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Saturday, January 13th, 2007

Coincidences

I was actually just checking Bloglines for feeds with an early analysis of what the Indianapolis win might mean to the San Diego Chargers, but I saw that there was a new post at Reasons Unbeknownst, which is always an interesting read, and I saw Kirk mentioning Barry Goldwater. So I’m using the coincidence to steer you to an interesting site.

Posted by Greg as Politics at 19:59 PST

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Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Discovering Barry Goldwater

I woke up early this morning and, tired of my early-morning sports shows (you may have noticed that my blogging about the San Diego Chargers dropped off just as everybody else finally noticed that they were, in fact, the best team in the NFL – it wasn’t fun anymore, and besides, there’s just too much on now about basketball, which I don’t like), flipped through the channels and landed on HBO’s Mr. Conservative – Goldwater on Goldwater.

There’s always danger involved in watching a single documentary and coming out of it saying “yes, this is what I believe” – although it’s a sign that the documentary was really well made. So I did a quick search to see how others viewed this presentation. Right away I saw criticism and praise, and the approach of both really cemented my interest.

During the show I had noticed the surprising mix of political figures who had deigned to be interviewed and included in the documentary. Included were George F. Will, the political commentator whom I most admire and respect, and Sandra Day O’Connor, who I think was the best Supreme Court Justice that has served since I’ve been old enough to have a political opinion. But criticism from the current Right Wing focused on the parade of current Liberals – Hillary Clinton, Al Franken, James Carville, Ted Kennedy and Ben Bradlee. And am I so out of the mainstream of current Republican politics that I was surprised to see Walter Cronkite labeled a Liberal? Still, I would have been very interested to have heard the comments of William F. Buckley, Jr.

One source immediately soothed me – The Cato Institute. Cato is where I have always turned when I have wanted to know the “official” libertarian view on an issue and the reasoning behind it, since my first copy of the Cato Handbook for Congress. I’m not saying that I let them decide how I should think, but they are an invaluable and authoritative resource on where we should be headed. I read their official blog post on this show and saw that I fit two of their three categories of people who call themselves “Goldwater Republicans” – I am pro-limited government, and I am libertarian. And their snide comment about George W. Bush reflects the problems I have with that administration.

I have, at times, called myself a conservative – but always, with the same breath, denounced those who currently have control over the definition of the term. I am happy to find that I stand in good company with at least the older version Goldwater, who said “I think every good Christian ought to kick [Moral Majority leader Jerry] Falwell right in the ass.” It’s instructive that the Wall Street Journal has taken pains to fight what they see as the modern day interpretation of Goldwater by trying to recast him back into an earlier version, and by doing so tries to reclaim current social conservatism as a foundation of the conservative movement.

What does the notion that Goldwater was a libertarian mean? First, it suggests that the cultural right has abandoned true conservatism. It implies that presidents like Reagan and Bush, who have relied heavily on socially conservative voters, deviate from Goldwater’s rugged and pure frontier conservatism. And then there is the implication, appearing frequently in the mainstream media, that Republicans must move back in Goldwater’s direction if they are to reclaim their intellectual credibility.

Well, I happen to think that the Right has abandoned true conservatism. And I do think the Republicans need to reclaim their credibility, and I think the results of the 2006 elections indicate that I am not alone. Last November, commentators pointed out that many libertarian-leaning people, who seem to comprise a significant portion of the swing vote (the ideologically unbound that, despite Karl Rove’s flash-in-the-pan success of relying on a “get out the base” strategy, usually control elections and the basis of power in the United States), had come to the conclusion, for once, that the Democrats better represent their interests. I haven’t given up yet on the Republicans, but I want to push them away from the religious right. At least, as long as the religious right makes abortion, oppresion of gays and government-sponsored Christianity their foundation. I’m seeing an emergence of a religious movement towards ecological conservation that is very promising. This, I believe, is actually a value that Goldwater would have supported. If the religious right started supporting the separation of Church and State instead of trying to legislate morality, I think I could get along with them just fine.

I still need to get a copy of Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conversative, but, based on the Cato Institute’s and the Wall Street Journal’s characterizations, it might to fair to start calling myself a Goldwater conservative.

In an amazing coincidence, my very last post mentioned my pleasure in enjoying the scenic beauty of Goldwater’s home state, Arizona.

Posted by Greg as Politics, Posts About Me at 05:20 PST

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Saturday, December 9th, 2006

Hacking Democracy

I’m watching the HBO documentary Hacking Democracy. Anyone who votes in the US should watch this program. It should be required viewing for election officials.

I’ve been seeing concerns expressed about the security of electronic voting machines for a long time in various security forums. But this documentary blew me away. The system is way more flawed than the input devices. It can be manipulated, hacked, at any point in the process. And hardly anybody is doing anything about it. Hell, I thought I was keeping an eye on it, and I had no clue just how bad the situation is.

Posted by Greg as Politics at 07:54 PST

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Sunday, July 2nd, 2006

Update or Die

Unnecessary software updates are bad. If it’s not a security fix, leave it for the next major release. But aside from feature bloat, the Powers That Be have been steadily incorporating such nasties as DRM into “our” computers (see “Who Owns Your Computer“) through the update process, and have realized that such methods give the potential to exert an unprecedented level of control over all our personal information, which is steadily approaching greater significance than our physical selves.

I’ve brooded over whether I’ve sounded too strident as anti-Microsoft before, but no longer. Thanks to Bruce Schneier for pointing me to Ed Bott’s chillingly understated concern that MS is incorporating a “kill switch” – an antipiracy tool designed to stop Windows from running if you don’t install every update that they deem necessary – meaning, those petty security fixes aside, Microsoft’s more-powerful antipiracy tools. Ed quotes some MS reps averring that the antipiracy tool will become mandatory, and updates his post with MS’s later PR denial of their program as unable to “turn off your computer.”

Microsoft is Ed’s beat, and it was clear to me from reading the article that he’s become jaded to the horrors that must be going on there on a daily basis. A comment in and of itself.

Much earlier today, I replaced the processor and motherboard on my primary home XP Pro box, and with much trepidation. I wasn’t afraid of messing it up; I was afraid of Microsoft shutting down my operating system. Sure enough, when I rebooted with my OEM cd in the drive and repaired the install, I was bombarded with alarms that I needed to reauthorize. Pity that one of the problems with the repair that I was having was with my wireless card – my only link to the Internet. (The driver disk for that was in the other dvd drive.) After multiple installs/uninstalls and reboots, and getting continuously harassed, starting with two separate pop ups before even logging on, I finally called a halt to my attempts to get Windows to see the card, and called the phone line for reauthorization. That turned out to be an unnecessarily long delay – my whole “conversation” was with a computer generated voice, and I had to report a 60-some digit code number using voice recognition. Anyone ever heard of using the touch-tone pad?

Oh-oh. I can see myself getting into a full-blown rant here, so I’ll try to cut it short, at the risk of losing out on getting on the record about the doom I see coming.

This is really, really bad for Microsoft customers; meaning, potentially, the vast majority of the world. To try and recoup the billions of dollars they’re losing to piracy, they’re willing to enslave the source of the trillions they’re getting or going to be getting from the rest of us, and they’re in principle aligned with more than a few major corporations that want to make sure that they’re getting their billions and trillions from us, too, and could make a few more bucks selling the technology to them. And so far, everything’s going their way.

The only bright side to this, putting aside <sarcasm> my favorite IT professional’s retort to my concern about MS dependency – “their stuff just works!” </sarcasm> – is that it is so brazen that there might actually be a row in the technical press about it, and maybe enough to translate into some significance in the mainstream press. People might realize that they’re giving up all their choice (and therefore their freedom) to the people that make the software that runs their lives. They might start migrating towards, dare I say it? open source. And if the general populace really puts some thought into it, maybe they’ll start questioning the entire legal construct of licensing that gives software and entertainment companies this sort of power.

Could you imagine it? Scared politicians, shaken by the complaints of the the voting faithful that if they pay for something, they own it, passing laws that prohibit the retention of ownership by software companies, and stripping the whole licensing construct down to conditions on resale? Would you be willing to give up tech support for a product that works, all the time and every time, in the first place? (I’m sure I’m missing more than a few implications on the legal and economics side of this issue, and alternatives that make more sense under by the traditional understanding of property / means of production / ownership / compensation aspect. Let me just posit that licensing a commodity, or the means to produce other commodities, seems to distinguish the dividing line between the Industrial Age and the Technology Age. But what do I know – this stuff is only the roots of paltry concepts such as capitalism, socialism, and communism – and what affect do they have on our daily lives?)

Yeah, imagine it. Just like John Lennon dared to do. Fat lot of good it did him. So I’m left with my original assertion – DOOM! Hey, it wasn’t so bad for Dark Ages serfs, right?

P.S. I saw the Windows Genuine Advantage update, because I review my updates before installing them, and I declined to install it. Later, out of conditional obedience, I went back to the WindowsUpdate site and tried to find it again, listed with other suggested updates that I had asked not be installed, and couldn’t even find that list any more. My guess is that it got installed anyway using Automatic Updates.

P.P.S. I didn’t seem to do a very good job avoiding a rant, eh? You don’t know the half of it.

Posted by Greg as Politics, Society, Software at 00:16 PST

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Thursday, June 29th, 2006

Pirate Humor

Or, Fun With SubDomains

Ok, there’s been lots of things that have happened in the last week that I want to write about, and I need to, if only to break the cycle of endless posts about my current medical treatment. The trouble is, when I want to write about something that I care about, I want to do a good job; which takes some time, something I haven’t had much of recently. So to break the ice, I’ll toss out this humorous bit in the hopes that it will get my juices flowing.

I use Bittorrent. Specifically, the Azureus client. Um, I use it to download Linux distros – yeah, that’s what I use it for. What I can categorically state is that I do not use it to download music or movies that I don’t already own or tv shows that I haven’t already watched (complete with commercials.) I am also rabidly opposed to DRM and the DMCA because it suppresses legal fair use of copyright material. I keep tabs on the DRM and copyright news, so I know about the Pirate Bay controversy, and how authorities got the site in Sweden shut down temporarily.

If you want to check on the status of thepiratebay.org, you can just ping it:

>ping thepiratebay.org
Pinging thepiratebay.org [83.140.176.146] with 32 bytes of data:

Reply from 83.140.176.146: bytes=32 time=202ms TTL=45

However, if you do an nslookup, you can see how the folks there have registered their ip address at the DNS servers:

>nslookup 83.140.176.146

Name: hey.mpaa.and.apb.bite.my.shiny.metal.ass.thepiratebay.org
Address: 83.140.176.146
Aliases: 146.176.140.83.in-addr.arpa

I guess that’s score one for the protesters against overprotective copyright laws, the lobbying interests and their purchased proxies, the US Congress, who abused the spirit of Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution and passed the Copyright Term Extension Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998; and the helpless US Supreme Court, who in Eldred v. Ashcroft (2003), chose not to affirm the interests of the public in their interpretation of the law; and the heavy-handed tactics of the US Departments of Commerce and State, trying to extend their reach (well, the reach of the lobbying interests) over other sovereign nations.

Constitution of the United States, from Article I, Section 8:

The Congress shall have Power To… promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries…

Life plus 70 years is a limited time? How the hell does that promote progress? And what the hell right does the US have to impose their laws on other countries?

Posted by Greg as Politics at 08:01 PST

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Thursday, May 4th, 2006

Who Owns Your Computer?

For those who don’t get the point of why I’m concerned about computer privacy and security, and am so quick to look for non-Microsoft alternatives, especially open-source operating systems and software, Bruce Schneier has written a brief essay that beautifully summarizes the dangerous trends:

When technology serves its owners, it is liberating. When it is designed to serve others, over the owner’s objection, it is oppressive. There’s a battle raging on your computer right now — one that pits you against worms and viruses, Trojans, spyware, automatic update features and digital rights management technologies. It’s the battle to determine who owns your computer.

You own your computer, of course. You bought it. You paid for it. But how much control do you really have over what happens on your machine? Technically you might have bought the hardware and software, but you have less control over what it’s doing behind the scenes.

Using the hacker sense of the term, your computer is “owned” by other people.

It used to be that only malicious hackers were trying to own your computers. Whether through worms, viruses, Trojans or other means, they would try to install some kind of remote-control program onto your system. Then they’d use your computers to sniff passwords, make fraudulent bank transactions, send spam, initiate phishing attacks and so on. Estimates are that somewhere between hundreds of thousands and millions of computers are members of remotely controlled “bot” networks. Owned.

Now, things are not so simple. There are all sorts of interests vying for control of your computer. There are media companies that want to control what you can do with the music and videos they sell you. There are companies that use software as a conduit to collect marketing information, deliver advertising or do whatever it is their real owners require. And there are software companies that are trying to make money by pleasing not only their customers, but other companies they ally themselves with. All these companies want to own your computer.

In the essay, he lists several specific ways some big companies are trying to own your computer. He mentions Sony, Microsoft and Google, but there are are lot more out there that are just as interested. The teenage wunderkind hacker, while still a threat, is chump change compared to the forces that want to control what you do and how you do it on your computer. Bruce concludes:

Just because computers were a liberating force in the past doesn’t mean they will be in the future. There is enormous political and economic power behind the idea that you shouldn’t truly own your computer or your software, despite having paid for it.

And it’s not just the software on your computer – it’s the connection to it. Yesterday I called and emailed my congressman’s office to urge him to vote against the COPE Act, which moved out of committee last week. Telecommunications companies want to control your access to the Internet, and want to profit from selling preferential treatment to the highest bidder, effectively turning over control of Internet content over to corporations. I don’t know how that can’t scary the willies out of anyone who likes being able to hear all sides of an argument.

Posted by Greg as Politics, Society, Software at 18:39 PST

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Saturday, January 28th, 2006

Free Federal Tax Software and Online Filing

My W-2 came in, so I headed over to the IRS website to download all the forms and instructions for filing my federal taxes. While I was there, I checked out the eFile options, because I filed electronically last year and the refund was directly deposited into my checking account in less than two weeks.

I was interested in doing my taxes at home, without buying software, and filing on the Internet – and I wanted to do it all for free. Seems to me that when I’m required by law to file taxes, and it’s easier, cheaper, and less prone to error for the government to process my return if it’s filed electronically, that shouldn’t be unreasonable. But, of course, helping people file their taxes is an industry, and government can’t compete with businesses – even if it’s to comply with a government requirement. California already has CalFile that does all the things I want to file my state tax return.

The IRS does make some effort to get people to file online (after all, it’s in their own interest as well) and they list several options. After digging down through their site, past plenty of advice to hire tax professionals, I got to the eFile Using a Computer page. Once again, I’m confronted with the explanation that the IRS can’t compete with private enterprise, and links to tax professionals, but I find that I can file online for free, through a “commercial partner”, as long as my adjusted gross income is less than $50,000. (I’m going to try real hard here to avoid going into depth about my wife’s seeming guilty obligation to atone for the sins of her ancestors by patronizing our local Native American tribes’ casinos; a guilt so deep that she has to put all her winnings back; my rueful observations that the Native Americans have finally come up with revenge for being introduced to whiskey; my own guilt that my ancestors must have either participated in or benefited from the genocide of the colonization of Australia; and my interest in whether the people we know as “Native Americans” once committed genocide on a people that preceeded them to America – possibly Australians. Believe me, this parenthetical comment is restraining myself.) Last year I filed through H&R Block’s free program, but this year I am not eligible.

The interesting thing that I found from a study of this page is that, although the IRS is adroit at handing out links to commercial partners (after all, where do IRS employees go after they put in their twenty?), they mention that you can download software from the Internet and file online, but they don’t give any links on where to find the software to do this. Break out the trusty old Google. In short order I found TaxAct.

TaxAct offers a Standard version of their tax preparation software that is free, without restrictions, and allows you to file online yourself. I looked at the comparisons between their free and commercial software (which is still pretty cheap), and didn’t see any benefit in paying for an augmented version. This, of course, made me deeply suspicious. I started the download process and found it pretty simple, without a lot of obstacles promoting the upgraded versions, and the required registration process was pretty simple and non-obtrusive. I had to give name, state, zip and an email address, and I remembered to unclick the pre-selected “send me offers” box. The site’s Privacy Policy was lengthy and legal, but acceptable.

But I was still suspicious. The provider pledges that TaxAct Standard is free of spyware, and according to my research, it is, so I decided to install it. The EULA is also acceptable – standard non-indemnification clauses, the only warranty is that the calculations are correct (big deal!) – and has no mention of third party software. In fact, it again mentions the privacy policy:

2nd Story Software, Inc. does not rent, sell or share any personal information received in an e-file transaction other than to transmit it to the IRS for electronic filing purposes, or if required by law. For more information on the taxact.com privacy policy, please refer to: http://www.taxact.com/privacy_policy.asp

Now, I don’t like that my return will apparently flow through the company’s servers on the way to the IRS; in fact, it stinks, but it’s my understanding that the IRS will not allow direct filing to their computers. Write your congressman. The website’s privacy policy doesn’t address this issue. I’ve gone through it carefully, and what it says is that it only applies to www.taxact.com. I wonder what server my tax return will be filed through? I’m going to be running Ethereal when I hit the transmit button.

Still, everything about this company says they’re manic about protecting your privacy. I think I’ll cut them a break. As far as my suspicions go, I was almost relieved to see that the software is total nagware – it’s full of offers to upgrade to the Deluxe edition. But that’s ok with me – I only have to put up with it for a couple of hours and I’m done.

Posted by Greg as Family & Friends, Politics, Posts About Me, Software at 15:00 PST

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Saturday, January 14th, 2006

San Diego Blog

I guess Joe Crawford really liked the email submission I sent him containing my post about the Chargers, the stadium issue, and its impact on our community, because he gave me posting privileges at sandiegoblog.com. Regardless of how many others he’s given posting abilities to, I consider it a real honor. It also means, of course, that I have to start writing more about living in San Diego, which inevitably means writing more about local politics. Hopefully it will make up for the frustration that I felt after being caught by a local news team, fastidiously pressed reporter, microphone, camera and sound crew and all, in front of my local Albertsons just after the news broke about the city’s pension scandal and attendant financial morass, and demurring from giving tv-ready quotes because I hadn’t properly assessed the information and considered its implications.

It is also a great opportunity for me to expand the readership of my blog, if I want to follow that path. In the blogging world, politics is the equivalent of Internet porn. But, I guess, it’s a reflection of my interests and leanings that I even think such a thing. I’m sure there are plenty of power bloggers out there that never talk about politics – in fact, I religiously read one – Wil Wheaton. And there’s the namesake poet who has an enviable PageRank, even if, in my philistine perspective, his poetry is crap. But all I see referenced in Newsweek are the political ones – oops, my bias is showing again. I don’t know if it’s ironic or revealing that most of my traffic is generated by my technical posts, but politics is my guilty pleasure.

I’ve wandered a bit from my original topic, but I guess there’s one thing I want to be made clear – I’m proud to call myself a San Diegan.

Posted by Greg as My Website, Politics, Posts About Me, Society at 21:22 PST

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San Diego Chargers Stadium Issue

Ever since confronting the Union Tribune’s foreboding headline today, I’d like to point out that whether the San Diego Chargers are going to leave our town is an issue that ought to get the juices flowing in all concerned locals, and that SD bloggers really ought to be posting their thoughts about it. Personally, there is no way to express the dismay I feel at the idea of losing the Chargers, especially since they appear to be in an effective (if sometimes stumbling) team-building mode that could make them one of the power players, and quite possibly a dynasty, in the NFL. I know a lot of people are still hurting about the Padres rip-off – how they parlayed a single year’s World Series bid into a taxpayer-financed treasury raid for a new stadium and then traded off their power players – but we stand to lose a lot if we let the Chargers go.

This issue embodies a lot of things that can get people worked up – local politics, incompetence, muckraking district attorneys, and even corruption that have lead us to be called “Enron-by-the-Sea“; environmental issues (who let those tanks farms leak all that stuff into our soil, and in South California?); sports, and the corollary – are sports too violent; public finances, or the lack thereof; and the national and international identity of a community that is seen by many as living in paradise, a cutting edge technological powerhouse, an overinflated real estate market headed for a bursting bubble, a place hurt by a confluence of non-locals, and even the drug-trafficking Miami of the Left Coast! Who could turn from sinking their teeth into such a juicy issue and the fallout, whether from jealousy (I walked the dog last night, in the middle of January, in a t-shirt and shorts) or pride?

I issue a call to arms for all San Diego bloggers – write what you think, criticize the others’ opinions, and most importantly, link and trackback to them!

Posted by Greg as Current Events, Football, Politics, Society at 18:47 PST

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Sunday, December 18th, 2005

Logging In

Well, the consensus is that it would be best to create a new plugin from scratch, which I agree with, but the trouble is the time it’s going to take. I would want to do it right, which would take a while. I figure in the meantime that I should publish my WP-UserOnline hacks as soon as I’ve finished the documentation, which the guys can test out. It may also give them ideas for what should go in my project.

Vincent seems to think that getting visitors to register is a good idea, and that distinguishing the registered users from the casual visitors is a way to motivate people to do that. I’m not quite sure I agree with that position.

The old WP-UserOnline plugin didn’t use registered users – it used the ‘comment_author_’ cookie. If you look at my last post, you’ll see a couple of comments posted by me saying “Give me a cookie”. That’s because I was using FC4 at home, which I still haven’t set up completely, and Mozilla didn’t have a cookie stored for me. In fact, I had to post a second comment to get a cookie for when I was logged on as root, which I did to grab the bookmarks out of my WinXP partition (I haven’t finished tweaking my fstab yet, and only root can access the ntfs partitions.) I’m sure the author had a good motivation for choosing to use the comment_author_ cookie, and I’m sure it was because he didn’t expect visitors to routinely register when they go to blogs, even ones that they visit a lot. But if someone was interested enough to leave a comment, he or she got a cookie that identified them later.

That strategy isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a lot more practical than expecting visitors to register when they visit your blog. Personally, I hate registering, and I’ll only do it if it gives me a distinct advantage. Even without customizations, you can understand why someone would want to be part of the community at Slashdot or SourceForge, but do they want to do it just to see one article at the West Chester (Pennsylvania) Daily Local News, or to read and post a comment on anything less than a top 100 blog? I don’t think so. They probably arrived there from a search engine, and they don’t even know if the article or post contains the information they’re looking for. They have 2,000 other hits, so why bother? Just go back and try the next one. This is why I use the BugMeNot extension for Mozilla. Besides, do you remember what it was like to register at a WordPress site? It’s much more of a hassle than filling in your name, website if you have one, and email to post a comment. The entire WordPress registration system needs to be rewritten or bypassed. Vincent points out that he took pains to prominently position a login box in his sidebar – that’s great, but to really encourage logging in we need a cookie system where you get that little “Remember me on this computer” checkbox and an automatic login when the visitor returns.

An alternate strategy is to use a single sign-on registration system, such as MSN Passport or TypeKey, or the less rigorous identity system OpenID; all of which I have actually signed up for, but don’t necessarily like. Of the three, OpenID is less oppressive because it is open source and uses a decentralized verification system. However, it’s not for the casual net surfer – you have to have a website, and you have to be able to insert the appropriate meta tags in your root page. This is an evolving situation – website operators want to verify the identity of their visitors, but a huge founding principle of the Internet is anonymity, and lots of people just don’t want to give it up. So far, no dominant identity verification system has emerged, but I see that eventually changing. Historically, in the struggle against personal privacy and public accountability, the tide is slowly and inexorably moving towards the individual surrendering his or her freedoms. This is why I regularly read the RSS feeds from Bruce Schneier, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and DRM News, and am a card-carrying member of the ACLU, even though I consider myself a conservative; although my definition of “conservative” falls more in along the lines of the traditional Burkean conservatism than those damned religious zealots who have tried and apparently succeeded in rewriting the definition of conservatism, at least in the United States. (Oh crap, I’ve gone on in this vein long enough that I will have to tag this post with Politics as well.)

I’m not aware of any plugins that would extend this capability to a WordPress blog. [Revision – there’s a WP OpenID plugin here – it looks a little clunky, but that was 4 months ago.] I’ll have to look. But I was thinking of something else. I’m also interested in visitor tracking – at first because I was curious (and wanted to demonstrate to my friends that I knew when they came to visit), but then because the practical considerations of running a website that attracts visitors requires that you know what draws people to you – how you are positioned in search results using terms appropriate to your interests (search engine optimization), how long visitors stay, if and where they go elsewhere on your site after that first hit, how many incoming links you have, etc. Vincent knows what I’m talking about, because he is interested in “building a community around your weblog.” Since I’m a really cheap bastard, it’s notable that of all the bells and whistles my hosting service tries to lure me with, one of the few extras I have purchased is the extended traffic reports, which also gives me access to server logs. I’ve also been trying out free web-based services, even though it slows down my pages’ load time, and delivers my personal traffic information to a company who’s corporate interests are not likely to be the same as mine. I just thrive on this information, and it affects the content I end up putting up – I am more likely to blog on a subject that I have learned draws more traffic. But I was also thinking about writing a plugin that would track my visitors for me – catching and storing the particular information that I am interested in, and giving me the detailed read outs and spiffy features on my blog for the visitors – such as a world map with pins showing where my visitors come from. I love Sitemeter’s Recent Visitors by World Map, even though it looks like an open source project rip-off, and I’ve signed up for and started using my Google Maps API key so I can play with that little toy.

So to complete the lead-in, I’m thinking about using using visitor recording and fleshing it out with something more subtle, perhaps more Machiavellian. I don’t think we can count on any significant portion of our traffic to come from registered users, no matter how attractive we make registration. Because most surfers have dynamic IP’s, we can’t track visitors on that alone. Cookies might help, but without the visitor’s cooperation, we can’t get a name to go with the cookie, even if we can get past the increasing precautions against cookies thanks to the spyware problem. We could try to match any new visitor against our record of past visitors, using not only cookies and ip addresses, but also useragent strings, ISP and geographic information looked up on the ip’s, and ephemerals such as language settings and monitor resolution. We could generate a fairly high probability of recognition after a few visits, and it’s the repeat visitors we care about. Of course we would need a good privacy policy and notifications of the fact that we’re trying to place cookies, and why. What about redirecting a suspected repeat visitor to a page set up to invite him or her to register – not in the WordPress sense, but a quick-and-easy and in-your-face way, for our own tracking and recognition purposes. But what benefit can we offer them for registering? Registering in forums is expected, and there is a recognized advantage in getting credit for what you have to say; or the alternative – the community recognizing someone who doesn’t have anything to say that’s worth listening to. (Besides, in most of them I get to put up my spinning skull and crossbones image as an avatar.) But a forum is by nature built on a sense of community – people coming together to seek answers, ask advice, share knowledge, or show off their expertise. What sense of community does a blog have? After all, it’s just a public journal, isn’t it? It’s more an interrupted monologue than a dialog. If you peel through all the layers of reasons and rationalizations for a blog to exist, does it ever come down to anything else at the very core other than a search for external validation of self? Does showing a list of names on our site do anything other than prove that we’re interesting? How do you build a community around that?

Real participatory websites have a reason for being, most of which I already described. And they’re usually not blogs, except for the top rated ones, when they are actually a discussion group set up and led by a controlling instigator. WordPress is supposed to be a blogging tool, and if you want to set up a website for, say, a local chapter of a non-profit professional organization or a high school extracurricular activity, you should probably be using some other software. (And if you know something better for either of those applications than the lumbering Mambo, please let me know!!) I don’t see a need for a chat room in a blog. Yes, I met my wife in what was essentially a chat room, but kids nowadays keep their IM client open whenever they’re on the computer, and it seems to me that a chat room is extraneous. I could be wrong – throughout the day today I kept seeing Vincent on my site, and several times I felt the urge to tell him I was working on such-and-such, or to kid him about looking over my shoulder, and I only had the options of posting a comment or contacting him through email. I guess there’s been many times I saw someone on my site and wanted to say something to them and didn’t even have their email. Unfortunately, a PHP controlled, database rooted, dynamically-generated website relies on the visitor either refreshing the page or clicking on a link to another site page to get new information. It’s kind of hard to shoot them a message that way.

I guess I sound like I’m trying to talk myself out of this, but that’s not what I mean. There are still plenty of technical challenges and learning experiences waiting for a project like this. But no matter how perfectly I could design, code and implement this, it would mean nothing if it relied on a premise that was unsupportable. You would end up with a feature that showed yourself, maybe one or two groupies, and a whole lot of Guests, even when you had high traffic. Although that might be ego-stroking for the blogger, it’s not really different, other than in style, than the existing plugin.

Posted by Greg as Politics, Programming, Society at 12:11 PST

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