Journal/8 Thermidor CCXIV from Evan Prodromou

Yesterday was such an insanely long day -- we woke up in a tent, had breakfast over a Treo, then released a lot of software and went to sleep in the middle of the night. It seemed like 4 days, not 1.

And this morning I had to take our new mini-SUV into the shop for its first maintenance checkup. For the last 6 years, I've driven a beautiful old Citroën DS station wagon, but around the time Amita June was born I decided I wanted her to learn to drive on it. Maj and I decided that that meant it had to be taken care of a little better, so I put it in storage and we bought at 2005 Hyundai Tucson. (The Hyundai people here in Quebec pronounce it like "Tux-awn", to our endless amusement.)

It's weird having a new car -- like, newer than 1972. Parts are not only plentiful but inexpensive. There is a selection of multiple mechanics in my major metropolitan area that can service the vehicle. And people don't point and wave when you're driving, or stop you on the street to tell you stories about how their grandfather used to drive one on their family farm.

We'll be driving the car to Boston next week for Wikimania 2006, so I'm glad it went to the shop. It should be in good shape for the drive -- I hope the rest of us are.

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Slides

Speaking of Wikimania -- I'm nowhere near ready for my presentation. Jeez, how'd it get to be almost-August already? Thankfully, no one else I've talked to is really ready to talk, either... so at least I'm not the last one to get my homework done.

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Software

The OpenID software I did for MediaWiki went out yesterday, and I got a lot of good feedback on it. OpenID requires that some state data is stored between participating servers, and the code I wrote uses the memcached client built into MediaWiki to store it. Not optimal but it works.

Well, better today than yesterday, that is. There were some pretty gruesome bugs in the implementation that were only showing up for some exceptional circumstances. So I adapted the JanRain unit tests for the other storage classes to my Memcached class, and that helped a whole hell of a lot for debugging. Yay, unit testing!

Some people are still having problems with the software, though. The main thing I've found is that the key-value pair output required by OpenID for its inter-server communications is sensitive to extra whitespace thrown in. Why would there be extra whitespace? I've found that a lot of PHP libraries have bits of whitespace at the end, after the closing ?>, and that will show up in the output. Whether it matters depends on how sensitive the output format is to whitespace. In the case of OpenID, the answer is: pretty sensitive.

But I'm looking forward to having some more people try the OpenID MediaWiki extension out.

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Wikipedia's 25th of July

Spot-on satire from The Onion: Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence. I quote:

Does the fact that I find an Onion article funny say more about my declining humor standards, or about their recent improvements? I don't know.

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Four ideas

I was very interested to see Tim O'Reilly's Four Big Ideas About Open Source. I think that there are some fascinating developments over the last few years that have fallen under the rubric of Web 2.0, and I think they affect those of us who put our hearts and minds into Open Source software.

I think this was part of his keynote at OSCON 2006, which, y'know, I'm not techically at or anything. It briefly crossed my mind, but I've got too much to do for Thermidor and Fructidor to flit off to yet another conference -- this one only tangentially involved with what I do for a living.

Still, it's interesting that Open Source software and Web services are crossing paths. FLOSS has been critical for making Web services possible, but taking that up to the meta-level and seeking the same freedoms from Web apps that you expect from "regular" software... that's a Moebius strip of rights right up in there.

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My life as a toolbar

So, sometime in the last year I started installing Firefox toolbars. The main one that's useful to me is Chris Pederick's excellent Web Developer Extension, jam-packed with little tools that make my job as a developer that much easier.

But I also install, well, pernicious toolbars. Judgemental toolbars. Toolbars that make me forget what really matters and turn the Web into a horserace or a highschool popularity contest. They're horrible, and they're addicting, and I can't stop using them.

The Google Toolbar has some diddly little useless gadgets that I don't give a shit about, like searching my Gmail account for the given search terms (whoopee). What I loooove, though, is the PageRank indicator. PageRank, of course, is the patented algorithm developed by Google founder Larry Page to estimate the importance of a page on the Web. It's incredibly accurate and valuable and though no longer the only criteria Google uses for ranking pages, it's still critical as a measure of the intrinsic value of a page.

So, there's this little progress bar on the Google Toolbar that shows the PageRank of any page you're looking at. It's an apparently logarithmic scale from 1-10, with the number showing up in a popup tooltip. Creative Commons? 9/10. Ted's story about the great worldwide race? 2/10. Technorati home page? 8/10. Male Secretary? 6/10. Wikitravel's France discussion? 3/10. And so on and so on.

Even worse is the A9 Toolbar, which (again) has a whole bunch of bogus boring features, but also shows the Alexa ranking of any site you're looking at. Alexa ranking isn't some egghead hooty-tooty algorithm about the importance of a page -- it's a ranking on the Big Board of who's the most visited site in the world and who doesn't matter in the slightest. So, I can see that Flickr is ranked #41 today, Île Sans Fil is #347,296, and wikiHow is #2248. Alexa is a lot more coarse-grained than Google's toolbar -- it measures the traffic to a given second-level-domain, not a particular URL. So any LiveJournal or Blogger site gets LJ's entire Alexa ranking -- not very useful.

Still, I've taken to thinking almost entirely in terms of PageRank and Alexa rank. It's unreasonable. Every site I go to, my eye drifts up to my toolbars to confirm my idea about it. Do I really like Achewood? Sure, but it's only got an Alexa rank around 20,000... Doc Searls's blog has a PageRank of 8, which is really impressive; but... my page for 22 Prairial (Journal/22 Prairial CCXIV) apparently has the same PageRank. Holy moly! Why could that be? (I think it has something to do with the Law of 22 Prairial, but I could be wrong.)

Really, putting these numbers on everything is ruining the Web for me. It's turning me into a total jerk, too. I kinda want to go back to the time when I just found stuff on the Web and didn't think, "How do I measure up?"

Thankfully the Yahoo Toolbar doesn't include anything remotely like rankings... just as well. Of course, that's the reason I uninstalled it, too. I can find my way to Yahoo! Canada Greetings just fine on my own if I need to.

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