Friday, May 25, 2007

Do I need Gallery at all?

Before throwing myself head first into attempt to fix Gallery, I think I should ask myself a question: do I need Gallery at all? Can I do without it? What's the point of having it on my website if I also post all the same pictures on Flickr? Why duplicate the effort? Wouldn't I be better off with just Flickr?

I've thought about it, and compared Flickr and Gallery according to several different criteria. What follows is a long and tedious list that smacks more of accounting than of geekery, and is of interest only to those who are wrestling with similar dilemmas.

1. Data presentation

1.1. Ability to organize images hierarchically

At first, Gallery had an advantage of having hierarchical albums with as many levels of subalbums as you want, whereas in Flickr you could have only one level of "sets". But Flickr recently introduced so-called "collections", which can be made up of sub-collections and sets. Thus it now provides a hierarchical way to organize your images. So Gallery and Flickr are pretty much equal at that point.

The score so far: 1:1

1.2. Ability to present newest images first

Flickr has a significant advantage: it presents your pictures as a (photo)stream -- newest pictures first. (That does not keep you from grouping them into sets and collections.) On the other hand, the only way to access newest pictures first in Gallery (I suppose) is through an RSS feed. And I'm not even sure if Gallery supports RSS feeds! (Though I've read somewhere that it does.) But try to explain to my mother-in-law (who regularly checks my albums for new pictures of Erika) what an RSS feed is, or how to access it! (My own mother, OTOH, took to RSS feeds with gusto after I explained to her what they were.)

The score so far: Flickr 2, Gallery 1

2. Hosting: on my website vs third-party website

One can say that an advantage of Gallery is that it is hosted on my own website, where I have "full control" over my images and data, whereas Flickr is hosted by Yahoo, a big, impersonal, corporation -- and we all know that big corporations are just one step shy of becoming Satan incarnate, and are constantly thinking of ways to harness their customers' data for world domination. :-) Well, the reason I put "full control" in quotes is because I'm afraid the control I have over my data on my website is illusory. First, even though it's "my" website, it is hosted not by me but by a corporation (Dreamhost), and they are the ones who have the actual control over it. Second, performing an upgrade that hosed my software actually caused me to lose control over my data. Loss of control over data comes not just in the form of having your data turned over to FBI, but also in losing ability to manipulate it due to software glitches. Whereas if Flickr hosed its own software, I'm sure they would be working day and night to fix it.

The score so far: Flickr 3, Gallery 1

3. Community aspect

On Flickr I am a part of a big community that occasionally shows it's paying attention to my pictures by way of commenting on them or marking them as favorites. It's nice. The Gallery on my website is not a part of any community. Sure, Gallery has community features: it lets you create user groups, and it lets users add comments to pictures. But not surprisingly, no one has ever created a user account in my Gallery just so as to comment on my pictures. Every time a viewer needs to create an account to participate in something, the probability of their participating falls by about an order or two of magnitude. On Flicr, though, all the Flickr'ites already have accounts, and with those accounts they can participate in all the numerous communities.

The score so far: Flickr 4, Gallery 1

If the score is so much in favor of Flickr, why do I even bother thinking of fixing Gallery on my website?

Here we come to the critical feature that makes it very hard for me to give up Gallery. It's not a feature of Gallery per se as much as a corollary of the fact that I'm hosting Gallery on my web site vs third-party website.

4. Access logs

My web hosting provider allows me to see statistics of who accessed Gallery and when, what images they viewed and where they came from. I am a sucker for access logs. I want to know which IP addresses are viewing my images, and how the viewers found it (referrer pages and search terms). That's 50% of the fun of posting images. I want to know much more than just the view count on a particular image. Because of that, I am not ready to give up Gallery.

You may say, get Statcounter or something like that, and put it on Flickr? Well, Flickr doesn't let you add HTML / Javascript to your photos page, so it's not an option. So, this is the one huge advantage of hosting software on my own website vs Flickr, and that's why I can't give up on Gallery yet.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Free software is worth what you pay for it

That's a statement worthy of a troll. So perhaps I should rephrase it more diplomatically. Free software support is worth what you pay for it. Or, to word it even more precisely, free software support by a cheap-ass web hosting company is worth what you pay for it. The company that hosts my web site, Dreamhost, offers a seductive feature: one-click software install for assorted popular free software packages, such as Joomla, phpBB, or Gallery. By clicking a button in your control panel you can initiate an installation process, and after asking a few simple questions, Dreamhost (or rather, its scripts) will do all installation process for you. Neat, huh? I used it to install several software packages on my site, and it worked as advertised.

It lulled me into a false sense of comfort...

For one-click-installable software Dreamhost also offers one-click upgrades. Basically, there is this button in your control panel "upgrade to the latest version", next to each one-click-installable package that you have installed. If a button is there, it's tempting you to click it. After all, why not install the latest version? You want to be "with it", don't you? :-) And Dreamhost provides reasonable precautions against upgrades gone bad: it urges you to back up your database, and it does not destroy the old version, but moves the old directory to .old, assuring you that should you not like the new version, you can revert back to the old one simply by renaming the directory. So really, why not upgrade? Is it any wonder that my finger itched to click that button?

...and then it sprung the trap

So I clicked to upgrade my Gallery installation. And... I don't have Gallery anymore. Or rather, I have a Gallery that throws itself into an infinite loop of URL redirection whenever anybody attempts to view it. It does that because it claims it "can't" "find" the default theme plugin, called Matrix. I put the words "can't" and "find" in quotes, because it's not clear in what sense Gallery is unable to find this plugin. Matrix theme is right there where it's always been, and Gallery debug messages indicate it is indeed able to instantiate the Matrix plugin class. But after that it arrives to a conclusion that the Gallery theme is missing, inactive or incompatible.

Googling this error message and various permutations of its terms didn't yield anything useful or applicable to my situation.

Can't go back to the old version, either

What about the assurance on behalf of Dreamhost that I should be able to go back to the old version of Gallery? (They say it's as simple as renaming the .old directory back to its proper name.) Well, that didn't help -- I'm getting a different error message. Blowing away both the old and the new directories and installing from scratch is not an option either, because I have literally thousands of pictures in Gallery, painstakingly added over the course of two years. I really, really want to fix this install. Dreamhost won't be of help, because they state clearly that they don't support third-party software, and all the installations or upgrades you perform, even the one-click ones, you do at your own risk.

But I think I should still fire off a nastygram to Dreamhost. It's one thing to not support software, but it's quite another to give your users rope to hang themselves with. At the very least they could have tried out the one-click upgrade themselves, observed that it leads to a disaster, and issued a warning to users. But I've been too demoralized to fire off nastygrams.

Of course, since this is an open source program, its source code is available to me, so in theory I should be able to debug it. In theory. Given plenty of spare time. If I go that route (since I don't have many other options at this point), at least I'll be able to get a lot of blogging mileage out of it, in the spirit of Eric Raymond's CUPS rant :-) (I won't put tedious details in this blog, though.)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Ken MacLeod "Learning The World": book review

I read this book because it was on the FACT reading list, but ended up not going to the reading group meeting, because my car broke down. So, instead of a discussion report, this is just my opinion of the book.

I liked "Learning The World".

An unusual take on a First Contact story

It was an unusual take on a First Contact story, at least to me. It was unusual that a highly technically advanced civilization (so advanced their spaceship is powered by an engine that creates universes in its wake) would be afraid of a much more primitive society (bat-people) that does not even have spaceflight. Despite the apparent power imbalance, the high-tech society has reasons to fear the low-tech society. This kept me interested in the story. The bat-people storyline was more interesting to me than the ship-people storyline. The Darvin and Orro characters were more vivid than any of the humans. I guess I didn't find any of the humans very convincing. For example, I did not understand how Atomic, the teenage protagonist, became a highly influential figure of her generation, so much so that the majority of her generation went along with a certain radical idea she promoted simply because she was the one pushing that idea. I understand that her blog, or "biolog", was widely read on the ship, but nothing she said there was so brilliant as to make her a very influential personality.

I could much better relate to the bat-people, who were more sympathetic characters than any of the ship-people. Yet their biology, mainly the fact that they were capable of flight, made their culture unusual to just the right degree to be intriguing. Their daily life was portrayed with enough convincing details that the reader could see they were alien, yet they remained understandable. What I didn't find too convincing was that their state of technology was almost identical to ours in the beginning of the 20th century. (Except they had television and we didn't at that time; but we had heavier-than-air flight and they did not.) I was almost waiting for this coincidence to be explained at the end: for example, was the bat-people society visited in the past by human space explorers who brought their technologies with them? If not, perhaps this coincidence reflected the central message of the book? The thesis of the book seemed to be that intelligent life is incredibly common in the universe, so maybe the author was trying to say that among billions of intelligent worlds there are likely to be some whose history mirrors one another very closely?

Not so credible science

Still... regarding this thesis, I don't think the author made a compelling case for it. Some characters in this book contemplate Fermi paradox, but they don't explain it very well. At the end where Atomic mentions the theory of universe creation by an evolutionary process, it does not explain the Fermi paradox either. I've read about the evolutionary theory of universe creation before, but the version that Atomic presents seems to have a fallacy in it. It's too bad that MacLeod did not elaborate this part further. If the fundamental questions about universe creation were addressed in more depth, this book could have been very good instead of merely not bad.

Cool character names, idioms

There's something to be said about the writing style. I got a kick out of the characters' names, such as Atomic Discourse Gale or Synchronic Narrative Storm. Since I always struggle to come up with names for my characters, I was envious that Ken McLeod found a method to generate an unlimited number of cool character names. :-) And the metaphors, idioms and turns of phrase used by both cultures are carefully constructed to reflect the alien realities of the two civilizations. The bat people's idioms revolve around wings and flight. The alienness of the ship-people's perspective was captured by little observations made by various ship-humans when they first see the bat-people's planet: how weird it is to live in a place where the horizon curves downward, not upward (as in the ship), and don't they feel unsafe living in a place that does not have a "ceiling", that's wide open and "exposed" to space? But the observation that topped it all was something a ship-human said when she saw trees for the first time and compared them to an array of parabolic antennas. Or something like that. Don't quote me on that as I may be misremembering. I wish I could find that place in the book, but I can't.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tony Ballantyne's "Recursion": FACT group discussion and my opinion

11 members of the FACT reading group attended the discussion of Tony Ballantyne's "Recursion" on March 20, 2007. Nobody has read anything by Ballantyne before, because this is his first novel. Everybody in the group has started the book. About half the people finished it. Some of the rest were planning to finish, but a couple of people were so disappointed by the beginning that they put the book aside.

Three storylines: some dull, some exciting

"Recursion" consists of three storylines, set at different times in the future. In the storyline set in the most distant future, a human and a robot fight Van Neumann Machines (VNMs), self-reproducing assemblers that threaten to overtake the whole universe by converting all matter to VNMs. This storyline is introduced first, and unfortunately most readers found it rather boring, which demotivated some of them to continue reading. The protagonist, Herb, is a self-centered young man from a privileged background, with more money than common sense. It would seem such a person would have enough foibles to make him a vivid character, but most readers found him dull. It may have to do with the fact that instead of actively seeking solutions, he kind of just goes along for a ride. Not that he wanted anything more to begin with: the only reason he went on a mission to save the universe was because he was blackmailed into doing that by the robot Robert. Robert is immensely smarter than Herb, and has all sorts of information Herb does not. As a result, Herb ends up being hardly more than a puppet for Robert, who drags him off, kicking and screaming, on a series of nauseatingly scary adventures. Robert keeps him clueless about his plans until the very end, where Herb is supposed to play a critical part. Since Herb was, albeit unwillingly, hardly more than a passive observer throughout his adventures, the readers did not find him interesting. To quote one reader, "Herb's any real emotion was wetting his pants."

The second character, Constantine, was found to be on the average more interesting. His most intriguing aspect was his four personalities, voices in his head, that bickered among themselves and gave him advice. However, the storyline and characters most people found most interesting was a woman named Eva and her friends, fellow inmates of a psychiatric hospital. Readers thought Eva was the most credible of the three protagonists, and admired the way the author got into Eva's head. Some thought Ballantyne's skill in creating Eva showed he could have done a better job with the other two protagonists. The portrayal of the society Eva lived in -- one reader described it as "nanny-socialist state run amock, making sure that all needs are met, whether you want them to be met or not", was found compelling as well.

Some premises of 'Recursion' people found hard to accept

The premise of the book -- the fight against self-replicating machines that are taking over the universe -- was judged by various readers to be

  1. a bit of a stretch;

  2. a cliche, made worse because Ballantyne

    • didn't add much new to it,

    • spent too much time explaining what Van Neumann machines are, given that a fairly high percentage of the readership was familiar with this concept from other science fiction works.

Regarding point (1), two readers could not take seriously the premise that there can be a society with no safeguards against someone accidentally launching a plague of self-assembling machines, or "grey goo". At the very least a runaway grey goo problem would have happened much sooner and on a much bigger scale, they thought.

That wasn't the only concept in "Recursion" people found hard to accept. The idea that an AI tests its behavior against the "crazy" people, and it bases its decisions regarding the future of humanity on reactions of the inmates of a mental asylum -- that idea was not found credible by some people. A reader said "The whole concept of testing against the extremes and basing your decision on the extreme... it's not why you do testing. [...] You use extremes to determine the middle to where you should stay, you don't use extremes to base your decision on."

Reasons to like "Recursion"

But not everybody was disappointed in "Recursion". One person said he liked it because "it was different. When I was reading it, I really couldn't tell what was going to happen 50 pages from now. This book constantly kept me guessing." The people who liked it, although they were in the minority, enjoyed the puzzle aspect of "Recursion". By showing parts of the puzzle from different times and places, Ballantyne provided just enough clues for the reader to speculate what's going on, but not so many as to be predictable. Another aspect that appealed to some was the paranoia that pervaded the lives of the characters. Somebody said the paranoia reminded him of some of Philip K. Dick's work. "This was a stronger novel than Dick's A Scanner Darkly. This was on part with Dick's better novels like Ubik," he said. Paranoia in "Recursion" is fueled by the fact that the human protagonists are dealing with AIs of superior intellect, the motivations of which they can't possibly fathom. They can only acknowledge, as they do eventually, that they'll never know if they are on the "good" or "bad" side, or whether the "good" and "bad" sides even exist. I thought that was a realistic view of the situation on behalf of the author. It was also one of the reasons I liked this book.

I thought Ballantyne's storytelling was much better than some authors we've read recently (Karl Schroeder and Cordwainer Smith). I did not find Herb boring. I thought the writing style was witty, even though some people in the group found it bland. I guess the puzzle aspect of the book is what really drew me in. It is present in most books I've recently read that I liked.

Here are a few more of my observations. The method of destroying the Enemy seemed clever, but at the same time too simple to be entirely credible. It would seem that something so obvious should have been foreseen by the super-powerful AI that was the Enemy. Another aspect of the book I was a little disappointed with was that the two subplots -- Eva's and Constantine's -- that chronologically precede Herb's storyline, in the end turn out to be dead ends... to an extent. Though it's true that they have some consequences in Herb's story, they are not integrated organically. While they reveal how the main players in this world, EA/Watcher and the Enemy, came into being, they don't actually play a part in, or provide clues for, conquering the Enemy. So while those storylines were interesting, I wish they had been integrated tighter. (But then I don't know if I had read the book carefully enough; maybe it provided critical clues and I just missed them; it's possible for that to happen since I read mostly while exercising on a stairmaster. :-))

Also, there is a small scientific innacuracy in the book: quantum entanglement does not enable faster-than-light communication. But it wasn't critical to the plot.