Geocities

So I just finished watching a talk from 31c3 about Geocities and this got me thinking about the past. I don’t mean in a nostalgic sort of way, though I am sure that there is a bit of that in this, but I mean just thinking about how the world and how the web has changed over the years.

Sites like Geocities represented another era. In the 90s people ran their own websites, sometimes hosted on their own servers, and more often hosted on sites like Geocities, Angelfire, and Tripod. I remember the first site I made; it was hosted on Tripod. When we moved away from Geocities and to places like Facebook we lost something incredible. Back then people communicated online via blogs, and websites, and mailing lists, and forums. Now we communicate using Google and Facebook and Instagram.

The web was more distributed back then. It was closer to that cypherpunk dream that we’ve always had. Back then doing things on the web meant having freedom. These days it means surrendering freedom.

Mailing lists, newsgroups, these things still exist, but I am hard pressed to find anyone other than myself who still uses them. Certainly forums still exist, but not nearly to the degree that they once did. Even forums often times make use of Facebook in order to reach their audiences more easily. Your Facebook page isn’t really your page. Sure it is a page about you, but it isn’t really yours. Myspace was a bit closer, but it still wasn’t quite the same as hosting your own.

I guess that is what I am really getting at. The types of communities that we have now are different. They are centralised and censored. When you ran your own forum or your own blog you could say whatever you want about whatever you wanted. You could choose to be anonymous or choose not to be. Hell you could choose to have multiple identities if you wanted to even.

There was a level of creativity found in these sorts of places that is not these days found either. One doesn’t have to wander far into Tripod or Angelfire or the Geocities archives to realise that people there weren’t just making webpages they were making art. Sure the art sucked, but I’d rather have terrible art than none at all. If you’ve seen one Facebook page, you’ve seen them all.

I don’t know. Perhaps I am just being nostalgic. Regardless, I’d like to see us move backwards to move forwards. I’d like to see the random Joe off the street try his hand at making a webpage. I’d like to see federations of private forums connected in webrings. I’d like to see mailing lists where people discussed their passions. These things meant something. More than a Facebook page anyways.

You can download the talk that inspired this rant here or watch it online here.

The Siege of Leningrad and Rescue Workers

Vincent Cochetel just gave a TED talk about when he was held for 317 days during the Chechen Wars. The talk was very strong and very touching. In it he asks why we don’t care more about aid workers. I don’t really have much to say about the talk beyond that it is definitely worth watching.

Towards the end of the talk he mentioned a phrase: “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten.” I went looking for the origin of the phrase and found that it can be attributed to Olga Bergholz, a Soviet poet who lived between 1910 and 1975. She became popular during the Siege of Leningrad and wrote the poem that is inscribed on the Motherland monument at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, a cemetery dedicated to those who died during the Siege of Leningrad.

The poem is beautiful and I have reproduced it below.

Here lie Leningraders

Here are citydwellers – men, women, and children
And next to them, Red Army soldiers.
They defended you, Leningrad,
The cradle of the Revolution
With all their lives.
We cannot list their noble names here,
There are so many of them under the eternal protection of granite.
But know this, those who regard these stones:
No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten.

Coming Out Sim

Not all games have to be fun. Coming Out Simulator is a game which follows the story of a boy coming out as bisexual to his parents. I can’t really say anymore, except that it brought tears to my eyes. It is really well put together.

http://ncase.itch.io/coming-out-simulator-2014

Microsoft Windows 10 Press Conference

I just finished watching the Microsoft Windows 10 Press Conference, which took place about 40 hours ago. Mind blown.

The entire presentation was incredible and showcased a ton of really cool stuff that will make things way easier on businesses and individuals using Windows. In the past I have read, and remarked myself, that Microsoft will need to reinvent itself if it wishes to stay relevant. It seems that they have come to the same conclusion.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Windows 10 looks pretty great and I am looking forward to seeing it roll out to people. It will be a fantastic upgrade for everyone still using Windows 7. This seems to fit with Microsoft’s history of alternating between pretty good releases and poorly received releases.

Two items in particular I am excited about are the Microsoft Surface Hub and the Hololens. The Surface Hub looks like exactly the sort of thing that I have frequently wished existed within offices and the Hololens is literally incredible. After they showed their trailer video for it I remarked that I’d believe it when I saw a demo; they proceeded to show a demo.

Just wow. Engadget has a recording of the entire event. I suggest you take the time to watch it in its entirety. The presentation is two hours and twenty minutes long.

UPDATE:

I’ve now spent a little bit of time reading up on the reactions others have had, and it seems that I was not the only one whose mind was blown and who is surprised with all of this. The Hololens is a really huge achievement for Microsoft.

Natural Law and Murder

Universal law is the law of Nature. For there really is, as every one to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other. It is this that Sophocles’ Antigone clearly means when she says that the burial of Polyneices was a just act in spite of the prohibition: she means that it was just by nature:

“Not of to-day or yesterday it is, But lives eternal: none can date its birth.”

And so Empedocles, when he bids us kill no living creature, says that doing this is not just for some people while unjust for others:

“Nay, but, an all-embracing law, through the realms of the sky Unbroken it stretcheth, and over the earth’s immensity.”

Aristotle

Fighting Online Harassment: Wikimedia and Tor

TL;DR: Lane Raspberry, Andrew Lewman, and I just had a discussion about online harassment and what can be done to combat it. We’ve decided that the Tor Project needs a code of conduct and Wikimedia needs a better one. We also discussed the idea of partnering to contract a third-party organisation to handle harassment complaints. At the moment this would just be to collect data on the problem, but eventually they would act on the complaints as well.

I just finished having a rather productive conversation with Lane Raspberry and Andrew Lewman about online harassment and what Wikimedia and Tor can do about it.

The discussion began with us giving mostly anecdotal tales of harassment we have seen and discussing the general scope of the issue within both communities. Both the Wikimedia community and the Tor community have had a large number of issues in the past. Generally two peoples that we found that were frequently harassed in both of our communities were those within the technical communities and women. Women have long been the target of male harassment online. Many men seem to not understand or not care that what they are doing is harmful. Within the technical community we harassment that stems from the discussion of “religious issues”1 such as choice of security solution or software. Discussion on these issues tend to quickly degrade into harassment and name calling that often out-lasts the original discussions themselves.

We also briefly discussed two specific controversies involving harassment, one within each community. Within the English Wikipedia community there was a controversy that revolved around an editor calling another editor a cunt and then insisting that where he comes from the word is not sexually degrading. Within the Tor community there was a recent incident with a Tor user getting harassed in real live because of her gender and her involvement with Tor. Both of these incidents were extremely disheartening and rather distressing to hear about.

Lane had the idea to try to contract out a third-party organisation to handle harassment complaints. He compared it to how an HR department might handle harassment complaints in a “brick-and-mortar company”. The idea would be that at first they would accept complaints about harassment from Tor users and Wikimedia users. At first they would simply catalog and organise the complaints, but would eventually move into acting on them to try to put a stop to the harassment. We are still in the early stages of discussion of this idea though, so the primary purpose of such an organisation, at least at first, would simply be to collect data. This data would give us an understanding on what the scope and severity of the problem is and allow us to determine how we should allocate resources to combat it.

We are unsure still what forms of harassment are most prevalent in our communities. Clearly there are people who are trolls and there are people whose harassment borders on or is criminal. There is a lot of area between those two extremes as well, and, while it is all problematic, the way that you deal with the trolls is very different than the way you deal with the sustained harassers and stalkers.

We discussed various groups that we might be able to contact about doing this. In specific, we discussed asking the Cyber Rights Initiative or the Ada Initiative to handle the complaints. The Cyber Rights Initiative mostly works to fight against revenge porn and their approach is largely founded in the legal system. The Ada Initiative, while seeming to be a better fit, as they deal with online harassment much more generally, has an already established relationship with Wikimedia that nobody wants to see damaged if this idea doesn’t work out. If the Tor Project goes it alone, they might have some luck in getting the Ada Initiative on-board.

Some numbers were thrown out as to what the Wikimedia Foundation might be willing to contribute financially, but these were just unofficial estimates based on previous projects and the monetary value of lost contributions to harassment, so I won’t go into discussion of them here.

Andrew pointed out that many online communities have a code of conduct. He pointed to Ubuntu, Python, Mozilla, and Apache as having particularly well thought out codes of conduct. The Tor Project currently does not have a code of conduct, and while Wikimedia does have one, it is not as fleshed out as it could be. After a bit of discussion it was resolved that Tor should draft a code of conduct and that the Wikimedia code of conduct should be reviewed. We can use the other codes of conduct that were discussed as starting points for doing this. While I did not bring it up in our discussion, in writing this post, it has occurred to me that this is an area in which asking for help from the Ada Initiative would be useful and likely available.

I think we’ve made a good start. Certainly we didn’t come up with fully fleshed out solutions to the problems at hand, but we only spoke for about an hour and this is a difficult issue to handle. I’m going to bring up the topic on the Tor-talk mailing list and Lane is going to start a discussion on English Wikipedia. I’ll update this post when I have links to both of those discussions. I’m hopeful we might be able to make further progress by including more people in our brainstorming.

Footnotes:

1. This was not the term used in our discussions, but I believe that it is one of the more succulent ways to describe these sorts of problems.