Server move done

The move to the new server is done and the old site is up.  I’ve also upgraded WordPress to the latest version.  I inadvertently deleted some of the images before putting the new site up, I’ll get around to fixing that shortly.

Oddities in the news 100 years ago

Here are some oddities from the Wisconsin State Journal 100 years ago today (September 29, 1913):

Oddities in the News of a Day

Cincinnati, O.—A male passenger on a street car narrowly escaped a mobbing by fellow passengers because he cut a feather off a woman’s hat when it tickled him.

Northfield, N.J.—After he turned a deer loose that had trapped itself in his barn, Jacob Hildebrandt was offered $100 by a wealthy neighbor who wanted it for his game preserve.

Baltimore, Md.—Having completed a scientific expedition in South America, Dr. Andrew W. Sellards returned with eighty billion germs; among them are those of leprosy, yellow fever and pellagra

New York—The little one-day-old sone of Mr. and Mrs. George Rucklin missed being an American by three hours. He was born on the steamer Verdi while fifty miles away from port.

Oregon’s output of gold, silver, copper and lead increased from $668,016 in 1911 to $849,896 in 1912 according to today’s bulletin of the S. S. geological survey. Two thirds of this increase was in gold, which amounted to $770,041 of the year’s output.

Paris.—Mlle. Francoise Prudent, who was erroneously registered as a boy and summoned for military service, said she would serve in the army if given the ballot.

The Bradley Lumber Co. of St. Paul, has filed with the interstate commerce commission claims against nearly 100 railroads to recover $20,000 in freight charges which the company alleges were excessive under the new lumber rates put in effect May 1 last.

Thoughts about postcards

I was at an antique mall a little while ago, browsing vintage postcards.  I was reading the backs of them; short little stories written by everyday people about everyday things.  “The weather is nice here”; “I received your message”; “I’ll be home on the 27th”; “I saw such-and-such yesterday”; and so on.  What did occur to me is that all of these people, who had all sorts of everyday concerns, are all dead now.  Macabre, but true.  What about us?  Are we getting so bogged down in our everyday lives that we forget that, one day, they’re going to end?  Are we doing the things in our life that are really important, or are we oblivious to what they even are?

Does Your Vote Matter?

As we prepare to turn the calendars to November, the question of whether your vote matters raises its head. If we ignore all the rhetoric, the only sensible answer to that question is no, your vote does not matter.

Think about it. The only way in which your vote might possibly matter is if everyone else were completely deadlocked, so that your vote turns a tie vote into a one-vote win or a one-vote win into a tie. Now, say that you were voting in an election where there were three voters. The other two voters would deadlock 50% of the time, so your vote would matter 50% of the time. If there were five voters, the other four would deadlock 37.5% of the time, so your vote would matter 37.5% of the time. The percentage of the time in which your vote matters goes down as the number of voters increases. Once you get to 10,001 voters, your vote only matters about 1 time in 125; you could vote all your life and never have an election decided by your vote.

But, in many elections nowadays, the results are decided by the votes of many tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or in some cases millions, of voters. The odds of your vote actually mattering to elect one candidate or another is essentially zero. So, your vote doesn’t matter.

Just because your vote doesn’t matter doesn’t mean that your vote is meaningless; it can actually be quite liberating to realize that your vote doesn’t matter, and it can allow you to find your own meaning in voting. One way to find your own meaning is to vote for the candidate that you really like, no matter what party they represent, instead of, say, voting for the same mainstream candidate that you always vote for but don’t really like. Your vote won’t mean much, but it won’t mean much anyway. But you have remained true to yourself and what you really believe in, and you’ve voted the way you really wanted to vote.

A&E Television tonight

So, I’m watching A&E right now, and what I’ve seen for the last 10 minutes is this 4-second or so loop over and over of some guy saying “I don’t remember if she had it on the floor right there, or…”  Weird.  Anyone else seeing that?

Should everyone learn to program?

A few weeks ago I read a blog post by Jeff Atwood about this topic. You can probably guess by the title of the post, “Please Don’t Learn to Code” that Atwood would answer “no” to the question I’ve posed above. I’ve thought about Atwood’s article for a few weeks, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I disagree. I think it’s important that everyone should know how to program. Having some programming experience is a valuable tool in our modern world, where computers are ubiquitous.

Atwood starts by ridiculing NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s 2012 New Year’s Resolution to learn coding. Atwood is absolutely right here; this is a dumb resolution. But that’s not because programming would be something useless for Bloomberg to learn. It’s because there are only 24 hours in a day, and the best use the Bloomberg can make of them is to learn things that will help him do his job better. If Bloomberg were, say, 15 years old again and he had a ton of free time on his hands, it would probably be worthwhile for him to learn programming. Not right now though.

Atwood then says, “I would no more urge everyone to learn programming than I would urge everyone to learn plumbing. That’d be ridiculous, right?” Plumbing is an interesting choice for comparison purposes. Just like computers, we interact with plumbing every day, although perhaps not to the same extent. But you know what, it’s not ridiculous. I think that everyone should know some plumbing. I think that we all should know enough so that we’re not completely helpless if the sink is blocked. I’m not saying that we all need to know enough to become a professional plumber; there’s nothing wrong with calling a plumber if you have a big plumbing job. Even if your big job is something you could fix yourself with sufficient expertise, it’s still fine to call a plumber. I probably could replace the motor on my sump pump if it fails, but I’d much rather pay someone to stick their hands into smelly pits and I’d much rather be absolutely sure that the job is done right. However, with something easy and simple like plunging a blocked sink, I think you should know how to do that yourself. Furthermore, it’s a good idea to have a basic idea of how the plumbing in your house works; this helps prevent you from doing dumb things like trying to flush your garbage down the toilet.

With programming, it’s the same sort of thing. I don’t necessarily think that everyone should major in computer science in college, but if they have a basic understanding of programming, it should help them feel more empowered when they need to figure out how to do something, and it might help them understand why some things don’t work the way they think they should.

Atwood writes, “Don’t celebrate the creation of code, celebrate the creation of solutions.” I agree completely. Teaching someone how to program should not be a matter of getting them to memorize keywords and syntax, just like teaching someone mathematics should not be a matter of getting them to memorize formulae and tables. An introductory programming course should be primarily about teaching students how to solve problems, teaching them how to think logically, with the language syntax being secondary. (This is what mathematics classes should be about too. All too often they aren’t, though, but that’s an issue for another day…)

In a world where computers will very shortly be pervasive, it is important to have a basic understanding of how people get them to work. I think that the best way of getting that understanding is to do a bit of programming. Not everyone should become a programmer for a living; far from it. But having an idea of how it’s done will be invaluable in the world of tomorrow.

The Future of Citizendium

I have an account and was once an occasional contributor at Citizendium, but I hadn’t been there for a while (for those of you who aren’t familiar with Citizendium (CZ), it’s an encyclopedia project, similar in principle to Wikipedia, but there is “expert oversight” of articles and anonymous or pseudonymous contributions are not allowed). The other week, I visited the site again. One of the first things that I noticed was that the Sitenotice has this big, bold message reading: “Help Keep Our Mission Alive! We have a continuing need for funds to pay for hosting our servers. Please make your donations here.” Looks like the site has some money problems. This is confirmed by reading the financial report, which indicates that, for the most part, donations are not keeping up with expenditures. Doing the math, Citizendium is going to run out of money in 12 months, give or take. CZ has been pushing towards getting a bunch of regulars on board to contribute around $15 per month or so to keep the project afloat. However, it’s not clear that too many people could be motivated to regularly contribute that much financially, especially However, when you consider that only four citizens had more than 100 edits in March 2012.

I had a look at the most recent Citizendium article that I created from scratch, which had been created in July 2010. No-one has edited it since. The number of contributors to the project seems to be so small that there’s no-one with similar interests with whom I could collaborate. But that’s okay, I enjoy sharing my knowledge with the world… except that that’s not really happening either. Since July 2010, there have been around 1,050 views of the article, which works out to less than 2 per day. Not sure whether that number includes spiders and the like, in which case the number of real people who read the article would likely be significantly less than 1,050, but either way, there aren’t that many real people reading these articles. Still, the lack of incentives to collaborate and share may not stop everyone from contributing. I like writing and may not mind putting the occasional article in a free place where it isn’t going to be altered or read too much. However, CZ’s financial issues are a disincentive to doing so (why bother creating something if the site’s going to go under next year?)

Is the project a failure? Certainly there are several different ways to fail. If Citizendium doesn’t have enough money to pay the bills and the lights go out in the near future, that’s one way to fail. Another is perhaps more subtle, but might be considered as significant a failure. Citizendium could turn itself into a blueberry muffin making company or something like that, and it could become wildly profitable, but abandoning all of its goals and objectives would be an implicit admission of failure. It’s only natural to assume there’s going to be resistance to making changes.

But there has to be some sort of middle ground, right? It should be possible to compromise on some things for the sake of project survival while holding firm to some of the more important things. The goal of Citizendium, at least as far as I recall, is that it is an online project to produce a free reliable knowledgebase under expert guidance. Now, to take Editorial Council motions as an example, many if not most of them are neutral as regards the goals of the project (except perhaps to the extent that they thwart contributors). While the motions are consistent with the goal of the project, the opposite of the motions would also be consistent with the goal of the project. There is a lot of leeway to act in many different ways, all of which are consistent with the project goals.

Another big problem is that Citizendium’s bureaucracy is quite large compared with the actual size of the project. It might be compared with a large oil tanker in that it takes time to change the course of the tanker. If an oil tanker is heading toward the coast, you need to start steering it out of the way while it’s still several miles away from disaster; if you try to wait until the last minute to steer the oil tanker away from the coast, you get a bunch of oil-soaked seagulls and tarry beaches. The coast of empty bank accounts is directly ahead of the Citizendium bureaucracy; can they steer away in time?

Although I don’t personally endorse this option, perhaps failure should be admitted, the project left to die and the contributors freed to devote their efforts to more useful pursuits. But if those at Citizendium who hold the reins don’t feel that way, then significant changes need to be made. And, since the coastline of empty bank accounts is within view, the ship needs to be steered away now in order to avert a collision.

Probably the root problem is that most successful Wikis or Web 2.0 sites succeed in the following manner:

  1. Good content attracts readers [e.g. through search engines]
  2. Some readers become writers
  3. Writers contribute good content
  4. Good content attracts readers
  5. Some readers become writers
  6. … and so on and so on …

Citizendium has two problems in this regard. The first is attracting readers through good content. CZ, being a general-purpose encyclopedia, is going to focus on the same articles that Wikipedia does, but Wikipedia is always going to rank higher in search results, causing CZ’s good content to not attract readers. The second problem is that there is a big hurdle towards readers becoming writers; the registration process is convoluted and involves verifying that your account name really is your real name. So, the feedback loop above is broken in two places. Unfortunately, it may not be possible to fix it before the project goes broke.

So, the problem that Citizendium may be forced to tackle is the immediate financial one. How do they make more money? Well, the current donations-oriented way of doing so is just not working based on the current number of contributors. It also seems highly unlikely to me that some philanthropically-minded individual or organization will come along and save Citizendium; these entities would want to see results that the project can’t currently deliver. Possibly a Psychology or Sociology department from some university would be interested in funding Citizendium so that they could study the behaviour of expert-driven online communities, but the chances of Citizendium attracting any sort of donations based on their content is nil. Obviously, another approach needs to be taken.

Citizendium still has a reasonable number of people visiting, so I think they should monetize them through advertising or other sponsorships (this would require a change to their charter so this isn’t likely to happen, but I think that’s what they need to do). Between advertising revenue and donations from the regulars, that should provide enough funds to keep the servers running, which should buy them time to make it easier to register to become an author, which hopefully should slowly fix the broken feedback loop that is preventing the project from taking off at all. Also, they’ll need to look at ways to better retain the authors that they do get.

Can the project do it? I don’t know. Whatever happens, I wish the project luck; it’s going to need it.