Saturday, May 31, 2008

"The Laws Of Physics Of What We Do"

According to Kent Beck, in his RailsConf 2008 keynote:

teh liveblogginz:

TDD, Design Patterns, XP
basically the source, with DHH, of the "Great Surplus"

"Anything I've done that's had substance has taken 20 years."

Even Britney Spears has some good musicianship in there somewhere

read chris alexander timeless way of building in bookstore
memorizing page numbers and making frequent visits, because broke student at time

"I didn't get Cs in Computer Science until grad school"

"Yourdon Constantine Structured Design is the laws of physics of what we do"

value of XP: nobody claims to be XP unless they mean it
XP > Agile in that sense

Geoff Moore's chasm discovered years earlier
2 guys @ Iowa State studying adoption of agricultural technology among farmers
"Technology Adoption Cycle"

tell enthusiasts: "here's the newest cool thing"
tell early adopters: "here's the impact"
tell early majority: ""
tell late majority: ""

early adopters talk to enthusiasts
"there is no communication between early adopters and the early majority"

at this point you have to go to new conferences, buy new clothes
industry consortia, standards, risk mgmt, stability, etc.

"The point of every business memo is in the second-to-last paragraph."

Zed Shaw, last two paragraphs in the memo:
"Rails really needs to have a transparent services market."

"Profanity is always an expression of fear"
(fuck that)

"who's agile and who's not? what's the snail say on a turtle's back? wheeeeeee!"

"great book called words that work written by sleazy republican political consultant"

New Technologies Create New Opportunities

Here's an interesting experiment. Stage a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and use Archaeopteryx for the audio. Set it on an ambient music course, and instead of giving it key progressions which emphasize harmony and beauty, use minor keys and discordant shifts, and shitloads of samples of George Bush. Have the process of entering the theater mimic the TSA experience; require that theater-goers remove their shoes, pass them through a phony conveyor belt, and submit to unnecessary searches; have an actor planted in the line, who is dragged off to be audibly tortured. Get vocal samples of that actor and add those samples to the Archaeopteryx mix. Keep it low, and quiet, but never absent. Use modern clothes and an aggressive mood. There's a scene where an old man (named Giles!) attacks a sneaky manipulator over an injustice; in the stage directions he doesn't actually hit the guy, but in this production he can, and should. Charged and ominous and fierce. Surveillance cameras in the backdrop.

If you're in Los Angeles, stay tuned; I may actually do this.

DHH's Keynote Was Fucking Magnificent

(Even though he swiped slides from my talk on code generation.)

Last year he bored us all to tears reiterating stuff about Rails 2 which we already knew. This year he went all-out and the talk was nearly worth the price of the conference in and of itself. Josh Susser's summary is here.

First They Came For The Transformers

And I said nothing, because I was not a giant robot.

Go through security, get pulled to the side. I'm wearing a French Connection Transformers t-shirt. Bloke starts joking with me is that Megatron. Then he explains that since Megatron is holding a gun, I'm not allowed to fly. WTF? It's a 40 foot tall cartoon robot with a gun as an arm. There is no way this shirt is offensive in any way, and what I'm going to use the shirt to pretend I have a gun?

Now here's the stupid part. I was only taking carry on luggage, so my clothes were in my bag, so I said I'd get changed. So I stripped off at security and changed t-shirts, putting the "offensive" t-shirt in my bag. Now I haven't been a dick so far, I've done what they've said. No point in arguing with the drones.

The supervisor comes over and is now a dick to me, telling me if I put the shirt on I'll be arrested. I then told him that I wasn't going to waste time arguing with him and he wasn't worth the effort and didn't have any power to change anything anyway. With hindsight I should have said, yeah arrest me, great publicity for you guys to arrest a bloke wearing a transformers t-shirt.

It started like this in Nazi Germany.

The Gestapo had the authority to investigate treason, espionage and sabotage cases, and cases of criminal attacks on the Nazi Party and Germany. A law passed by the government in 1936 gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial oversight. The Gestapo was specifically exempted from responsibility to administrative courts, where citizens normally could sue the state to conform to laws. As early as 1935, however, a Prussian administrative court had ruled that the Gestapo's actions were not subject to judicial review.

When do we get our class-action lawsuit against the TSA? Their entire reason for existence is unreasonable search and seizure. The entire organization is illegal and violates United States law all day every day.

And the real problem isn't the absurdity, nor even the violence and death the TSA has caused. The real problem is that the kids are getting used to it.

Just in case it isn't obvious, this is what the TSA is for. If you're going to introduce a big change, the best thing to do is to first spend a little time and warm people up for it. Every circus in the world sends in the clowns before the lions and the tigers.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Twitter Response To RailsConf 2008 MagLev Presentation: Holy Shit!

(I mean everyone who knew what Gemstone was doing)

RailsConf 2008 EngineYard Talk: Nginx FTW

Thursday, May 29, 2008

$15 Billion Is A Modest Valuation

If you're over 30 and single, Facebook can introduce you to 19-yr-old girls on perpetual spring break who want to triple-team you in your home town.

That's worth a lot more than $15 billion. That's the Holy Grail.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Touchscreen Turntables

attigo tt

RailsConf Book-Signing Friday

Along with Josh Susser, Mike Clark, and probably many other contributors, I'll be signing copies of Advanced Rails Recipes on Friday at the Powell's Books booth in the Oregon Convention Center. Come by and say hi.

Never Hate. Only Ever Destroy.

Just For The Sake Of Contrast

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch

Black and white photography emphasizes contrast, but that's not what I mean.

In my post on trolls, Hacker News, and the need for better filtering, I described myself as having a Tim Bray Problem and a Cory Doctorow Problem, but qualified that by saying it was completely different from having a problem with Tim Bray or a problem with Cory Doctorow.

I think it's possible that this could have been perceived as backpedalling or equivocating or insincere. I've heard Tim Bray even blogged a defense of some kind, although I don't know how you could defend yourself from an accusation like "I personally do not share even one of your interests." However, I'm now going to demonstrate that I was in fact speaking truthfully, and you can in fact take my words at face value.

What I said about Tim Bray was that the only thing I find interesting about him is his hat. I compared him to a glass of water when I am not thirsty. I said "Unlike Tim Bray, Cory Doctorow often annoys me" - which would imply that Tim Bray annoys other people, or rarely annoys me, or does not annoy me at all. And in fact it's the latter that is the case - the whole nature of the Tim Bray Problem is that frequent exposure to information which consistently leaves you indifferent is an inefficient phenomenon.

How Tim Bray took any of that personally, I don't know. As personal attacks go, it could certainly be more vicious. I'm hoping Cory Doctorow had a thicker skin, and/or better things to do with his time. The Cory Doctorow Problem doesn't have anything to do with Cory Doctorow the person.

The whole point of the Cory Doctorow Problem is that the fundamental assumption with Internet celebrities - that a very smart person will always be interesting - is false. Cory Doctorow doesn't annoy me because of any personal failing, but because his name identifies a source of excellent insight on social software, valuable news on copyright politics, utterly useless self-promotional posts, sometimes-valuable sci-fi posts, sometimes-valuable bookcase posts, and utterly useless posts on Disneyland, for some insane reason which I will probably never understand, or, more to the point, be very curious about. What irritates me is essentially a search failure; I can seek excellent insight on social software and end up reading pointless trivia about a corporate amusement park filled with plastic birds on plastic trees. But that's not Cory Doctorow failing as a human being; it's "Cory Doctorow" failing as a search term.

This is also why I think Doctorow's idea of Whuffie is bullshit on a pogo stick. His name fails partially as a search term because his writing covers many topics, but only some of them interest me. This is because he's a human being, human beings have many interests, and a one-dimensional variable like PageRank cannot capture that. Similarly, reputations have many dimensions, and a one-dimensional variable like Whuffie can't capture that either. I have other points of disagreement as well, but that's a whole different post. And it's still the idea - not the human being.

Bullshit on a pogo stick

Going back to the idea of whether or not I have problems with these guys, since I have problems named after them, I can assure you, I don't, and in fact I can prove it.

This is what looks like when I do have a problem with somebody:

I hope that clears a few things up. I think it makes a pretty vivid contrast when set against "this person isn't interesting in my opinion."

One other concern: apologies for the incredible negativity concerning Michael Arrington, his minions, and, to a lesser extent, Cory Doctorow's posts and book about Disneyland.

On Boing Boing, a mostly-fantastic blog which occasionally also covers Disneyland, they follow up disturbing or gross posts with a unicorn chaser. I think all this negativity deserves a unicorn chaser as well.

Feel better? Great. Now back to the seriousness.

With the negativity concerning Arrington and his army of winged monkeys, I broke two of my cardinal rules:

1. Never hate, only ever destroy.
2. Forgive everything.

Obviously, I don't hold to these rules as perfectly as I'd like. They're more perpetual goals, really. If I held to them perfectly, I'd be some strange Web 2.0 combination of Jesus Christ and Lord Shiva, a fire-breathing, forgiving, perpetually-twittering angel of death, and TechCrunch would have been brought to its merciful release many moons ago.

I'm about to redeem myself - I'm about to destroy TechCrunch, in the eyes of some of the people who read these words. For some of you, this will be the moment the shoe drops and you stop reading TechCrunch forever. But to follow my own rules, before I can do that, I have to forgive Arrington, because that's how these rules work. (And they do work.)

How Do I Hate Thee? Let Me Count The Ways

One of the things I have against Michael Arrington is that he perpetuates the lottery-ticket mythology of venture capital which makes high-tech such an imperfect world. But a more important reason to avoid Michael Arrington is that he doesn't really know about, or write about, making money per se. What he writes about is a subset of all available strategies for making money, and a subset concerned specifically with leveraging the advantages of upper-class privelege to get other people to create wealth for you.

Here's something you'll never read about on TechCrunch:

Muhammad Yunus, who developed micro-financing (and later won a Nobel prize for this invention). In Yunus' scheme a woman who owned virtually nothing could get a loan of $200 to purchase a cow. She would then sell the surplus milk of the cow to pay back the loan, earn both milk and an income for her family, and maybe buy another cow. Ordinarily, no bank would have lent her this trifling amount because she had no collateral, no education, and the costs of overseeing such a small loan with small gains would have been prohibitive. Grameen Bank, Yunus' creation, discovered that these illiterate peasants were actually more likely to repay these small loans, and were very happy to pay good interest rates, and so that in aggregate, these micro-loans were more profitable than loaning to large industrial players.

Muhammad Yunus (left), winning the Nobel Prize

This man leveraged the benefits of upper-class education to create wealth by helping other people create wealth for themselves.

If you have an interest in economics, emerging business strategies, and Web 2.0 approaches to leveraging collective action, this is news you can use. Likewise, if you have an interest in economics, emerging business strategies, and Web 2.0 approaches to leveraging collective action, TechCrunch is probably one of the places you go for news. But if you expected to find this particular news on TechCrunch, you'd be wrong, because it isn't part of the venture capital system. Everything on TechCrunch revolves around the venture capital system.

This system is almost identical to the pre-industrial patronage system for artists, where extremely rich people would give artists financial support, nominally out of the goodness of their hearts, but in practical terms, in exchange for making them look good. Landed nobles - the wealthiest people in the world at the time - would compete to see who could support the most talented artists. Today we have a system where the wealthiest people in the world compete to see who can support the most visionary engineers. It's the same system.

That's why there are so many copycat startups. If startups are basically just fashion accessories which make extremely wealthy people look good, then it makes perfect sense that whenever the new fashion strikes, everybody needs to be wearing one.

The only major difference between the two systems is the addition of a lottery ticket, the IPO. If you win this lottery, you become an investor too. You graduate from the ranks of supported artists into the ranks of the landed nobles, and you start trying on a few artists of your own, to see how they make you look.

The story of Muhammad Yunus and his economic innovations, interesting though it is, relevant though it is, and thought-provoking though it is, does not belong on TechCrunch, because Muhammad Yunus is not available in your size. You cannot buy Muhammad Yunus, and he is not looking to employ anyone either. TechCrunch is about a particular marketplace, and Yunus isn't in it. But it goes deeper than that - Yunus probably never made a blip on Arrington's radar, because there are no "power players" here. There's just a bunch of nice people who made a bunch of money together, making life better for the entire world. In the eyes of the venture capital system, that isn't interesting.

In fact Yunus' story is actually actively counter-productive to the interests of systems like the venture capital system, since that is a system which maintains class division around concentrations of wealth, and this story demonstrates that eroding or circumventing those systems can be more profitable than co-operating with them.

The real reason you won't find this stuff on TechCrunch is because TechCrunch is about power, not money; because this story is too capitalist for the world of venture capital; and because TechCrunch embodies extremely unpleasant class politics.

TechCrunch comments on Zed Shaw's rant

Another thing I have against TechCrunch is its dishonesty.

You probably never expected to see this next very improbable sentence, least of all on my blog, but: Valleywag to the rescue!

Like virtually everything else Michael Arrington says, this "journalism is evolving" statement is false, evil, and blatantly self-serving, yet close enough to the truth to be worth thinking about. In this case, the true version would actually be that marketing is evolving. Obviously, if you invest in a company and then write about how great it is, this is marketing. A child could tell the difference.

I mean if you've got a hot wife, and I advise her to sleep with me, it's not exactly marriage counseling.

I see you looking at her, buddy. I'm right here.

So we've got somebody self-serving, intelligent, and consistently dishonest, who consistently shovels the "Twitter proves Rails doesn't scale" bullshit and attacks 37 Signals' ideas on business - ideas which start with discarding the traditional reliance on venture capital. So you've got these business strategies which undermine the class politics and power relationships of the venture capital system - and Michael Arrington attacks them. And you've got these technologies which allow tiny companies to build game-changing Web apps virtually for free, again undermining the class politics and power relationships of the venture capital system - and Michael Arrington attacks them too.

You might wonder how TechCrunch could get so much wrong on the technical side of their Twitter coverage. It's not laziness or stupidity. Arrington's calculating, canny, and politically astute. He makes mistakes, but he doesn't make stupid mistakes. Rails and Getting Real both present fundamental challenges to what Arrington does and who he is. If every programmer in the world switched to Rails and Getting Real, Arrington would have to get a job.

I'm not saying there's some kind of conspiracy - I'd be surprised if there were. What I am saying is that Arrington is just so fucking evil that it's essentially impossible for him (or his minions) to accurately perceive Rails or Twitter or Getting Real. He's smart enough, and if he wanted to round up some decent technical overview of the issues and technologies involved, he could certainly find people to ask. He's got the brains and he's got the connections, but discovering and propagating the truth are both fundamentally not in his interest.

You can determine the nature of his blind spot around Rails by examining what else falls into his blind spot. Muhammad Yunus falls into his blind spot. Why? No power players. Just capitalism. Not interesting. Why does Rails fall into his blind spot? Same reason. No power players. Just capitalism. Not interesting.

Arrington's vicious and powerful, and his site is perpetuating lies about Rails that really should have died last year. But let's keep hope alive. We all have blind spots. We've all gotten negative or angry when we should have just paused to seek out the truth. We've all been tempted to stretch the truth once, or to rationalize something we did. We've all made these mistakes. Arrington's human, just like us.

I'm sure one day he'll be older and wiser.

Mike Arrington, 30 years from now

Actually, an older, wiser Arrington might not be a good thing.

@vishnu endangered species nom nom nom

Let's hope Lord Shiva collects him soon.

Burn Palo Alto Burn

Stop reading TechCrunch. Read Getting Real instead. And ask hard questions about the venture capital system.

I addressed these issues in detail in a presentation at GoRuCo in New York this April. If you want more about this topic, including the answer for programmers - or at least my answer for programmers - check it out.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Good Coffee Near The Oregon Convention Center

Leaving for RailsConf in a couple days, so I twittered a request for infoz, and "stumptown ftw!" was the unanimous consensus.


Stumptown Coffee

Grand Central Bakery

Coffee shops that aren't Starbucks near the Oregon Convention Center

There's a good chance this info's useful to some of my subscribers. See ya in a few days.

Los Angeles: Seaside Presentation Weds. Night

I can't make it because of a conference call for a project, but if you're in Los Angeles, check this out. Randall Schwartz is giving a Seaside presentation at the Thousand Oaks Perl users group.

Look At All The Blogs I'm Not Reading

A few days ago I posted that I wanted to ban my own blog from Hacker News. Now I can.

Eric from Internet Duct Tape made a wicked-cool personal ban script for Firefox (which requires Greasemonkey) which allows you to ban sites from your personal view of Reddit or Hacker News with a single click.

Number 1 is missing for a reason; it's a TechCrunch link. TechCrunch is permanently banned from my personal copy of Firefox, so I never have to see a single TechCrunch link ever again.

The same is true for Coding Horror, Steve Yegge, and Scobleizer, and the minute my own blog shows up on Hacker News again, I'm banning that too (for slightly different reasons). I banned, too. That was difficult, but overdue.

RIP Sidney Pollack

Monday, May 26, 2008

Never Confuse Corporations With Law Enforcement

Ariel Waldman Twitter harassment: the overview, @ Ars Technica

Online harrassment of women is pervasive and horrible, so I hate to say this, but Twitter is right and Flickr is wrong.

Since Twitter and I had an open dialog started, I would periodically report cases of continuing harassment (some of which spread between Flickr and Twitter). Twitter would take no action while Flickr would immediately ban and remove all traces of the harassment.

Here we've got two distinct approaches to handling harassment: Flickr plays the role of cop, and Twitter stays out of it.

Twitter's legal reasoning - fear of a lawsuit if they ban somebody - is totally incomprehensible to me. It almost seems insane. But the conclusion they reached, that it's not for them to play law enforcement, is totally reasonable.

Harassment on the Web is a problem, but attempting to solve it by handing individual corporations the role of law enforcement creates several additional problems.

First, it's not in every case actually law enforcement - insulting terms which carry no specific factual allegation are legal. I can call any random person a douchebag; but if I were to claim a person did some specific thing, with no actual evidence to suggest it occurred, or reason to believe it occurred, that would be illegal. Waldman's harasser called her a "cunt," which is legal, but also referred to her as a "crack-whore" and made up unfounded allegations about her as well. Both of these are (as far as I understand it) illegal under libel laws.

However, these are fine legal distinctions, and they're not for a random blogger with no formal legal training to make. They're not for corporate lawyers to make, either. Such lawyers have only their corporation's interests to protect. They are under no obligation to protect users, and giving them that role without also giving them that responsibility is foolish.

Because companies are under no legal obligation to protect our reputations, we have no protection under the law should they fail to do so; nor would we have any protection under the law if they were to conspire in damaging those reputations, either actively or through negligent application of their terms of service.

In a case of harassment and slander, you go to the courts, you don't place a phone call to Twitter's CEO. If you were robbed in a 7-11, you wouldn't demand justice from the cashier. You'd call 911. Likewise, if one of your users calls you up, asking you to play the role of law enforcement, you should decline. Banning or not banning users, and policing their behavior, is an inappropriate and legally risky role for corporations to play.

By playing the role of cop, Flickr encouraged people in thinking of them as authorities who protect, rather than as a corporation, whose primary interests are business interests. The problem there, of course, is that a corporation is what they actually are. Twitter made the same mistake, and it could bite them on the ass.

Twitter is taking the position that it "is a communication utility, not a mediator of content." In theory, this is a completely true and accurate position to take - but Twitter may not be able to take it. They've already, before this situation, banned users for harassment and for "inappropriate" content. By policing their content in the past, they have taken on a role they cannot sustain. They've created an expectation of protection, both through the actions they've taken in the past and through their terms of service. Having mediated content in the past severely undermines their position that they are not a mediator of content. In theory it should be true but in practice it has no credibility.

I have no idea if this thing is headed for the courts or not - I have nothing to do with it and taking a legalistic perspective is often overly dire and serious - but some case of this nature will end up in the courts sooner or later. It's only a matter of time. If you want to make sure you're not the Web app that gets to make legal history, the only responsible choice you can make is to categorically refuse to police your users in any way at all.

From the users' point of view, it's important to remember that social software is about shaping communities, and when you deal with rules which shape communities, you deal with politics.

Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, because it is the merger of state and corporate power.
- Benito Mussolini
(Fascist dictator of Italy and enemy of the United States in WW2)

Separation of state and corporation is as important as separation of church and state. Assigning your protection to a corporation means subordinating your protection to somebody else's business needs. The convention on the Web of terms of service "agreements" being site-specific equivalents to the law will probably one day be considered a short-lived historical curiousity, a footnote demonstrating the Web's Wild West origins. It is very much unscalable.

Be Nice To Your Parents

You might need their basement soon.

Elephant Massage

Sunday, May 25, 2008

In This Moment She Lives Forever

a very true los angeles

I would have them fight, and move, and love. An actor's approach to silence. But the film is still and quiet and they do not do dramatic things. The words spill just like these.

It is more than pretty.

via t3h b01n6

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Seek And Ye Shall Find

Recently I've been looking for new ideas in sci-fi.

And marketing music in the digital age.

And live DJ/VJ performance.

Microsoft/Yahoo Shouldn't Matter To Anyone But Flickr Users

Nothing else either company does is worth a split-second of anyone's time.

Let's move on.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ghost In The Shell Pics

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Summon Monsters? Open The Door? Heal? Or Die?

It's the name of a Murakami book and exhibit, but it's also the question taunting online journalism.

Jason Calcanis thinks newspapers will die; newspapers themselves are trying to heal; and Adrian Holovaty wants to open the door.

But Digg, Reddit, and Hacker News have all chosen summoning monsters - specifically, trolls.

Here's my comment on a Hacker News thread about sites HN users want to see banned from HN:

I wish I was kidding. I'm absolutely serious. My life would absolutely be better if I never saw my own blog on Hacker News. I read Hacker News to discover new stuff I can benefit from reading. Nothing I've already posted is ever going to be a new discovery to me, by definition, and the comments my posts get on Hacker News are distracting and infuriating. Those comments are always new stuff, but they're very rarely new stuff I can benefit from reading. Once in a while I learn something or discover a new perspective, but these comments more usually just send me into episodes of Tourette's Syndrome.

Here's a small thread where I responded to critics on Hacker News:

I didn't really get anything out of posting that, or reading the comments that prompted it. The entire incident had no value at all, and probably shortened my life by at least a few seconds (anger and hostility have profoundly negative health effects). Many people have noticed this sort of thing, and it's pretty much inherent to the structure of blog commenting in general.

A funny thing about these sites is that they know about this problem. Hacker News is very concerned about not turning into the next Reddit; Reddit was created as a better Digg; and Digg's corporate mission statement is "at least we're not Slashdot." None of them seem to realize that the order from least to most horrible is identical to the order from youngest to oldest, or that every one of them was good once and isn't any longer. There's an entirely consistent and predictable theme here: devolution, and people who are surprised when it happens. It should be obvious, when it happens this consistently, that the decay isn't incidental; it's inherent. If it happens every time, for every site of this nature, it isn't coincidence.

Another thing which happens every time for every site of this nature is me telling sloppy thinkers to go to hell. People on Reddit and Hacker News think of me as a jerk, but there's a simple explanation for that: on Reddit and Hacker News, I am a jerk. This doesn't bother me much. There's a homeless couple who think of me as a saint, because I bought them a huge meal at Taco Bell. At that Taco Bell, on that day, for those people, I was a saint. Everyone has the capacity to be a jerk or a saint, so the smart thing to do is find contexts which maximize your saint potential and minimize your jerk potential. Obviously for me, neither Reddit nor Hacker News qualifies as such a context.

Unfortunately I spend more time at Hacker News than I do at Taco Bell. I go back to these sites anyway (albeit reluctantly, and with decreasing frequency), because, if you're willing to filter them dilligently, they provide a valuable and interesting stream of new information - but with terrible side effects. The side effects occur predictably in every variant of this approach to aggregating streams of news, because these Web apps are a terrible, terrible way of aggregating such streams.

Capturing the aggregate information about what a given community considers interesting is very useful; but it's insane to conflate what the community finds useful in aggregate with what each member of the community will personally find useful. Unfortunately, very many sites have made precisely this insane mistake - practically everyone except, in fact. Consequently we have a whole genre of sites with very predictable signal/noise decay.

This happens because the kind of filtering that a social networking approach to news gives you has some serious flaws. I'm mainly ranting about the Hordes Of Moronic Imbeciles Expressing Their Opinions About You Problem, but two other problems to consider are the Tim Bray Problem and the Cory Doctorow Problem. These guys are each more interesting to the developer community than they are to me, which puts them on my radar way more often than they should be, and in either case this causes a problem.

The Tim Bray Problem is that the developer community pays a lot of attention to Tim Bray, but I have never derived any use at all from any information connected to Tim Bray in any way, and after exposure to a lot of such information, I'm becoming very confident that nothing Tim Bray says about anything will ever make any difference to me one way or the other.

This man's hat is literally the only interesting thing about him at all. (It's a fedora.)

As aggravating as the Tim Bray problem is, it's easy to fix. You could solve it with a regular expression.

The Cory Doctorow Problem is related, but much thornier. The Cory Doctorow problem is that the developer community also pays a lot of attention to Cory Doctorow, like Tim Bray, and virtually everything Cory Doctorow says is absolutely useless in my opinion, again like Tim Bray, but unlike Tim Bray, Cory Doctorow occasionally delivers insight that is absolutely crucial and nothing short of brilliant.

Cory Doctorow's a lot like blog comments in general, in that extracting the signal from the noise nearly requires an element of masochism in your personality. His sparkling moments of genius, essential and unmissable though they are, elude you completely unless you're willing, for their sake, to sacrifice a lot of time to filtering out his gigantic standard daily quota of incredible time-wasting silliness.

Unlike Tim Bray, Cory Doctorow often annoys me. The Cory Doctorow Problem is worse for me than the Tim Bray Problem, because Tim Bray is a glass of water when I'm not thirsty, and Cory Doctorow is a winning lottery ticket buried under a hundred thousand yipping chihuahuas who all need to pee. I could really use that lottery ticket, but I really don't want to deal with those chihuahuas.

Both these problems present major obstacles to getting real value out of social networking news sites, but the worst obstacle of all is the system of upmodding and downmodding comments. Your search for news becomes derailed into a video game - anything which involves computers and scoring points ultimately becomes a video game - and as video games go, it isn't a lot of fun. It sure as hell isn't Tetris.

Worse yet, it's almost ubiquitous. If you're highly vulnerable to distraction, this game will steal your time. We should all know that it's an incompetent social networking strategy because it comes from Slashdot originally - a site which specializes in crashing innocent servers so that nerds have an excuse to swear at each other - but despite this horrible pedigree, it's a very popular approach. Every site which uses this approach inevitably ends up hated by former users, so it's kind of weird that the approach is so popular, but there's an easy explanation. The ultimate reason, of course, is a mistaken belief - specifically, the idea that user numbers are a better metric for Web app success than usefulness. This implies that anything which generates more traffic is inherently better. But purely for the sake of argument, let's abandon this 1997 mentality and ask ourselves how useful a site like Reddit or Hacker News can ever really be.

When you build a system where you get points for the number of people who agree with you, you are building a popularity contest for ideas. However, your popularity contest for ideas will not be dominated by the people with the best ideas, but the people with the most time to spend on your web site. Votes appear to be free, like contribution is with Wikipedia, but in reality you have to register to vote, and you have to be there frequently for your votes to make much difference. So the votes aren't really free - they cost time. If you do the math, it's actually quite obvious that if your popularity contest for ideas inherently, by its structure, favors people who waste their own time, then your contest will produce winners which are actually losers. The most popular ideas will not be the best ideas, since the people who have the best ideas, and the ability to recognize them, also have better things to do and better places to be.

Even if you didn't know about the long tail, you'd look for the best ideas on Hacker News (for example) not in its top 10 but in its bottom 1000, because any reasonable person would expect this effect - that people who waste their own time have, in effect, more votes than people who value it - to elevate bad but popular ideas and irretrievably sink independent thinking. And you would be right. TechCrunch is frequently in HN's top ten. Meanwhile, I just decided to test this theory, so I went to the absolute bottom of the Hacker News list of stories, and I found out Malcolm Gladwell's got a new book on the way.

The flawed design assumptions of sites in the Hacker News genre inherently attract trolls and inherently reward those trolls for polluting our minds with their groupthink. This is why racism and sexism do so well on those horrible sites. It's also why I want my blog banned from Hacker News. I'm not even kidding.

It's not coincidence. It's a fundamental design flaw. Building a site like Hacker News and then trying to keep it from being overrun with losers and nimrods is like coating your kitchen floor in powdered sugar and then trying to keep it clear of ants and earwigs. People are asking themselves how to save Hacker News, and they need to realize there is only one technology which can save Hacker News, and that is the time machine.

However, although this obviously aggravates me, I know what Nietzsche said about it: battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster. I don't always remember this rule, but I observe it when I can. Railing against the madness of it all and getting my blog banned from Hacker News would accomplish a lot less for me than just putting down the Hacker News crackpipe and becoming one of those lovely people with a cool calm head and better things to do.

But there's an important caveat: just because people have things to do doesn't mean they can't learn things from the rest of the world. People with too much self-respect for negativity magnets still need a good way to get their news. I want to throw out the bathwater, not the baby.

I've come up with what I believe is a powerful solution, but unfortunately I don't currently have time to implement it. This may change in future. If so, I'll start it as a business. If not, I'll start it as an open-source project and spend time evangelizing it. One way or another, I'm going to introduce my fix to the world, because people shouldn't have to choose between flame wars and autistic mode.

Autistic mode, of course, comes from Ghost In The Shell, and there's no surer sign of fundamental brokenness in the systems geeks use to share information with each other than the fact that more geeks know about Cory Doctorow's dull, shallow, lazy, unimaginative, self-serving, and unbearably self-absorbed Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom than have seen the anime TV series version of Ghost In The Shell - true-school hard sci-fi cyberpunk which is infinitely superior to both movie versions, and on a level with the original manga.

Cory Doctorow has some great moments, but if you say "science fiction" to somebody, and they think Cory Doctorow before they think Masamune Shirow, that means our information-sharing systems are polluted with bullshit, and I for one am tired of it.


Update 2:

I can't believe I didn't see this coming:

I don't have a problem with Tim Bray - I have a Tim Bray Problem. I don't always choose my words as carefully as I'd like, but as far as these specific words are concerned, I intend them very precisely. Likewise, even though I obviously have a bee in my bonnet about Doctorow's Magic Kingdom book, I expect to like Little Brother when I finally get the time to read it. It's not even slightly personal.

Update 3:

If you've been on the Internet for a while you probably recognize a number of tactics in this post as blatant trolling.

The core argument I'm making here is that fundamental design flaws in sites like Hacker News make them extremely vulnerable to trolling.

Logically, therefore, if my argument is correct, you would expect this piece of trolling to do well on Hacker News.

It was in the top 10 yesterday. It's still in the top 10 today. Quod erat demonstrandum.

My experience with blog posts which address flaws in social software that encourages unhealthy interaction patterns between its users is that these blog posts are often interpreted as personal attacks and rarely as serious analysis. But consider the serious analysis. The flaws are two: one, the voting/registration systems reward trolls and bury great information; two, the commenting systems turn discussion into a video game. If you pay attention to these two flaws, you don't even need me to describe my secret planned technological solution, because it's already obvious.