Posts tagged ‘rant’

This blog is not ad supported

I’m sick of the whining about internet ad blocking and the claims that it is or should be illegal.

This blog is not ad supported. It does track you, for which I hope you will forgive me, using WordPress Stats. If that bothers you — and it should — please install the ghostery extension. But it is not ad supported.

I believe this gives my visitors a better experience. Obviously, your experience is enhanced by the lack of distracting advertisements screen real estate being used to display things that are hopefully more valuable to you. But there’s more to it than that.

When you visit my blog, you can read each article on a single page. You don’t have to click through three “next page” links because someone wants to maximize their ad revenue. Further, my articles are (I hope) concise and to the point. I have no incentive to add irrelevant details to an essay in order to increase the number of pages you view. So you can read my thoughts and get on with your day.

More subtly, when you visit my blog, you can be sure that every article contains information that I consider to be valuable. I don’t write content-free essays with juicy titles to attract ad impressions. My visitors are not cattle whom I milk for ad revenue.

I started this blog over three years ago because Judd Vinet, founder of Arch Linux, had suggested I do so. I was just getting started in freelancing, and he said I’d be amazed how many clients can come out of a well-written technical post that happens to get top rating in Google. This has turned out to be true. In this light, the blog is itself an advertisement, showcasing my skills as a programmer, and more recently, as an author. Nowadays, I write articles, not so people will hire me (I’m actively hiding from head hunters), but so they will see those links to published books, gittip, and flattr on my sidebar.

I also write articles as a contribution to open source projects, both by promoting or introducing those projects to the few thousand visitors this blog receive per month, and by providing tutorials or instructions for them.

And I write because I can’t help writing. I am keenly aware of my audience, and thus the process is rather interactive. I write about things I believe you will find interesting. I want you to keep coming back, not just to use my open source projects, not just so you’ll tell you’re friends about my books, but because I want to keep writing articles you will read.

One of my more popular articles, bizarrely enough, has been the CSS popups are annoying rant I wrote three years ago. I notice that there are far fewer CSS popups today than there were back then. I’d love to take credit for that, though I have trouble being that vain. In that article, I suggested boycotting all websites that use CSS popups. Today I’d like to suggest a few additional actions we can take to stop advertising from ruining our internet experience:

  • Use adblock and ghostery. Not just to protect your privacy and improve your browsing experience, but to send a signal to the entire internet that you are a human being, not a product.
  • Avoid any site that display articles in multi-page format. I have a few worst offenders remapped to 127.0.0.1 in my hosts file.
  • Avoid sites that consistently publish content-free posts with juicy titles.
  • Start supporting non-advertising income streams for individual content creators. This can range from financial contributions via sites like gittip or flattr to purchasing or subscribing to products the author has posted for sale to simply writing a review or recommendation promoting their product or content to other people.

I’d like to close with a message for you to pass on to those people whining that ad blocking cuts into their advertising revenue:

If your soul purpose in writing a blog is to make money off of ad revenue, stop writing and find a true passion. While you are making a few dollars or maybe a few hundred dollars a month off of Adsense, Google is making billions of dollars. Yes, you are being used, and yes, you are being cheated, but not by the visitors who are blocking your ads.

Advertising, especially targeted advertising, is a huge industry right now, but I believe and hope it is going to die. People are learning that word of mouth is a much more reliable way to discover a product than advertising. Businesses are switching from advertising to discovering subtle ways to manipulate users into doing the advertising for them. Further, people are becoming more educated about how big businesses are abusing them. I’m not the only one that is sick of being treated like a product instead of a customer.

Telus Customer Service

In this day of two way communication, most companies know that if they provide poor service, the whole world is going to know about it. Here’s a letter I recently sent to Telus, a pathetic excuse for a Canadian telecom:

TELUS Client Care
PO Box 7575
Vancouver, BC
V6B 8N9

Re: Terrible Service and Over Billing

Dear Telus:

I just received my first telus bill and was surprised that it included $12.90 in charges accrued from August 26 to September 2. I am writing to have you reverse these charges and explain why.

I did originally request that my service be connected on August 26. However, this did not occur. I was told a technician would be coming that day, so I waited at home all day, but nobody showed up. I called Telus Support and they told me that my Internet was hooked up, but my modem had not been shipped. They said that the modem would arrive within three business days.

On August 30th, the modem arrived. I hooked it up but there was no service. I called Telus Support again, and they spent a lot of time looking into it, ultimately telling me that my service would not be available until the 31st, because three business days had not yet passed. They explicitly told me that my billing period would not begin until August 31st.

On August 31st, I still did not have any service. I called Telus Support again, and they took about an hour to discover that my line had not been properly connected and a technician call would be required. They said he would arrive on September 1st. I spent so much time on hold that I was out of cell phone minutes on my plan four days into the billing period.

On September 1st, the technician, one Simon Mourton, called to explain what was wrong (something had not been connected properly outside my condo) and to help me get my service working. Simon was terrific; indeed, he was the only good service your company has provided.

Thus, I request that $12.90 in charges from August 26 to September 2 be erased from my bill.

In addition, I am billing you for the 8 hours (at my consulting rate of $90/hour plus GST) I was unable to work on Thursday August 26th, because I was waiting for a technician. I am also expensing you for the 93 minutes and 14 seconds (at $0.35 per minute) of cell phone usage that your inept service people kept me on hold, but you will be pleased to note I am not invoicing you for the time spent on hold. The total comes to $801.54. Please find my invoice attached.

Sincerely yours,

Dusty Phillips

How (not) to submit a W8-BEN: Canadian retailers dealing with US income

As a Canadian retailer selling books on Amazon’s Createspace, (an American company), I suffer a 30% tax by the US government. (Aside: this is not a good way to promote global trade in a country that is nearer to economic collapse than ever before). Canadian residents are supposed to have this entire tax waived. In order to have the tax waived, I need to supply a W8-BEN form to Createspace. This sounds quite trivial, but the steps involved are time consuming and error prone. If you’re trying to figure out how to do this, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Get a Certified Copy of your Canadian passport. If you’re lucky enough to live near a city that has an official Passport Canada Office go there and have them certify it. Service Canada and Canada Post cannot perform this service. If, like many Canadians, you are not so lucky, you’ll have to mail it to this address:
    Passport Canada
    Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada
    Gatineau, Canada K1A 0G3

    with a letter requesting the certified copy service. It will take up to four weeks for your passport to be returned, so don’t plan any international travel. You can also get the passport certified at a US embassy or by a US notary (the IRS won’t trust a Canadian Notary).

  2. Fill out a W-7 form. This is fairly straightforward. The IRS has instructions but they don’t make much sense. Mail the form to this address, with the certified copy of your passport:

    Internal Revenue Service
    Austin Service Center
    ITIN Operation
    P.O. Box 149342
    Austin, TX 78714-9342

  3. Wait for the IRS to get back to you. In my case they didn’t. They did get the form though, because I started getting official IRS e-mail spam. They just never gave me a TIN or responded in any physical fashion whatsoever. So I had to start the process over, continuing to lose 30% of my income every month, and going without my passport for another month.
  4. Fill out the W8-BEN form. The IRS has instructions for this too. You’ll have to include your TIN in this form.
  5. Send the form to whichever company is withholding taxes from you for the US government.

After the IRS lost or destroyed or rejected my application, without telling me, I had no way to contact them to find out what had happened. There is no e-mail address on their site, no web submit form, no phone number for international service. They don’t even seem to encourage using their mailing address.

Even worse, for me, Zazzle has now also started withholding this 30%, and they refuse to send my funds AT ALL until I submit the W8-BEN. A substantial portion of my income is now being held hostage or stolen by the US government, and they are cleverly refusing to give me the information I need to free it.

Taxes are a difficult matter, and we all complain about them. Dealing with the IRS has given me a huge appreciation for how intelligently the Canada Revenue Agency has streamlined their processes in recent years. Interacting with the IRS is like using smoke signals. Interacting with the CRA is like using a telegraph. Hopefully both countries will be able to handle the simplicity of the Internet someday soon.

Password validation hints

Just because something can be validated does not mean it should be validated. It’s very easy to validate form fields in django and most other web frameworks. That does not mean we should always take advantage of this feature.

Why did I just get this error when creating a user account on a website?:


Error. The password field can contain only letters and numbers

I had included a couple of punctuation characters in my password, because that makes it harder to guess, right?

From a technical standpoint, there is absolutely no reason for this website to tell me I can’t use punctuation characters. If they’re encrypting ascii, then any ascii character should be legit. If they’re encrypting bytestreams, then any unicode byte should be legit.

The only validation a password field should have is to test if the password is ‘too easy.’ Typically a minimum length test is enough, but ensuring the user didn’t enter five 1s or their username as a password can be good validation too (although it’ll annoy the user, not often a good thing). You may also need a maximum length if your database is poorly designed, but make it a very high maximum in case anal-retentive people with 64 character passwords want to buy something from you. After all, why shouldn’t you let them?

Further, don’t force your users to have passwords that conform to arbitrary rules like ” must contain at least one number, one lower case letter, and one capital.” This actually cuts down the total number of options a brute force attacker needs to check if they want to break the password; they now know that eerieairplane is not an option they have to test. After all, eerieairplane and EerieAirPlane are totally different passwords, neither is more “guessable” than the other (unless you are a pilot for Lake Eerie Air, in which case you’re probably better off using pokertoMatotoOthpaste).

Users have different systems for creating their passwords; some of these systems aren’t very intelligent (same password everywhere, or prepend the name of the site to a common word), but forcing a single system of our own on them is even less intelligent.

While we’re on the subject, what’s up with all the corporate sites who believe that having security questions in case you forgot your password helps make things more secure? Honestly, do you think that my random password with extra punctuation is easier to guess than my first dog’s breed, my mother’s maiden name, or my favourite author? What’s the point of having a password at all if both I and any given attacker can just look up these values instead?

CSS Popups are annoying

I was just Googling for some information and found a relevant search result from a forum somewhere. While reading through the forum responses, the page faded to dark and a CSS popup window came up telling me that the site I was visitng was an online community of something or others.

No shit? I’m reading a forum answer that involves multiple people posting. Obviously, it’s an online community of some sort. Why did you interrupt my reading to tell me this? I’ll say one thing, whatever your community is, there is no chance of me signing up.

No, in fact, I didn’t even read the rest of the discussion, I went back to Google and tried another search result. Annoying guest users is not the best way to attract them to your community.

Some sites are even worse, they use CSS popups for advertising. Popping up advertisements in front of whatever the user is reading is another sure way of ensuring they won’t return. Don’t expect people will be more likely to generate ad revenue because you hit them over the head with an ad.

Another recent trend is ecommerce sites that pop up a, “We’d really appreciate it if you provide feedback about your shopping experience,” survey request while you’re shopping. Well, for starters, I’d have enjoyed my shopping experience a lot more if you hadn’t interrupted it with this stupid survey.

(Updated) I just noticed that even Stack Overflow is doing this now, with a, “new to this site, read the FAQ,” popup. It’s less obtrusive than some, showing up at the top of the page, but I am NOT new to Stack Overflow, and if I was, I would read the FAQ only if I wanted to. They shouldn’t be doing this. Bad Stack Overflow!

This is so obvious, I can’t believe I’m discussing it: Don’t annoy your web visitors unless you don’t want them to come back.

Why I'm quitting GMail

Lots of people have expressed fear at the power Google has over our information. I don’t intend to expound on that. Suffice it to say that they know more about me than I do.

It’s never bothered me. I have always trusted Google to take care of this information. They’ve always been on the same side of privacy, net neutrality, and copyright debates as me. They’re extremely active in the open source world and they seem to value open source rather than simply using us. I trust them.

I used to trust them.

A couple weeks ago, Aaron (head developer of Arch Linux) received an e-mail from Google Adsense telling us our account had been terminated:

While going through our records recently, we found that your AdSense
account has posed a significant risk to our AdWords advertisers. Since
keeping your account in our publisher network may financially damage our
advertisers in the future, we’ve decided to disable your account.

Please understand that we consider this a necessary step to protect the
interests of both our advertisers and our other AdSense publishers. We
realize the inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you in advance
for your understanding and cooperation.

How are we a risk to advertisers? What are we doing wrong? How do we fix it? No explanation. Aaron, of course, asked for clarification. They regurgitated the response:

Thanks for providing us with additional information. However, after
thoroughly reviewing your account data and taking your feedback into
consideration, we’ve re-confirmed that your account poses a significant
risk to our advertisers. For this reason, we’re unable to reinstate your
account. Thank you for your understanding.

As a reminder, if you have any questions about your account or the actions
we’ve taken, please do not reply to this email. You can find more
information by visiting

https://www.google.com/adsense/support/bin/answer.py?answer=57153

Following instruction for obtaining more info, Aaron posted here: http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/AdSense/thread?tid=029aef7a42e7c4f2&hl=en&fid=029aef7a42e7c4f20004707fc5d9ce9e

Still no additional information. I find this offensive. We are an honest, upstanding, unfunded open source Linux Distribution. We have done nothing wrong.

I respect Google’s right to choose where they place ads. If I was a marketing agency for companies that sell adult products, I wouldn’t post advertisements in a daycare or during Saturday morning cartoons. However to cancel our account without giving us a chance to fix or even understand their rationale is troubling.

The money from Adsense is mediocre at best, compared to our donations and schwag income. But this event caused me to reevaluate my trust of this mammoth company. I’m not suddenly “OMG Google is evil, I must not use their products.” (As a teen I had this tendency toward Microsoft products. I’ve matured a bit and can acknowledge that Microsoft has some good products: their mice and keyboards.) However, I now feel less comfortable giving this company full control of my information.

And thus, I am slowly moving my e-mail account from GMail to my own domain. I’m considering anonymizing my Google cookie. I’m reluctant to put my own or client data on Google App engine. I’m losing enthusiasm for my Android powered phone (that has as much to do with Java as it does with Google, to be honest), and evaluating all new exciting Google services with just a hint of distrust.

Google still creates some of the best technology in the world, and they are still mostly friendly to the open source community. They are a large company and the actions of one department obviously don’t reflect the opinions of others. Adsense is Google’s cash cow. The more exciting Google projects occur in research and innovation. There isn’t much communication between the two.

I am looking forward to Google Wave (I intend to set up my own host, of course) and to an anonymized version of Chromium for Linux. I have no problem with Google Gears. I still use their maps, but I’ll have to stay off Latitude.

Update: This post unexpectedly hit Reddit, and within a few hours, Aaron got another e-mail telling us that our Adsense account had been reinstated. We’re still lacking an explanation, and I’m still not sure I trust them, but I have to give them credit for quick action!

I hadn’t made this post to get action out of Google, though, so we’re probably not putting Adsense back on archlinux.org and I’m probably not going to go back to GMail.

Canadian Copyright Consultation

The Canadian government is either making an effort or making a show of making an effort to consult with the public and other stakeholders on the issue of digital rights and copyright. I encourage all Canadians to post a response to them at this site: http://copyright.econsultation.ca/

Here is my response. The ideas and opinions expressed here are largely based on discussions we’ve had at the Pirate Party of Canada discussion forum. My opinions do not, however, necessarily reflect the opinion of the Pirate Party of Canada.

Feel free to plagiarize any parts of the following letter in your own letters to the Copyright Consultation.

—-
Dear Copyright Consultation Members,

My background: I am a freelance software developer holding a Master’s
degree in Computer Science from York University. I am an advocate of
open source software and member of the fledgling Pirate Party of
Canada. I understand the fundamental shift that Internet technology
has made on society, and am here to explain this understanding to the
lawmakers.

1. How do Canada’s copyright laws affect you?

Our copyright laws take all power away from both artists and consumers
and place that power in the hands of wealthy distribution channels
such as book publishers, record labels, and movie studios. As an
aspiring author, I cannot get my book published because the publishing
industry does not like my style. As a consumer, I cannot access music
at reasonable prices because the recording industry wants a huge cut.
I may not mind paying $20 for a CD, but knowing that the original
artist gets a small fraction of that is upsetting. I’d rather send the
entire $20 directly to the artist and download their music from
so-called “pirate” services.

The Internet is making these distribution channels unnecessary.
Authors can post books online and self-publish using online services
such as lulu or createspace. Musicians can post their music online
using Jamendo or Bittorrent. Independent movie producers can post
their movies online using hulu, youtube, or similar services. This
shift allows artists direct access to the consumers and vice versa.

The distribution channels are irrelevant; they know this and are
lobbying for laws to make it harder and/or illegal to access content
without paying them. This is like trying to pass laws that we all use
typewriters instead of e-mail because typewriters and the postal
system are no longer relevant. It serves a set of industries already
well-known for misusing artists and consumers alike.

How should existing laws be modernized?

The number one change is to reduce copyright term. Drastically.

A book published today will not be available to the public in my life
time. How is the original author compensated after his or her death?
Sony is making an obscene fortune off of Michael Jackson’s death, a
small fraction of that will go to his family. Why?

In addition, technology is now advancing at an incredible rate. a
century ago when our current copyright laws were introduced, things
moved in decades. Now they move in seconds. It could take years for a
book or recording to circulate and be heard by everyone in the
country. Now the entire world can read it in a week, and next week its
old news.

Copyright term should be shortened to 10 years for books, 5 years for
music and movies, 2 years for software, and 1 year or less for
medicinal knowledge. This would give artists and distribution channels
some compensation, but would increase the rate of knowledge growth by
at least one human generation.

Second, non-commercial sharing of data must not be illegal. It should
not be illegal for me to loan a book to a friend. It should not be
illegal for me to read a book to my friend over the phone. By
extension, I should be able to share it with them across any media or
time-frame.

2. Based on Canadian values and interests, how should copyright
changes be made in order to withstand the test of time?

The primary Canadian value at risk and often forgotten in these
discussions is privacy. We are a very private people compared to say,
the USA, although probably less private than most of Europe. Many
corporate lobiests suggest that people not be allowed to share data
they have paid for or use it in whatever way they see fit. The obvious
example is filesharing, but the logical extensions could lead to
charging to read a book every time you open it, or forbidding a person
from watching a movie at a friend’s house if they haven’t paid to view
it.

The privacy problem is that policing such laws would require knowing
every movie I watch, every book I read, and every packet I transfer
across the Internet. The authorities would have to read every e-mail
to ensure I haven’t attached an “illegal” file to it. This is clearly
a drastic invasion of privacy.

Another core Canadian value is the desire to create. Our country has a
very unique heritage with many unique works of art not created
anywhere else. If the large media outlets get their way, they will
have complete control over all creative works. They will get to pick
and choose which artists get shown to the public and which ones get
placed in the equivalent of a creative prison with no access to
potential readers, viewers, or listeners. We will be steered by US
corporate interests and our cultural works will be marginalized and
ultimately, lost.

3. What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster
innovation and creativity in Canada?

As mentioned, shorter copyright term. That will:
a) force capable artists and inventors to come up with new ideas
instead of living off the fruits of a single idea for their entire
lives
b) allow capable artists and authors to ‘stand on the shoulders of
giants’ and reuse existing works in their own works and inventions.
They can constructively spend time improving existing works instead of
trying to circumvent other good ideas that they do not have access to.

4. What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster
competition and investment in Canada?

Competition would definitely be served by shorter copyright term.
Companies and artists would need to continue creating, and would have
to sell their works with quality service and pricing.

Investment is a really tricky issue because it depends what other
countries are doing. I believe that if Canada had sane copyright laws,
there would be a “new-style” publishing industry cropping up here, and
artists may move to our nation to take advantage of direct access to
an audience. On the other hand, currently powerful companies would
shun investment in the new model. I believe such companies will become
irrelevant.

5. What kinds of changes would best position Canada as a leader in
the global, digital economy?

Such a question depends on what the rest of the world is doing. Canada
needs to look to Europe for inspiration as the USA has the most
powerful corporate anti-consumer backing. Europe has already elected
Pirate Party members focused on copyright reform similar to what I
have described. It is inevitable that massive reform, even revolutions
in copyright law will occur at some point; it is possible that wars
will be fought over it. Canada can be at the front of this movement by
changing our laws first, and by doing it the way we always do:
peacefully.

Dusty Phillips
—-

Hello blog

So apparently this is my first post. Actually, I’m editing the auto-generated first post.

I’ve been meaning to set up a blog on my domain (archlinux.ca) for a while, but never got around to it, likely due to the fact that it seems pretty unimportant. Also, I am in strong agreement with a 2002 article on the topic: http://mama.indstate.edu/users/bones/WhyIHateWebLogs.html That link is bloody hard to find these days. But while searching for it, I came across this 2006 gem, which happens to explain why that link is hard to find: http://teddygross.blogspot.com/2006/06/why-i-hate-blogs.html

The truth is, the internet landscape has changed, as usual, and I haven’t, as usual. I’m still a minimalist. I don’t need this fancy wysiwyg editor, I could just upload articles to a website somewhere and update them as needed. That’s what ESR does (http://catb.org/~esr/) and it works. But my articles would never be discovered.

So when Dave Crouse, Arch Linux user and all round good guy (http://www.archlinux.us, http://www.archlinux.biz, http://www.archlinux.me, and several other domains…) offered me a blog here on archlinux.me with the only work required being ‘change your password and e-mail address’, I just did it.

Judd Vinet (http://www.zeroflux.org/) has been suggesting I set up a blog for a while too. I should listen to him, as he’s the only famous person (He created Arch Linux – http://www.archlinux.org/) I am on an exchange e-mails basis (The modern equivalent of a First Name basis, of course) with. He says a few useful tech posts can go a long way to securing contracting positions. Since I still solicit the occasional contract, I might do just that.

I still have a few issue with blogs. They’re too chronological — by design. Often people post something and then a few weeks or months later post a new entry, an ‘update’ that cites results or new information in some way. They tie these together by editing the original post and linking to the new one. To me it would make sense to have only one article and update it to ensure it has the most complete and accurate information. Current blogging platforms (they’re just a CMS, really) don’t make it easy to do that. Tagging is, I think, supposed to alleviate this problem, but I have a feeling it doesn’t meet my standards.

Another issue is dates. In today’s world, information becomes obsolete within a year. In my field, it often becomes obsolete within a month.  (This morning I was searching for information on running Adobe Flash on the Android platform. The only info I can find is from November, 2008, its useless). When I’m searching for a solution to a problem, I often ignore any search results more than a few weeks old. Therefore the FIRST thing I look for on any article, web page, or blog post is the date. But its hard to find. I actually ranted about this a few months back (so the info is stale). I’d have put it on my blog if I had one, so here’s a link: http://bbs.archlinux.org/viewtopic.php?id=63014

Next, I despise the way blog interlinking works. Its been said before (I’m in too much of a hurry to be doing other things to find a citation) that 90% of the info in the blogosphere is recycled content. Too many blog posts are “I found this solution and here’s the link.” Half the time the link is a link to somebody else who linked to the solution. Finding the information is a pain. Search engine page ranking is supposed to solve this by putting the most linked posts at the top of search results but it must fail or I wouldn’t have anything to complain about.

Finally, there was a book I read once (The Gospel according to Larry) which had a terrific quote I identified with. I can’t remember the exact wording, but the paraphrase was something like “(personally, I think if 50 thousand people are doing something that’s a good enough reason not to do it)”.  I’m very leery of bandwagon following.  I tried Facebook and the whole social network thing, but it didn’t suit me. I never tried twitter because I don’t WANT the world to know my every thought. But blogging isn’t like that anymore, its turned into a semi-interactive communication medium. It generally has more interesting, accurate, and useful information than standard broadcast mediums (news stations, sites, papers and the like). Plus, I’ve got ideas that need voicing, so lets try this.

This post indicates it also takes up a lot of time. Better be careful on that front.

BTW, if you’re wondering what topics I’ll cover here, Arch Linux and Python will be primaries, partially because that’s what I do best, but mostly because Crouse gave me a blog on the archlinux.me domain. Other topics that interest me and I feel I have enough authority to comment on include martial arts (Chinese, for the most part), web development, Hockey, dogs, Android, humour, and English grammar.

I imagine I’ll also post random useless information about random useless topics. I’ve had something on involuntary racism bouncing around in the back of my head just waiting to be authored.