Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: November 2010 (page 1 of 3)

Glenn Greenwald on the Christmas tree bomber

Count me among those who are not impressed with the avalanche of self-congratulation that we’re seeing in response to the arrest of a would-be terrorist who attempted to execute a plan created for him by the FBI. Glenn Greenwald weighs in with a note of skepticism about the whole sad affair. Perhaps I’m a bleeding heart liberal, but it’s hard for me believe that the most worthy action for the government when it discovers a teenager who may be sympathetic to terrorists is to put him up in his own apartment and induce him to attempt to commit an act of terrorism so that he can be arrested.

How liberals would fix the federal budget

Despite what you may have heard, liberals are just as invested in eliminating the federal budget deficit as conservatives are. The difference is that conservatives want to fix it in the context of not raising taxes, whereas liberals are more open to both spending cuts and tax increases.

Matthew Yglesias talks about one proposal, and explains how it differs from others, like the Simpson-Bowles plan:

First and foremost that means explicitly situating the “budget” problem in a broader economic context. You see this two ways. One is the heavy (and appropriate) emphasis in the short term on mobilizing excess capacity to increase growth and decrease unemployment rather than austerity budgeting that will only increase resource-idling. The other is the principle they call No Cost Shifting, namely “Policies that simply shift costs from the federal government to individuals and families may improve the government’s balance sheet but may worsen the condition of many Americans, leaving the overall economy no better off.”

My general takeaway from all of the plans that have been floating around is that there are many, many ways of eliminating the budget deficit, given the will to do so. It’s a completely fixable problem. What we lack is the maturity to fix it.

The search engine game

In today’s New York Times, David Sanger writes about a disreputable retailer who has realized that customer complaints on consumer forums help improve the ranking of his site in Google. The company in the article is a particularly offensive example of gaming Google for profit, but they are hardly alone. Indeed, they are just an extreme case of what every search engine optimizer sells.

To make an obvious point, Google (and other search engines) don’t know what people are searching for. They created a model that attempts to describe which sites people are looking for when they enter search terms. Every area where that model departs from reality is an opportunity for the clever and unscrupulous to improve their search engine rankings. For example, if Google weights links from popular consumer sites positively, even if those links are in complaints about a company for selling counterfeit merchandise, an opportunity is created to gain business by mistreating customers.

This isn’t really Google’s fault. They’re the whale in the search engine industry, so people work hardest to exploit their model, just like virus writers target Windows because it’s the most common personal computer operating system. If Bing were the most popular, then the focus would be on picking apart and exploiting their model instead.

Some might argue that Google shouldn’t be making value judgements in the first place, privileging some content over others. There are two problems with that. The first is that the model is going to pick winners and losers no matter what, simply because it’s a model created by humans, not a natural process. Second, and more importantly, Google makes its money through the quality of its search results.

Because Google gets most of the attention from the search engine gaming crowd, an opportunity is created for other companies, who may be able to produce higher quality results simply because people aren’t spending so much time trying to exploit their model. Eventually, people very well may abandon Google simply because there’s so much trash out there designed explicitly to take advantage of Google’s flaws.

That, I think, is the biggest risk to Google’s future profits. In some ways, they have the biggest fraud problem on the Internet. Publishers, online merchants, search engine optimizers, content farmers and everyone else are trying to drive traffic to their sites. One of the best ways to do so is to juice your rank in Google , and it’s often cheaper to do so by breaking Google than it is by building something good and promoting your site honestly. I feel for the Googlers whose job it is to stay one step ahead of all of those people — they’re losing the war.

Update: In the comments, Magnus points to this Get Satisfaction following up on the New York Times article. Of course, the specific details of this case don’t matter so much with regard to Google’s larger problem with people gaming the search engine.

Interesting stuff related to Google Street View

Three interesting links related to Google Street View washed over the transom this week. (OK, I saw them on Twitter.)

The first is a collection of noteworthy photos from Google Street View. You can find it at 9eyes.tumblr.com. It’s totally addictive.

The second is Michael Sippey’s pondering which elements of a Google Street View image that appears to show a woman giving birth on a sidewalk are faked.

The third is the news that in Essen, Germany, Google fans threw eggs at houses that opted out of Google Street View. I put that down to boredom.

How to speed up WordPress in an emergency

Over the past two days I’ve been linked to by Daring Fireball and BoingBoing. I’m running WordPress on a virtual server from SliceHost with 512 megs of RAM. Because I’m an incompetent systems administrator and just run everything with the defaults, the server did not react well to the additional traffic. Here’s a list of the things I did to whip the server into shape.

The first problem was that the load average on the server was spiking and it was becoming non-responsive. Even logging into the server via SSH took minutes, and Web pages weren’t really loading at all. WordPress was not using the database efficiently and the database load was killing the server. I attacked this problem by taking advantage of caching.

I discovered that query caching was not properly enabled in MySQL. The cache was enabled, but the cache size was set to zero, so nothing was being cached. After tweaking things a bit, I wound up giving MySQL a 10 megabyte cache. (You can read about setting up the MySQL cache in this article.) Since my server often runs into RAM problems, I didn’t want to allocate too much RAM to a new feature.

I also set up WordPress to use caching as well, using the DB Cache Reloaded plugin. I like it a bit better than plugins that cache entire pages like WP Super Cache. Those plugins are probably worth it for really big sites that get millions of hits a day, but my traffic is relatively low most of the time, so my goal is just to make sure it doesn’t blow up entirely when traffic spikes. DB Cache Reloaded does the job.

That made things work, mostly. However, I also ran into problems with MySQL going away. In those cases, WordPress just generates a page saying it can’t connect to the database. I’ve seen that happen during traffic spikes before, and I’m still not sure what causes it. My guess is that it’s because of some kind of lock contention issue. WordPress uses MyISAM tables, which don’t support row level locking. I may switch them over to InnoDB over the holiday. I had to log in and restart MySQL a couple of times over the past 24 hours, but it hasn’t happened again yet today.

Once I stopped overtaxing the database, things started slowing down because Apache was spawning so many processes that it used all of the memory on the server. Basically, when Apache spawns more than 50 processes, the server starts getting low on memory, which slows things down, which causes Apache to take longer to serve requests, which causes even more processes to be spawned as incoming requests pile up until the server grinds to a stop. I looked at my Apache configuration and saw that it was allowed to spawn as many as 150 processes. Given that they consume about 25 megabytes of memory each, this did not work well with my puny server. Cranking the MaxClients setting down to 25 did the trick here.

When I changed that setting, I also lowered the KeepAliveTimeout setting to 5 seconds. When KeepAlive is enabled, the server allows the browser to submit multiple requests over the same connection if it asks to do so. When a browser opens a persistent connection, it maintains its claim on the process that is serving its requests until the browser closes the connection or the timeout duration is exceeded. Because I lowered the number of processes, I lowered the timeout so that ill-behaving browsers don’t block other people from connecting if they’re not actually going to request more content.

Things are working better right now, and I’d be much happier if I knew what was causing the intermittent failures I am seeing with MySQL.

I should also probably do a better job of monitoring the server. The only diagnostic tool I used throughout the process was “top” and reloading the home page to see if the server was responsive.

Things we do to innocent people to prevent terrorism

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things innocent people have suffered in order to prevent terrorist attacks on America:

Seems odd to me that some people are so much more offended by a couple of items on this list than they are by all the rest.

A third kind of freedom

John Gruber posted a piece on Friday that is a must read for people who are interested in mobile computing, noting an absence of killer apps for Android. In it he talks about some reasons why, despite the strengths of the platform, we’re not seeing developers create unique, compelling applications for it. I don’t use an Android device, so it could be that Gruber’s argument rests on a shaky foundation, but it seems right to me from what I’ve read.

What I want to talk about, though, is a sort of “third freedom” when it comes to computing. The first freedom, referred to as Freedom 0 by Mark Pilgrim, is the freedom to “run the program, for any purpose.” Back in the day, people called it “libre” software to distinguish it from software that’s free in the “free beer” sense. That’s the second freedom. Software that’s free to download and install — freeware.

Obviously Apple’s iOS does not represent Freedom 0 in any way. You use it on Apple’s devices, under Apple’s terms, or not at all. Yes, you can jailbreak your phone but that is considered completely out of bounds. For the most part, Apple seems to see Freedom 0 as a negative. As far as the second freedom goes, some iOS software is freeware, some isn’t.

What Apple offers in exchange for giving up Freedom 0 (and they ask not only end users but also developers to give it up) is a new freedom for computer users — the freedom to install stuff on your computer without screwing things up. Freedom 0 is about giving you the right to screw up your computer in whatever way you see fit. Apple’s freedom is about giving you the opportunity to install any of thousands of applications with the knowledge that your phone will work just as well after you install them as it did before, and that you can get rid of those applications whenever you want.

Hackers and power users see this as a bad tradeoff, but I would imagine that for many users, this tradeoff is completely worth it. Ask any of the people who pay Geek Squad hundreds of dollars to disinfect their PCs whether they’d give up some of the freedom to do what they like to their PC in exchange for never having to deal with those sorts of problems again.

The iPhone was a huge hit before you could install apps for it at all, so it’s not as though this third freedom was the key to its success, but it’s clear that it is the key to the success for third party developers for iOS. It’s why people are willing to go through all of the pain of dealing with the App Store approval process to get their software onto the iOS platform.

The vast majority of users don’t want to be systems administrators any more than most drivers want to be mechanics. Apple has already built one successful platform that offers users the opportunity to avoid that responsibility, and it looks like they’re trying to bring that model to personal computing as well. I wouldn’t bet against them at this point.

Everything you needed to know about backscatter

Bruce Schneier has rounded up all the links on the backscatter X-ray scanners and related issues. Bullet points:

  • The health risks of the scanners are overblown.
  • The claims that the scanning/groping will make flying safer are even more overblown.
  • The deployment of these scanners has more to do with lobbying than with a rational evaluation of the best way to make flying safer.

In this piece (not yet linked by Schneier), TSA screeners surveyed say that conducting the more invasive patdowns makes their job worse. My inclination in the face of this new scanning is to request the patdown for exactly that reason. Walking through the machine imposes a cost on the person being scanned, and no cost on the person doing the scanning. The patdown sucks for the person conducting the patdown and the person being patted down. Seems more fair to me.

As far as predictions go, my guess is that the money has been spent and we are not likely to see the government back off on the scanning. As irritated as people are now, they’ll eventually come to accept it, and it will become one more permanent contributor to the horrible experience that air travel has become.

Our abandonment of the rule of law will continue

Yesterday a federal court acquitted one of the men accused of the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya of 11 of 12 charges against him, including every charge of murder. He was convicted on one charge of conspiracy, which carries a sentence of 20 years to life. He probably would have been found guilty on more charges had the judge not ruled out all evidence and testimony obtained through the use of torture. Needless to say, plenty of people are arguing that this illustrates the flaws of trying terrorists in civilian court, rather than the problems inherent in torturing accused criminals in a society that claims to operate under the rule of law.

As Glenn Greenwald points out, this was a show trial anyway, since the President claims the right to continue to imprison prisoners like Ahmed Ghailani under the laws of war, regardless of the outcome of their trial. So we convicted him, but we weren’t going to release him no matter what.

I think the question many people who care about civil liberties ask themselves is how we got here. We knew that the entire post-9/11 era was utterly lawless under the Bush administration, but we can all remember that Barack Obama promised to change all that when he became President. After two years of an Obama presidency, we now know that very little has changed.

Yesterday I read GQ’s profile of Attorney General Eric Holder. The writer seeks to understand how Holder could go from principled defender of civil liberties to being an active participant in the continuation of the abuses of the Bush administration. In the end the article shows how choices made in the past restrict the options that are available today.

That’s not to excuse Eric Holder or Barack Obama. They’ve chosen to abandon the principles they once defended. It is to say that our problems are much bigger any particular person, even if they’re the President. Eric Holder’s choice is to compromise or resign. The options available to Barack Obama are to compromise or to throw away everything else he may want to accomplish as President.

Nearly the entire mechanism of federal government became invested in indefinite detention without charges, torture, and the exclusion of captives from civilian courts, and so the resistance to changing those practices and admitting fault is comprehensive. Congress refused to fund the effort to shut down Gitmo. Career lawyers at the Justice Department are resistant to any efforts to punish their current and former colleagues who conjured up the legal justifications for torture and indefinite detention. The military has never welcomed accountability to civilian authorities for wartime conduct. Most importantly, most voters don’t seem to much care about any of the abuses that have occurred.

The Eric Holder profile mentions guidelines for trying detainees that seem reasonable to me, assuming that in both cases, the pre-War on Terror rules of procedure and evidence are followed:

The guidelines that emerged from the task force last summer erected clear rules: If the crime is committed against a civilian target on U.S. soil, the case goes to civilian court; if the crime is against U.S. troops overseas, the case goes to a military commission.

If we followed those rules and actually released those defendants who were found not guilty, we’d be on the road to recovery. But of course, one problem we’ve found in releasing prisoners is that we’ve had a hard time finding anyone to take those prisoners who will agree not to torture and kill them.

My point is this: we are so far down the road of selling out our purported national values that it is likely to be a generation before we even start to make a real effort toward recovering them. Life goes on with the knowledge that our craven impulses dominate our noble ideals.

Your email address as your identity

Alexandra Petri explains, in a funny way, what your e-mail address says about you and talks about changing fashions in the world of email. It also includes a helpful guide, here’s an example:

@YourWorkEmail You either work somewhere important or don’t understand the concept behind e-mail. You have a tendency to forward people joke e-mails with picture attachments.

I have long been a follower of email fashion. I think I originally subscribed to The Well because an @well.com email address had a certain amount of cachet and because I knew my ISP email address wouldn’t have any staying power. Then I realized that vanity domains were where it was at. I registered rc3.org as a place to get mail (and have a home page, of all things) before blogs even existed. Eventually I switched to Gmail (although my vanity email address and my well.com email address still work perfectly well) mainly for simplicity. When you tell someone “gmail dot com” over the phone you never have to spell anything, and nobody looks down on you for using Gmail.

I certainly haven’t used my work email for anything personal for at least 15 years. It’s so gauche.

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