Blog: January 2022

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Livejournal user agreement updated

I still have an LJ account, though I stopped posting there after they changed the terms of service in problematic ways. Today I got email notifying me of an update to those terms of service, so out of curiosity I took a look. That's the new version; I didn't look for the old one or attempt a direct comparison. A few things jumped out on a quick skim (conclusion: still not using them):

  • Section 6.1 says this about termination of accounts: "The Administration reserves the right to delete Account and Blog if User did not access the Account or the access was restricted for more than 2 years due to a breach hereof." They don't say what "access" means, but if you left LJ and thought your posts would remain until you removed them, you might want to check into that, or log in once a year, or something.

  • Section 7.4, about blogs and comments, says that the commenter and blog owner are "jointly and severally liable" for their content. (If someone posts a problematic comment and you don't nuke it, you're complicit.) The "severally" part means the parties can be sued independently, or at least that's what it means under US law as I understand it. Russian law? No idea. I bring this up because in the next section, about communities (shared blogs), it says in 8.4 that a poster or commenter and the community owner are "subsidiarily liable" with respect to the content. I don't know what that means or why it's different from the blog case.

  • Section 9.2.6 says that users may not "without the Administration’s special permit, use automatic scripts (bots, crawlers etc.) to collect information from the Service and/or to interact with the Service". Do they mean userscripts too? Other clients? That cron job that posts a quote of the day?

  • Users may also not "post advertising and/or political solicitation materials" without permission, but these terms are not defined. Are you allowed to pitch your new book (with purchase link)? Link to the feedback form for legislation that's out for public comment? I assume the purpose is to support the goals of the Russian government, but the language is more expansive.

  • Section 11.3 (under liability) says (my emphasis): "Please note that in accordance with the Russian Federation Act No. 2300-1 dated February 7, 1992, the provisions of the said act related to consumer rights protection do not apply to the relationship between the Administration and Users as the Service is provided for free." I paid for a permanent account. On the other hand, they also say (in 10.6): "The Administration may at its own discretion and without User’s prior notice supplement, reduce or otherwise modify any Service function and it’ [sic] procedures." So I guess they have cancelled or can cancel permanent accounts at will.

  • As with the 2016 change, the English-language document they post isn't legally relevant in any way; you are agreeing to the Russian-language TOS. Can you read Russian?

Ice Dragon pentathlon

There is (in non-pandemic times) a major event in my kingdom (AEthelmearc), Ice Dragon. A feature of this event is the arts & sciences pentathlon, which used to be the premier A&S competition in the region. It was the premier A&S competition in the East Kingdom before AEthelmearc split off into its own kingdom.

The competition is divided into several major categories, like clothing and cooking and performance. Each major category has sub-categories like pre-1400 women's clothing and bread and storytelling. You can enter things in individual categories, and if you enter at least five different major categories, you can compete for the overall pentathlon prize. An important feature of the competition, in my opinion, is the cross-entry: if an item qualifies for more than one category, you didn't have to choose only one. Embroidered gown? Clothing and needlework. Belt woven from wool you spun, with a buckle you made? Spinning, weaving, and metalwork. And so on.

I haven't been tracking the event lately (I stopped traveling for SCA events even before the pandemic, due to both changing interests and the inherent Shabbat complications). I was reminded of the event by a post I saw tonight on the kingdom blog, which referred in passing to the limit of two categories for cross-entries. I'm not sure when that was introduced, but it was not always there.

With that rule change one small but fun challenge went away: the single-item pent entry. Can you come up with one work that legitimately fits five major categories? I did this one year and had great fun trying it, and learning some new crafts in the process (which should be one of the goals, encouraging growth). I'm disappointed to learn that this small bit of the event's history is no longer accessible.

It was a book. A book of music that I composed, illuminated (like books of hours), with an embroidered cover. I performed one of the pieces. The book was a gift for my then-baroness (of blessed memory); she had appointed me as her bard and I made the book to honor and thank her. But I embroidered the cover because of the Ice Dragon pent. And I might well have bought a blank bound book, focusing on the music and the illumination (my actual skills), but for the pent.

And I'm glad I did make the book. I learned about bookbinding. I asked a curator nicely and got a private tour of a collection of actual renaissance volumes so that I could inspect their bindings (which are usually not very visible when books are displayed open behind glass). My embroidery was not very good but was full of spirit, as they say.

The single-item pent entry is not the optimal path to winning the pent (if winning the pent is your goal). You can probably make five stronger entries by focusing and avoiding the constraints of other parts of the project. I did not win the pent the year I entered the book. But I had loads of fun with the project (and apparently made an impression). And my baroness really liked the book. So, win all around.

Scanning for Wordpress?

Every now and then I remember to look at my web site's traffic. Every month my site produces a few hundred "URL not found" errors, and almost all of them are related to Wordpress -- wp-login.php, xmlrpc.php, and wlwmanifest.xml (tried at a bunch of entry points, each exactly 30 times in the last 30 days, presumably a daily probe).

I don't run Wordpress -- never have. But I guess it's popular enough, and has bugs or security holes, that people find it worthwhile to send their bots to look for it on every web site they can find?

Activity trends on Stack Exchange (mostly downward)

Stack Exchange published some year-end statistics, as they've done for the last few years. Their focus was on looking at how many questions get closed, per site (sometimes a few, sometimes more than 60%) and how many of them get edited and reopened (very few). I don't really care about that, at least at the level of detail they have in some wide tables, but the data includes the number of questions asked for the year, and that piqued my curiosity. My impression has been that activity in general and new questions are down, sometimes a lot, across the network, but I hadn't looked at all the data. Until now.

I downloaded the CSV files for 2018 through 2021. As with all such efforts, the task starts with data-cleaning -- some site names were not consistent across the four files, which messes up sorting and grouping. There are older files, but I got tired of hand-adjusting site names and filling in placeholders for sites that didn't exist that year. While, anecdotally, SE's been in decline for much longer, it feels like things accelerated in 2018 and 2019, so that's what I looked at.

I loaded everything into a spreadsheet for now, just to be able to eyeball it easily. (I might load it into a database later for actual queries, and would include the close-related data if I do that.) I added a "trend" column, up/down/stable, based on eyeballing the data. There were some edge cases that led to me adding an 'erratic" option too. And sometimes it's a judgement call; I didn't work out precise formulas, and some of my "stable"s could be "down"s or vice-versa. I can share the file I assembled, if you want to ignore my assessments and make your own.

The counts include all questions that were asked; we don't know how many were subsequently deleted.

There were a few sites with upward trends:

  • Biblical Hermeneutics
  • Chess
  • Engineering
  • History of Science and Math
  • Islam
  • MathOverflow
  • Quantum Computing (which has a corporate sponsor and is a hot research topic)
  • Christianity (recent rise)
  • Literature (recent rise)
  • Operations Research (recent rise, site created in 2020)
  • Retrocomputing (recent rise)

There are about 30 I judged to be steady; while there are fluctuations year to year, the activity is all in the same general ballpark.

The other ~140 sites are having more difficulties.

A few that jumped out at me and/or are of personal interest:

  • Mi Yodeya had about 4000 questions in 2018. In 2019 there was an organized activity that led to more questions, about 4500. It took a drop after that (~2900 and then ~2600).

  • Writing was at ~1800 in 2018. 2019 was the year of the question drive and a big push to finally be allowed to graduate. We succeeded, and then six weeks later Stack Overflow Inc. blew up our world. 2021 is down to ~1200, which is actually higher than I expected.

  • Some technical sites are down by about half, including Software Engineering and Quality Assurance. Hmm.

  • Cooking went from ~2700 questions in 2018 to ~2300 in each of the next two years and then to ~1500 in 2021. I would have expected that site to get a boost from the pandemic (more people are cooking at home). On the other hand, Travel dropped a ton from 2019 to 2020 (and stayed low for 2021); I think the reason is pretty obvious there.

  • English Language and Usage dropped by half, from ~22k in 2018. The Workplace is also down by half, from ~5500 to ~2500. Graphic Design is down even more, from ~6800 to ~2700.

  • Interpersonal Skills had ~2600 questions in 2018. In mid-October of that year, they were kicked off the hot network questions list amidst some controversy, reducing their advertising reach. That doesn't explain everything, but the next year was down by half, and in 2021 they were down to ~450, less than 20% of the number from 2018. Noteworthy: when SE decided to "graduate" almost all remaining beta sites, this one asked to stay in beta. So they seem to recognize that they have things to sort out.

  • Beer, Wine, and Spirits, which has struggled for years, is down from 151 questions in 2018 to 70 in 2021. Homebrewing is also down by two-thirds.

I couldn't figure out how to make Markdown tables without a ton of manual effort. Here are a few screenshots for the curious. Read more…

Y2K22 bug in Exchange

We all got through the anticlimactic Y2K bug 22 years ago, and the next digital calendar crisis isn't expected until 2038 (Unix epoch), but... apparently Microsoft Exchange has a Y2k22 bug, which prevents email from being delivered until sysadmins apply a manual fix. Just what they wanted to hear on a holiday weekend.

Apparently Exchange is using a funny string representation of dates and then trying to convert that string to a numeric format, and with the bump in year it now doesn't fit into a long. Really, I'm not making this up. Why they don't use standard date formatting, I don't know. I don't know much about how Exchange is put together.

This linked Reddit post, which has had several updates, includes this:

Interestingly, this fix includes a change to the format of the problematic update version number; the version number now starts with “21” again, to stay within the limits of the ‘long’ data type, for example: “2112330001”. So, Happy December 33, 2021!

Attention and its lack

From Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen:

When you arrive at the gates of Graceland, there is no longer a human being whose job is to show you around. You are handed an iPad, you put in little earbuds, and the iPad tells you what to do – turn left; turn right; walk forward. In each room, a photograph of where you are appears on the screen, while a narrator describes it. So as we walked around we were surrounded by blank-faced people, looking almost all the time at their screens. As we walked, I felt more and more tense. When we got to the jungle room – Elvis’s favourite place in the mansion – the iPad was chattering away when a middle-aged man standing next to me turned to say something to his wife. In front of us, I could see the large fake plants that Elvis had bought to turn this room into his own artificial jungle. “Honey,” he said, “this is amazing. Look.” He waved the iPad in her direction, and began to move his finger across it. “If you swipe left, you can see the jungle room to the left. And if you swipe right, you can see the jungle room to the right.”

His wife stared, smiled, and began to swipe at her own iPad. I leaned forward. “But, sir,” I said, “there’s an old-fashioned form of swiping you can do. It’s called turning your head. Because we’re here. We’re in the jungle room. You can see it unmediated. Here. Look.” I waved my hand, and the fake green leaves rustled a little. Their eyes returned to their screens. “Look!” I said. “Don’t you see? We’re actually there. There’s no need for your screen. We are in the jungle room.” They hurried away. I turned to [teenager], ready to laugh about it all – but he was in a corner, holding his phone under his jacket, flicking through Snapchat. [...] I realised as I sat with [teenager] that, as with so much anger, my rage towards him was really anger towards myself. His inability to focus was something I felt happening to me too. I was losing my ability to be present, and I hated it. "I know something’s wrong," Adam said, holding his phone tightly in his hand. "But I have no idea how to fix it." Then he went back to texting.

I realised then that I needed to understand what was really happening to him and to so many of us. That moment turned out to be the start of a journey that transformed how I think about attention. I travelled all over the world in the next three years, from Miami to Moscow to Melbourne, interviewing the leading experts in the world about focus. What I learned persuaded me that we are not now facing simply a normal anxiety about attention, of the kind every generation goes through as it ages. We are living in a serious attention crisis – one with huge implications for how we live. I learned there are twelve factors that have been proven to reduce people’s ability to pay attention and that many of these factors have been rising in the past few decades – sometimes dramatically.

The article is an interesting read (though it does not list those twelve factors). It's an excerpt from a forthcoming book, which I presume does.