What I desire from Wikipedia

For many years, I have valued Wikipedia as a source of interesting and useful information on a staggeringly wide variety of topics.  I wonder how long that will remain the case, though, given that Wikipedia is changing in ways some of us find unhelpful. Thinking and reading about Wikipedia’s dominant editing culture has helped me clarify what I like to get out out of Wikipedia, what its controlling forces want, and the difference between the two.  At one point, Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia’s cofounder) presented a vision that greatly appeals to me: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing. “ Unfortunately, one aspect of this vision...

Why I prefer desktop computers over laptops

I have owned many personal computers over the past 30 years… but never a laptop. I’ve used others’ laptops from time to time, but only for short periods of time. Laptops are wonderful, but almost any time I have a choice, I prefer to use a desktop. I thought it might be interesting for others to read about this one user’s rare preference for desktops, particularly from the user experience point of view. Basic ergonomics Since most laptops’ screens are attached to the keyboard, I need to choose between either of two uncomfortable positions. If I place the laptop at elbow level, for comfortable typing, I need to bend my neck down to look at the screen. If I place the laptop on a stand for a comfortable viewing angle, I need to raise my arms to type. Barring...

Dopey, the Folder-Selection Annoyance

Just about every Windows program prompts a user to select a file for some purpose, such as through the Open File dialog window:   I’ll call this kind of window “Opie” for the rest of this article.  Occasionally, a program will prompt a user not for a file, but for a folder.  In such cases programs will typically bring up the Folder Selection dialog window, which I’ll call “Dopey“:   Had I never known Opie, I might not dislike Dopey.  Since I do, however, I find Dopey to be a vastly inferior and annoying UI element, for several reasons: 1. Dopey can’t get to a folder directly.  Most of my files are nested four or five levels down from My Documents.  When I’m working on a project, I’ll typically have...

A better use for 4.5 billion dollars

I am shocked by the recent winning bid for Nortel’s patent portfolio.  4.5 billion U. S. dollars.  In cash! More than shocked, I am saddened to see such a large sum squandered like this.  These patents won’t spur on innovation.  They won’t make their new owners into better companies.  At best, they’ll serve as (unreliable) insurance against the artificial, legally-facilitated disasters known as patent-infringement lawsuits.  At worst, these patents will act as a weapon of mass destruction, one that can inflict the same kind of fear and damage it’s supposed to guard against.  They’re a weapon to be aimed at competitors… and ultimately at society itself.  (Likely cost to society: more monopolies, narrower concentration of...

Can bcrypt’s computational expense be reduced on the server side?

(Caution: Amateur security research ahead.  Using it in a live system is not recommendable.) I recently read “How to Safely Store a Password”, an article by Coda Hale. For years I’ve thought that salting and hashing passwords with MD5 or SHA-1 prior to storage was sufficient to thwart password-cracking efforts (in cases where the user-account database table is stolen or publicly divulged). Apparently, this approach is not much better than simply storing plaintext passwords (a practice widely scoffed at). It was fascinating to find out about a better approach, that of using bcrypt instead of ordinary hash functions. Unfortunately, it seems to me that bcrypt creates a new problem even as it solves an old one… The New Problem The use of bcrypt turns...

Facebook, the Island of the Lotus-Eaters

Last night I watched Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief on TV.  (Beware, spoilers ahead.) This moderately-entertaining movie cleverly incorporates a number of elements from Greek mythology.  One of them is the island of the lotus-eaters, reimagined as a casino. Percy Jackson and his two sidekicks need to visit this casino to look for a special, hidden jewel.  At the casino, they are persistently offered and keep consuming some unusual, mind-altering appetizers.  The addictive hors d’oeuvres make them forget why they were there and what their mission was.  After a long time they manage break out of their stupor, retrieve the jewel, and resume their quest. Sometime after watching this scene, I was struck by the realization that Facebook is...

A Solomonic Response to Username Disputes

In recent months, I’ve read of the following scenario playing out on a couple of different occasions [1]: Person “So-and-So” chooses “CleverName” as their username on social-media service “Socialr” [2]. CleverName is So-and-So’s favorite pseudonym, a word or phrase with a personally-significant meaning. So-and-So starts using Socialr, and over a period of time builds up a digital identity on Socialr, an identity whose name, content, history, and reputation are associated with username CleverName. Some time later, a little-known company, “Company X”, comes along and wants to create an account on Socialr. That company happens to be named or have a product named “CleverName”. Company X asks Socialr to take username CleverName from So-and-So and give it...