delete the POP account.

  • On all machines except for your main one (and possibly even that one, if you trust Google a lot), you probably want to change the “Keep copies of messages for offline viewing” option on the “Advanced” tab. By default it’s set to download and mirror all mail in the IMAP account, which could be several GB if you’ve had Gmail for a while. For a laptop or other mobile system, you may want to consider “Only messages I’ve read” as an alternative.

  • Google seems to do something funny to message attachments, but I’m not clear exactly what. I send all digitally-signed email (generally S/MIME), and I’ve noticed that outgoing messages that I send, which have attachments and are digitally signed, come up with invalid-signature errors when I view them later in my Sent Mail box. (However, they go out fine, and the recipient gets them without errors.) Google is changing something in the message — perhaps the names of the attachments or something — that is causing the signature verification to fail. Be aware of this if you use digital signatures with your Gmail account.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve noticed so far. Mostly just little things; it’s a great improvement to the service overall.

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Fri, 26 Oct 2007

I discovered something interesting about the SDF’s web server today: it doesn’t seem to have a rule set up for serving .xhtml content by default.

I didn’t notice this initially, and my XHTML pages were coming through okay, because they use the “http-equiv content-type” meta element. But a quick check with the Web Sniffer revealed that they were actually being sent with a content-type of text/html, rather than the correct application/xhtml+xml. I would have thought that this would make them fail to validate cleanly, but apparently since the media type is a “SHOULD” rather than a “MUST,” it doesn’t fail. Or maybe it uses the META http-equiv and ignores the one actually coming from the server, for purposes of validation. I’m not sure.

Inserting AddType application/xhtml+xml .xhtml into my .htaccess file in the root ~/html/ directory solved the problem, and now my XHTML pages (mostly static articles produced using MultMarkdown from plaintext) are served correctly.

Anyway, just something for other people to note, I guess. I don’t know what accepted best practice is in this area, but I think I’m going to go and explicitly specify the content-type that I want transmitted for all the various file types that I use on the site, just to make sure; the way things are looking, I’m going to end up with a mix of plain text (including some UTF-8), XHTML, and plain old HTML.

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Wed, 24 Oct 2007

I recently ran across AnimatedKnots.com, and due to always having a soft spot for knot-tying (but absolutely no talent for it), thought it was fairly interesting. They get a gold star for being — as the name suggests — animated, which is a lot more useful than the majority of reference materials around. Most of the ‘animations’ are short (<10 frame) photo series, showing the construction of each. There’s also the ability to step slowly through the procedure, which is nice if you’re slow, like I am.

The site requires JavaScript and is probably best if you actually have a piece of rope to follow along with.

It surprises me a little, given how superior animations are to static images at teaching a skill like this, that such a site didn’t get created a long time ago, but it looks fairly new.

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Tue, 23 Oct 2007

Ever wondered how those guys at the IETF get the plaintext versions of the RFCs looking so darn good? Sure you have. (If you haven’t, well, you might as well skip this, because it’s all downhill from here.) As it turns out, it’s not really that hard. With a little work, you too can create great looking fixed-width plaintext — or at least fake your own RFC.

The backbone of ‘RFC Standard Format’ is ASCII text, 58 lines per page with each page terminated by a form feed, and 72 characters per line with each line terminated by a CR/LF. On top of that basic format, there are headers, footers, and a consistent title page, all of which can be seen on any RFC.

The traditional method of producing RFCs was with the Unix ‘nroff’ program, combined with a few handy addons. This process is documented in RFC 1543, “Instructions to RFC Authors.” Although still usable, this method, which requires a fair bit of manual formatting and doesn’t really separate content from presentation, has since been superceded by XML.

The current best practice is taken from RFC 2629 and its unofficial update. The RFC 2629 DTD is available here.

Basically, RFCs are written in a text editor using some simple, semantically-relevant (i.e. not style-based) elements. The entire document sits inside the <rfc> element, analogous to the <html> element in (X)HTML. There are other elements for the title, author’s name, section and subsection headers — even ASCII art. A template is available to get you started.

When complete, the XML document is fed into a processor and transformed into any number of output formats, including plaintext, HTML, or PDF. This is the beauty of XML: you write what you mean, the processor does the formatting. If you’re interested in looking at how the processor works, it’s all open source.

Since most everything in the RFC process is both well-documented and publicly available, it’s an excellent way to start learning about how to incorporate XML into a flexible workflow. And if you’re feeling up to it, you can pretty easily tweak the RFC DTDs and postprocessing utilities for your own needs.

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Mon, 22 Oct 2007

The Open Content Alliance, better known as “those people who run Archive.org” is finally getting some good press.

Although I’m a bit disappointed that the NYT decided to focus on the negative side of the equation — libraries shunning Google and Microsoft — rather than the positive, it’s nice to see a project like this being mentioned either way. And it brings up a lot of important issues concerning restrictions on digital materials, particularly public-domain materials, being compiled by corporations.

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As reported by a large segment of the Technorati crowd, Walter Mossberg recently wrote a nice piece on the current state of the U.S. cellphone market, and why it, for lack of a better word, sucks so much. The key is all in the subsidized phone racket.

[The] whole cellphone subsidy game is an archaic remnant of the days when mobile phones were costly novelties. Today, subsidies are a trap for consumers. If subsidies were removed, along with the restrictions that flow from them, the market would quickly produce cheap phones, just as it has produced cheap, unsubsidized versions of every other digital product, from $399 computers to $79 iPods.

I think he’s the first mainstream journalist that I’ve read who has really gotten this. Phone locking, enforced mutual incompatibilities, application restrictions — the entire culture of control — all springs from subsidies. If people just bought their phones outright, they’d probably be significantly cheaper (not to mention more full-featured), there would be a greater secondary market (meaning less waste), and they’d be more prone to shop for networks based on price, service, and quality.

Perhaps as it becomes more obvious that the iPhone is, despite being (in Mossberg’s words) “the best-designed handheld computer ever made,” a costly white elephant because of carrier-mandated restrictions, there will be greater national conversation about the state of cellular telephony.

As Mossberg points out, we’ve been through this with landline phones before, prior to the disassembly of AT&T as the national monopoly carrier. It took almost a century for consumers to get first comfortable with the technology, and then impatient with the restrictions placed upon it: I don’t think cellular will take that long.

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Sun, 21 Oct 2007

Warren Meyer, over at Coyoteblog.com, has a nice little article on what I find to be the most intellectually bothersome part of the modern Democratic/big-government-liberal plank: the constant tension (shall we call it hypocrisy?) between state interest in virtually all aspects of life, and a small number of seemingly arbitrary ‘sacred cows’ where no interference is allowable, e.g. abortion. He sums it up nicely:

The left pushes constantly for expansion of government regulation into every corner of our lives. They are trying to walk a line, a line so narrow I don’t think it even exists, between there being no state interest in 16 year old girls getting abortions without their parents’ knowledge or consent and there being a strong state interest in breast implants, painkillers, seat belt use, bike helmets, tobacco use, fatty foods, etc. They somehow have to make the case that that a woman is fully able to make decisions about an abortion but is not able to make decisions, without significant government regulation and intervention, about her retirement savings, the wages she accepts for her work, her use of a tanning booth, and her choice of painkillers.

Lest anyone think I’m making an anti-choice argument, here, I’m not; I’m as vehement a proponent of a woman’s right to choose as anyone, but I find the intellecual gyrations required to be both pro-choice on abortion but ‘anti-choice’ on drug use or seatbelts a bit much.

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Fri, 19 Oct 2007

A little while ago I finally succeeded in getting mobile internet working through my phone, my Mac, and a USB cable. Although not exactly something that deserves to be in the software configuration hall of fame, the end result — internet on my laptop, via my cellphone’s GPRS connection — has a fairly good ‘wow’ factor. However, it’s not the sort of thing most non-technical people are going to be able to set up easily.

And so, with that audience in mind, I wrote up my experiences in the form of a “mini-HOWTO”. It’s a quick explanation of how to get one particular hardware configuration working, step by step. Since the hardware I’m using isn’t that uncommon (a bog-standard Motorola V3 “Razr” phone, with service though T-Mobile, a Mac laptop running the currently-latest version of the OS, and a mini-USB cable), I hope maybe it’ll be of use to somebody else, somewhere on the internets.

Permanent link here. I tossed it up there as GFDL, so if anyone would like to redistribute it, or use it as the basis for a more general HOWTO, feel free.

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Sun, 07 Oct 2007

(This was originally posted to my Slashdot Journal, which allows comments and is available here.)

So I recently ran across a new site, courtesy of the fine folks at MetaFilter: Rememble. In a nutshell, it’s a sort of ‘digital scrapbooking’ site. It describes itself as “a ‘washing line’ for your digital bits and pieces. Thread together texts, photos, videos, sounds, scribbles, scans, notes, tweets… so they’re not drifting in a digital wasteland.”

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