Category Archives: Uncategorized

_why’s gone: the death of a pseudonym

If ever you wanted proof that great artists are really appreciated only after they’re gone, have a look at the outpourings from various programming communities that seem to be in mourning at the moment for a man only known as _why, full name “why the lucky stiff”. He’s not even dead (we assume and hope). He just killed his online presence without any warning, announcement, or (at least so far) explanation. Pseudonyms and anonymous existence is something mostly removed from the open source world these days: we mostly know who the names behind the IRC handles are, we see the faces giving the presentations at the conferences. But if you don’t, when the persona goes, and the work goes, then it’s an effective death as far as our one-way relationship with the author goes. Maybe the unsettling aspect about _why’s disappearance is the reminder it is that life itself is abrupt. He punctured the appearance of permanence the online world can give, leaving his fans the final irony of discussing the motive of a man known as _why.

In response to his disappearance a repository of all his salvageable work is forming. His work was unique. His best-known piece, the Poignant Guide to Ruby is a remarkable combination of programming tutorial, comic, and whimsical automatic writing with everything from a cutout beard to the narrator (perhaps _why himself, some speculate) musing on his sister’s suicide attempt.

The biggest divide in the communities seems to be over whether _why was right to so completely and abruptly bring down all his works. He had the right to stop giving to the world; but did he have the right to take it back from the world?

It’s not as if this is an unprecedented struggle: witness the battle between Victor Nabokov and his closest supporters over the fate of his final unfinished book The Original of Laura. Nabokov wanted the manuscript burned upon his death, his supporters didn’t. _why pulled everything, his supporters and admirers wish he hadn’t. Thus the scramble to undo his last act by saving it all. We recognise that _why made some beautiful things; we don’t like the idea of them perishing.

The likes of Sourceforge and Github are littered with thousands and thousands of incomplete and abandoned works, ranging from the barely conceived, to the half-started, to the almost finished, to the finished but left behind and obsoleted by the flow of progress. Their creators are content, or at least apathetic enough, to leave these works to just remain as they are, to provide whatever value is left in them to those who would come later, perhaps in the hope that another programmer with the time and interest will resurrect it, to bolster line items on their resumes, or because it would be too much effort to remove them otherwise. When the effort to destroy your work is greater than that to sustain its existence, the act of removing everything you’re known for, in the process of crumpling up your entire persona, becomes the one of the most powerful statements you can make.

The natural question in response is to ask what exactly that statement is. John Resig praises what _why’s done, calling it Buddhist. Nothing lasts. Here today, gone tomorrow. Like a sand mandala. Zed Shaw rejects that and calls it nihilist. If everything is impermanent, nothing matters. Everything is allowable. Zed suggests karma as a fixer. Everything you do will come back to haunt you, so don’t be bad to others. Which I’m not sure I find reassuring.

If you can call this the death of _why as a persona, then it wasn’t any natural death. It was suicide. Everyone’s going to die some time, but suicides are socially taboo in most cultures, acts of tragically selfish hubris. They go against the ought we perceive in life. _why’s persona ought to have just faded into non-existence. His work ought to have been left out there to bit-rot. There’s a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot says Ecclesiastes. Everything fades, but eternity is in our hearts, so we’d rather rage against the dying of the light. The unease we feel at _why’s action is borne out of the mirror of life an online existence can be. He chose when to die, when to uproot his work, and it unsettles us.

The good news is of course that _why is only a persona. And the archivists have done a good job of preserving his major work. Which makes it all the more interesting that we’re arguing the morality of what he did.

The words that define you

Interesting site via RWW called Capitol Words, which uses congressional records to display the most frequently used words by different representatives. It’s neat in how it quickly gives an indication about where a representative may have spent most of their efforts in the past year, which is particularly interesting when looking at former candidates in the presidential race. Some word clouds from more famous representatives:

Ted Stevens, infamous on the web for his "Series of Tubes" speech, infamous elsewhere for his pork barrel projects and acceptance of paltry bribes

Ted Stevens, (R) Alaska, infamous on the web for his "Series of Tubes" speech, infamous elsewhere for his pork barrel projects and acceptance of paltry bribes

Ron Paul

Ron Paul, blimp pilot and strongly principled libertarian. Also detests fiat money.

Joe Biden, VP elect

Joe Biden, VP elect. I just realised I don't know much about him

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton. Spent a lot of political energy this year and last on a universal health-care push.

John McCain

John McCain. Hard to call a dove, looking at this.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama's one is an interesting mix. Lots of Democrat keywords, particularly in the bit of internationalism and a domestic focus on social themes.

Additionally you can search by word. Think of it like Google Trends.

oil

I’d like to see someone (I really shouldn’t give myself the opportunity to procrastinate by doing this myself) do something similar with the NZ parliament’s Hansard. Actually I’d like to see someone generalise this so that it’s easy to plug in any sort of transcribed or written forum, from a Hansard to a blogroll to a Google Group to my email inbox to the SomethingAwful forums. Can someone go make that happen?

Food crisis coverup?

The commissar disapears

Here’s a case of state-sponsored photo manipulation that matches the boldness of Stalin’s celluloid liberties (like the disappearing commissar above).

Spot anything odd in this photo? It was attached to this news story.

Specifically that part. The part with the three layers of identical looking corn flakes.

The cereal’s been clone-stamped to make it look like a veritable cornucopia (Cornucopia. Heh). What’s the reality here? Is the media covering up a foodstuff shortage in NZ? Can we know that Hubbard is really smiling in the original? Maybe he’s casting his hands out in despair over the last cup of flakes left in the warehouse. Should I be hoarding Weet-bix and rolled oats?

Seriously, news photographers, clone-stamping does not improve the composition of your photos. It’s just ugly. It’s also like chartjunk in that it’s unnecessary, and though a very light shade of gray on the lie-spectrum, does say something about how you regard your audience. You’d think the bevy of stories about photographers being fired for taking similar compositional liberties would scare anyone in a newsroom a mile away from doing it.

The art and science of selling free

“Freeconomics” is the term coined by Chris Anderson (Wired editor, also coiner (or at least popularizer) of the related term “the long tail“) as a descriptor for the idea attached to all this; that there can be economic value in giving away a product or a service for free. It’s a philosophy that, while earning some rather valid criticisms, is most compelling and rapidly gaining credence in the industries that are already desperately competing with “free” in the form of piracy (or copyright infringement, choose whatever euphemism or loaded term you feel predisposed to), and just the general price competition that comes with the ongoing creation of ever new ways for consumers to split their entertainment dollar.

I paid NZ$6.57 for a new 2-CD album yesterday. Well, 2 CDs in length. Nothing more than bits in reality. It’s Ghosts, the latest album from Nine Inch Nails, whose core Trent Reznor has for a long time been bemoaning the attitude and business models of the music labels. He often said he’d prefer to just put out a high quality, DRM-free download of a new release and charge $5 for it. And as soon as he was free of his last recording contract obligation, he did just that with Ghosts. And it was a great customer experience. First, he made the first quarter (the album’s simply divided into four parts, Ghosts I,II,III and IV) available for free. It’s been kicking around my playlists for about a month now. And yesterday, reminded of it by NIN releasing a new single for free, I decided finally to hear how the rest of it goes. The only slight hesitation I had about it during the process was that it’s a large download (especially if you download the CD-quality .FLAC version), and it was a one-time download link. If the download was to fall over and die before it was actually done, where would I be left? And then I remembered the Pirate Bay, and was assuaged.

I also finished reading a free novel yesterday. As part of a lead-up to a new site launch, Tor.com has been emailing out free sci-fi and fantasy novels once a week. I’ve been hoarding the PDFs carefully, even though I opened a couple and from a quick cursory scan knew I would never actually read them. Until yesterday, when I gave one called Spin by Robert Wilson a proper look, despite its rather generic and pulpy-looking cover (What is it with American sci-fi/fantasy publishers and annoying covers? Their British counterparts have a far better batting average in this area).

There’s a certain theory going on in publishing at the moment; that people will be willing to read part of a book in e-book/PDF form, and then pay to read it as real paper. Said Shawn Nicolls of Random House to Chris Anderson in explaining a free book offer they ran, “A MP3 can be a substitute for a CD, but we’re not at the place where a pdf is a substitute for a hard book.”

Unfortunately my experience was a counter-example. I’m not being facetious, I honestly hope publishers can figure out good business models in this space.

I enjoyed Spin. I couldn’t figuratively put it down after the premise kicked in (one night, without warning, the stars and moon all disappear, and all the satellites around the world come crashing down). I found flicking through the PDF on a nice LCD in a darkened room to be a neat way to kill a few hours. The problem was what happened when I realised the the book had actually gripped me. I just sped up reading in an effort to get it done. I had no desire to stop, make a note to visit the bookstore in a few days, buy it, and then resume reading the dead tree version.

So I’m not going to buy it. The value proposition isn’t worth it anymore, and the sampler of the book’s sequel didn’t grab me.1 The average paperback novel in my collection gets read by me two or three times in its life. An average new SF paperback novel here costs about $252. The average album will get listened to hundreds of times probably over its life. If it takes me 15 hours to read through a $25 novel, and I read it twice (which won’t be happening with Spin), and I get 2 hours (double CD in Ghosts‘ case, remember) of value out of a $7 album that I listen to 30 times, then the novel works out at $0.83 an hour while the album is $0.11. Of course, you don’t actually do this sort of calculation when deciding how to spend your discretionary dollars. But if the psychological barrier between “free” and $5 is formidable (and it is), then it’s stupendous between $5 and $25. I’d love to be able to buy an ebook unencumbered by DRM for a couple of dollars knowing that it’s going direct to just the author and editor.

Because it wasn’t just the free sampler that NIN offered that got my purchase. It was the drastically affordable price point, and it was the knowledge that much more of the meagre price was going to the actual artist than would normally happen. Similarly, I had no hesitation buying Radiohead’s In Rainbows for $8 when they released it with their “pay what you want” option, also after breaking free of contractual obligations. If In Rainbows had released locally with the usual $30 sticker price I would’ve been a lot more hesitant and taken longer to buy, even though I’m a long time Radiohead fan. Being a postgrad student sparks that sort of thrift in you.

[1] Fantasy and Science Fiction being genres heavily dominated by sagas, trilogies, and stories that really should have finished long ago, the temptation is probably quite strong for publishers here to use introductory books as bait to hook readers into buying the successors. I can see the value. I don’t like the way that then risks turning into sequelitis, the pressure to convert standalone novels into ongoing storylines.

[2] I think that’s what I paid for Matter (I swear I’m going to review that one day), but that was a novel I’ve been waiting two years for from an author who I already owned eight books by. And it was an introductory special, but Borders aren’t really where you go for bargains.

Eco-my-flat

Well one of the reasons (along with the more problematic issue of not having much to write about) I haven’t posted lately was that when I have had time to post, it’s been going into posts on another blog. Five or so weeks ago, our greenest (in more than one sense of the word) flatmate Claire convinced the rest of us into begrudgingly letting her enter us in the Eco-My-Flat competition run at the University of Canterbury. 30 flats would compete over a month to become the most environmentally friendly, with $500 of insulation as the top prize.

Cameron, Claire and I just got back from the awards evening at the Dux, where it turned out we had won said competition. So in the kitty goes $500 of insulation, a 2 day stay for 4 in a lodge or cabin of some sort down in the Catlins, some vouchers of the book and bike kind, and a bottle of wine. Additionally we won a spot prize for blog post of the week, ostensibly for this photo-journal post (they said they particularly liked the still life on the stove top), but I’m preferring to imagine it was really for the comparative analysis of All Along the Watchtower and our power usage, because I spent far too much time on that. It was fun though. Turns out there’s actually quite interesting references to a passage in the book of Isaiah in that song.

So how did we get there? I don’t really know, and when we were asked this on stage I was rather glad the others had (what sounded like) good explanations ready. The competition focused on four major areas; power and heat, transport, waste, and shopping. Each week of the competition there was a workshop on each of these topics that we attended, but it was the issue of power consumption that we particularly focused on. Two interesting things we learned: our long-life bulbs like to flicker when they’re off, and our computers also like to draw quite a measurable amount of power when they’re off. So they’re getting switched off at the wall now. The computers that is, the eco-bulbs continue to flicker in the darkness like a candle in the wind. You can read about the actual improvements on those blog posts. I wrote them, so you know they’re worth the effort. Actually it’s fun browsing through all the posts. I feel our efforts were quite paltry in some ways when compared to other flats, such as the 4 guys/1 girl flat that went all vegan for a month. That’s courage.

Does your word processor really need tabbing?

Hanks Williams, a recent addition to my Google Reader subscriptions, thinks that Google Docs is fundamentally flawed. He argues that as it’s essentially just an HTML editor (with nice collaboration features), it lacks what it takes to be a real word processor. He points to Adobe’s recently purchased Buzzword as an example of a web-based word processor that has what it takes to succeed. Namely, being completely Flash-based, it offers actual control over exactly where and how things will end up on paper. He cites tabs (that is, indentation tabs, the sort you control with tab-stops, not the UI-type tabs. That had me confused for quite a bit) as a proxy for the class of print-oriented features that will ultimately separate the real contenders for the throne of Word-usurper from the ones that never really had a chance.

I believe he’s quite wrong, and there’s two sides to my thinking on this.

The first probably stems from my past five years of academic life, where any time I’ve had to write something more than a couple of pages, I was probably whipping out LaTeX or its friendlier front-end LyX. LaTeX is a document processing system that takes in raw text files marked up with its macro language, and spits out printer-ready files with a layout usually far superior to anything I could have arranged myself in a feasible amount of time. Because you edit the documents as raw text, it forces a separation of layout and content in the process of writing. Instead of worrying about what font size I was making my chapter titles, I just wrapped the chapter title in a \chapter{} tag (or just selected the “Chapter” style from the drop-down box in LyX), and let the document style sort it out.

The learning curve was a real pain though, to the point where although LaTeX is still used decades after its introduction, it’s still only really used in maths and computer science circles, though even this was because until recently (with the advent of Word 2007, which has improved things), no WYSIWYG editor had an equation editor that could begin to compare with LaTeX on the layout of mathematical formulae. Just anecdotally I think I do see Word being increasingly for writing papers in CS. But I’ve always thought that the LaTeX model was more heading in the right direction, towards a focus on the content, from a word processor towards a document processor, and eventually an idea processor, like the one Douglas Engelbart suggested in his 1962 essay Augmented Intellect.

That’s the ideal for where I’d like to see modern text editors heading. It’s why I like the appearance of tools like Zemanta, a blog editor add-in that suggests links to content and images based on what you’re writing about.

The other side to my thinking is based on current trends. The world is going paperless. Slowly, painfully, decades behind schedule, and not completely, but it is going that way. Interesting new document structures are appearing in formats that make the printed page irrelevant. Wikis are hard to print out, and it’s often pointless to do so given their often very rapid transitions in content. That hasn’t stopped them from becoming vast repositories of written information, Wikipedia being only the exemplar from which thousands of others have gained an air of legitmacy.

Microsoft too recognise this. Word in the past couple of versions has been starting to introduce usage modes that go beyond the glorified typewriter model, where the entire interface is oriented around physical pieces of paper. But it is still ultimately constrained by the baggage of a legacy interface metaphor. Sharepoint’s existence argues that the informational and social context surrounding a document is quickly becoming just as important as the documents themselves. We are consuming more textual information on screen, and of screens of different sizes too. In this world, the best solution is to just mark up the semantics and let the computers handle rendering depending on the target media. And paradigm shifts like productivity tools moving to the web are our best opportunity to break from aging metaphor.

If I’m writing a document, I don’t really want to care about indentation. If you think Buzzword’s a better word processor than Google Docs by virtue of it offering accurate page layout, then it’s not really a word processor you’re looking for. It’s a publishing and layout tool, and that’s something else.

Returning to the Culture

“Matter” by Iain M Banks, in my possession

I’ve been looking forward to this. It’s the first novel  Banks has written in his famous Culture story universe for 8 years. I was first introduced to his writing on my 14th or 15th birthday with The Player of Games, and was immediately hooked by the author’s obvious imagination and talent. This will be the ninth title of his to go on my shelf. Review to follow far too shortly, I’m sure. 🙂