Zombies and Morality

Over the past few years, old farts like myself have watched with some confusion the emergence of zombies in popular culture.  In one sense, I get it — zombies are a trope, a device that can be easily reused for story telling, just like space ships or time travel in much of science fiction.  But what makes them so popular?

And then, while reading through the comments on Fr Stephen‘s post titled “Sin is not a moral problem” (always read the comments on his blog posts), I came across this gem:

There’s a book called “I, Zombie”, in which the experience of being a zombie is told from the point of view of various people still conscious, but trapped within a body that has its own needs and does horrific things. Some people grow to enjoy the experience; some people struggle against it; some people find that while they have no control, they can exert a subtle influence. All the while their bodies are decaying around them. This is as close as I can come to an understanding of the sin problem.

This synopsis is as close as I can come to an understanding of zombie fiction.  It’s the first time I’m actually interested in a book about zombies.  I’m going to have to add this one to my reading list.

Brief review of Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God

Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peaceWhy I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace by Frank Schaeffer
Originally written on goodreads while 30,000 feet over the east coast.

Like someone else said, the book is full of one liners. As I tweeted my way through the book, you could see how offended dogmatic people were by the title.

If you can make it past the title, though, you will find that he has written an book full of honest uncertainty, one that shows how you can give up on the certainty of youth without becoming lost in cynicism and bitterness.

2014 Summer of Code

Google Summer of Code has ended and, with it, my first chance to mentor a student with Markus Glaser in the process of implementing a new service for MediaWiki users.

At the beginning of the summer, Markus and I worked with Quim Gil to outline the project and find a student to work on it.

Aditya Chaturvedi, a student from the Indian Institute of Technology (“India’s MIT”) saw the project, applied for our mentorship, and, soon after, we began working with him.

We all worked to outline a goal of creating a rating system on WikiApiary with the intention of using a bot to copy the ratings over to MediaWiki.org.

I’m very happy to say that Adiyta’s work can now be seen on WikiApiary. We don’t have the ratings showing up on MediaWiki yet (more on that in a bit) but since that wasn’t a part of the deliverables listed as a success factor for this project, this GSOC project is a success.

As a result of his hard work, the ball is now in our court — Markus and I have to evangelize his ratings and, hopefully, get them displayed on MediaWiki.org.

Unlike some other projects, this project’s intent is to help provide feedback for MediaWiki extensions instead of create a change in how MediaWiki itself behaves. To do this, Aditya and I worked with Jamie Thinglestaad to create a way for users to rate the extensions that they used.

We worked with Jamie for a few reasons. First, Jamie has already created an infrastructure on WikiApiary for surveying MediaWiki sites. He is actively maintaining it and improving the site. Pairing user ratings with current his current usage statistics makes a lot of sense.

Another reason we worked with Jamie instead of trying to deploy any code on a Wikimedia site is that the process of deploying code on WikiApiary only requires Jamie’s approval.

The wisdom of this decision really became apparent at the end when Adiyta requested help getting his ratings to show up using the MediaWiki Extension template.

Thank you, Aditya. It was a pleasure working with you. Your hard work this summer will help to invigorate the ecosystem for MediaWiki extensions.  Good luck on your future endevors.  I hope we can work together again on MediaWiki.

A freetard apologizes for Google

(For those not familiar with the term “freetard“, it is a derogatory term that Fake Steve Jobs coined for free software fanatics like myself.  I’m reappropriating it here.)

A friend of mine posted a question on facebook about backing up his Mac, asking what would happen if he decided to switch to Windows later.  Instead of answering his question, I picked up on the bit about photos and failed to respond to his question with the following bit:

Give your life to Google. My phone is my camera and it syncs all photos automatically to “the cloud”. Everything is on the web, of course, and sometimes Google will surprise me with bits of scrap-booking that its bots send me.

For example, here is a movie made out of one of the breakfasts we had in London a few weeks ago.

And here is the “story” Google’s bots made of our whole trip to London.

So, yeah, Google is a multi-billion dollar corporation, but so are Apple and Microsoft. The difference is that Google’s doesn’t care if you are on a Mac or a PC.

But they would prefer you to use an Android phone, I’m sure, instead of an iPhone. Even there, you have more options because, like Microsoft, Google isn’t focused on controlling the delivery of their software to the same degree that Apple is.

This means you can have a crappy Android device, just the same way you can have a crappy PC. So, yes, there is a higher chance you will be dissatisfied, but it also means that you are less limited than you are on an IOS device and that, as a result, more people will be able to contribute to providing you with a better experience via software or cloud services because Google (like Microsoft on Windows) doesn’t exert the same control over the Android ecosystem that Apple does on the IOS ecosystem.

Wikimania 2014 takeaway: Developer Discussion

During this year’s Wikimania, we had several meetings that will affect the work of the release team. One of the most important was the Developer Discussion that I initiated after Daniel Schneider commented that “It might be a good idea to address those issues in some next important dev meeting. The meeting should be chaired by someone from the outside, e.g. from a well respected foundation like Mozilla, Apache.” We had the meeting and Markus Krötzsch, creator of Semantic MediaWiki, agreed to moderate the meeting.

You can read the rough transcript that Markus Glaser kept for us to find out more details about what was discussed, but I’ll synthesize what I think are the important action items and take-aways for the MediaWiki release team.

These fall into three groups: the installation and upgrade process, code deprecation, and, finally, one that overlaps with all of these, a system of certifying extensions.

The effort to provide some standard for extension certification will bear the most fruit because it means providing a standard for MediaWiki that creates a virtuous circle that will lead to improvements in the MediaWiki ecosystem.

It seems obvious to me that we need to start from where we are: a lot of users are using extensions like Semantic MediaWiki and consider those extensions (as Natasha Brown, who runs WikiTranslate.org pointed out) to be an integral part of their site.

This means that we can begin by making a base for certification that covers some things that decently-maintained extensions should have no problem following. This would include things like internationalization and localisation support, including unit tests, and sane integration with the upgrader and installer.

Ideally, none of this would need to be manually tested. This means that to get a rating, your extension would need to be automatically tested. Composer seems like it would help out a lot here. It already provides a framework for fetching code from git – and we should only need to let developers provide a <tt>composer.json</tt> and then we would have a bot (running from Wikimedia Labs) test the package and then provide a certification.

Through this automated certification, we could begin to provide guideance on the “best practices” method of upgrading or handling configuration (probably using Kunal’s configuration work).


The discussion also raised the visibility of Bartosz Dziewoński’s Google Summer of Code work which provides some sanity to MediaWiki’s skinning system. This is a major pain point for many wikis stuck on older versions of MediaWiki – they’ve done a lot of work and customization on appearance and avoid upgrading because the disadvantages of the tight-coupling that MediaWiki’s skinning system has shown until now.

Is coddling really what is needed?

I’m just getting caught up on the latest sexist insensitivity happening in the tech world, but as I was reading @nrrrdcore’s postt There is No Emoji for Martyrdom (update: context) I came across this year old story about Adria Richards being fired for publishing pictures of men who made rude and inappropriate comments, I’m struck by this quote that is attributed to her:

There is something about crushing a little kid’s dream that gets me really angry. Women in technology need consistent messaging from birth through retirement they are welcome, competent and valued in the industry.

Am I reading that wrong, or is she saying that she thinks women need to be told they’re competent when they are clearly not competent?

Does anyone go “from birth through retirement” being told they are welcome — regardless of their gender? Especially when they aren’t helping the people they’re working with to accomplish the goal they’re striving for? How do you say “We welcome you, even though it seems like you’re just getting in the way?”

I was mostly with Adria up until this quote in the story. I’m not going to say she should be able to publish people’s pictures on Twitter without any consequences, but she felt threatened, or at least angry, and she reacted. What she did is understandable in that context. From reading this tiny slice of the story, I can only assume that she felt making a statement was more valuable to her than continued employment. And I can respect that. It takes some real self-assurance to decide to tke that sort of stand.

But this quote of hers seems wrong to me. Maybe as I look at the story, I’ll see get some context that is missing right now — something that would frame the statement better. But the statement by itself seems insidious — that we should tell women they are valued in the field simply for being women?

Now, I’m very aware that there is a real gender imbalance in the tech community — especially in the free software world where I make my home. And I’m keen to make sure my three daughters will be able to succeed in whatever they decide to do — I’ll be especially interested in they really take an interest in my chosen profession.

But the reality is that the world crushes people’s dreams all the time. Anyone who goes from birth to retirement and gets the consistent message that they are welcome and competent is being fooled. I don’t want that for any of my children. If they need to be told to improve or that they just aren’t doing what is needed, then that’s fine. I’ve been told that more than once and I’ve managed to survive and I certainly want my children to be tough enough to survive and thrive as well.

An eight-year-old rants to Peter Jackson

IMG_20140201_153340_952I took my family to see The Desolation of Smaug along with some friends today.  I found it entertaining even though I did notice that Peter Jackson did seem to take even more liberties with this than he did with Lord of the Rings.

I sat beside my eight-year-old daughter, Lily, during most of the film, though.  Her mother started reading the book to her a couple of times, but Lily ended up finishing the whole book herself.  Several times during the film she pulled my head towards her and would whisper fiercely comments like “This is WRONG! They didn’t do that!

Once we got home after the movie, she decided to write a letter to Peter Jackson.  I’ve reproduced it below with some minor changes in punctuation and spelling, but the words are hers.  We’ll be mailing the letter Monday, but I’ve gotten her permission to share it here.

Dear Peter Jackson,

I thought your movie was horrible. I thought this because you didn’t include things like Gandolf introducing the dwarfs to Beorn. All of the things you added are unnecessary like how you put Legolas in when he was only in Lord of the Rings.

Second, I think that you shouldn’t have put the elf-lady Tarvial in for love interest and because “there aren’t enough females.” Another thing you put in is that you made Smaug a Wyvren instead of a giant worm-like creature with wings. Also, you made Bard younger. Another think you put in was the dwarfs covering Smaug with gold.

Multiple times you had Bilbo take off the ring or it fell when it really didn’t. Another thing that was wrong is that you didn’t make the eagles TALK!! Also Kili was never shot. He also didn’t have a love interest. Next, the dwarfs never split up. Lastly, the barrels didn’t free float — they were on a raft.

A furious 3rd grader

P.S. The orcs never chased them on the river.

P.S.S. No one knew they were in the barrels.

How should we treat others?

Jesus and the Samaritan woman1A year or so ago, I came across the following quote: “other people’s real lives were more important than my mere beliefs.

I copied this to my twitter feed and someone responded with a comparison to adultery and a story Philip Yancy told in a book he wrote about a person who excused his adultery with God’s grace saying, in essence, “God will forgive me.”

The story about Yancy’s friend raises a good point. Sin can hurt other people.  The person who sent me the story said “sexual sins hurt so many people”.

Yes, it is obvious that some sins have the power to really hurt other people. But I’m not sure that adultery is the same as homosexuality in this sense at all.

Adultery is not a sexual sin so much as a breaking of vows, and as a result, destroying trust and confidence — causing real and lasting harm. I’m not sure how adultery can really compare to a mutually exclusive homosexual relationship.

Adultery as a sin is not even about sex. Someone could have a non-sexual relationship with a co-worker and cause jealousy in and harm to his life-long partner (for example, his wife) if it began to compete with his relationship with his partner.

Sex is definitely a powerful urge and we can easily fool ourselves into doing things that are painful to a lot of people if we are not careful with our sexual desire, but I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that God picks “sexual sin” out as a special category deserving of careful consideration.

Jesus summed up the Law and prophets with two commands: “Love the Lord … Love your neighbor”. I can see making an argument from the perspective of purity that homosexuality violates the first commandment, but I don’t think homosexuality itself violates the second. Adultery, on the other hand, definitely violates the “Love your neighbor” bit.

Still, the first commandment (and the purity argument) is ignored every day. A couple of examples are in order:

First, America has an obesity epidemic. (I’m a “victim” of this epidemic if you use BMI to measure it.)  Obesity can be evidence of gluttony — a misplaced desire for food, and one of the deadliest sins — definitely a violation of the purity argument.

And, while times are changing, we still treat people who take God’s name in vain — one of the ten commandments, arguably more important than anything the Bible says about homosexuality, and another argument from purity — with more humanity than homosexuals.

This brings me to this bit from St Issac:

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?

Too often we confuse zeal for purity.  Even if we are pure as the driven snow, pride — another one of the deadliest sins — can creep up on us and we’ll become zealous in our pursuit of purity and start ignoring the admonition to “Judge not”.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying as an “excuse” for sin. I’m no more excusing my friend’s sins than I am my own lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, or pride.  But just as I pray for God’s mercy and hope in it, I hope for God’s mercy for others.

It is true that there are prophets in the Bible who pointed out other people’s sin.  And maybe you are like John the Baptist who zealously pointed out Herod’s sin, but I prefer to follow St. Issac here and emulate Christ’s gentler example.

Christ sat down with the woman at the well even though he knew she wasn’t pure and said “I do not condemn you” to the woman caught in the act of adultery. He said “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.

I suppose it is just a sign of my lukewarm ways that I’m more comfortable trying to be like Jesus here than John.

“Follower of Christ”?

santaSome people in the Church avoid the label of “Christian”. Instead, the tell people they are a “follower of Christ”. I don’t like this sort of marketing and re-branding and definitely think it is the wrong place for us to concentrate our energy.

The “meme” photo here (“Put the ‘Christ’ back in Christmas?  How about putting the ‘Christ’ back in Christians?”) prompted a discussion on Facebook which included the comment that one person “no longer [identfied himself] as a Christian but rather as a follower of Christ.”  Following is my response:

When you change the wording, you’re attempting to address people’s first impressions of you as an individual.

This is understandable. No one likes to start off “in the red”, no matter the circumstances.

Still, community and co-suffering (as well as co-celebration!) are integral parts of what the Church is about. It should also be noted here that Christ said “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you.”

Followers of Christ should recognize that Christ didn’t duck away from labels or identification with those who he shared community with. He knew what Judas was doing, but didn’t shun him and didn’t take the label of “disciple” away from him.

And when Christ was asked if the label “Messiah” applied to him, he didn’t say “I don’t like to use that word. I prefer ‘Son of God.'” He acknowledged it (“It is you who says it”), even though that would result in suffering.

For what its worth, all my friends (many who are atheists) know that I’m a Christian. And lets admit it, they would know that I was even if I said “No, no. I identify myself as a follower of Christ, not a Christian.”

So, yes. The Church is full of broken people. There are many people (myself included) who claim the title of “Christian” who are gigantic hypocrites. It is surely annoying to have to deal with all that cultural baggage.

But changing the label doesn’t change much about this.

Startups, failure, and AWS

(I’m copying this from a long Facebook comment because I think it is worth a blog post, and I don’t really want to make a habit of giving FB only my valuable thoughts.  Because you know how valuable my thoughts are.)

A friend of mine pointed to this article on the failure of the photo startup Everpix.  He said he thought the failure could have been at least partly addressed by reducing their use of Amazon’s AWS. I’m not sure this is the case. From what I can see, AWS is priced very, very reasonably. For example, when I priced out Linode vs AWS, AWS was a lot cheaper and more flexible. And could replace my current colocated server at a fraction of the cost using Linode.  I’m working on moving my colocated server to AWS..

Further, bandwidth for this photo hosting on the scale they would need isn’t cheap. Using AWS they can get smaller amounts of bandwidth at a very cheap price and scale up to larger amounts quickly and easily.

Finally, AWS lets them avoid the overhead of all the negotiating that they would have to do to replace each of those services.

Instead, I would like to see a desktop version of the software that would let users use their algorithm to find those important pictures faster. And then, they could have a standalone Everpix appliance at home that would take eliminate all the bandwidth and storage costs that Everpix was incurring to run the service.

I would say what killed them was the insistence on running a web-based service without trying to use any network effects (at least, I haven’t seen anyone do anything like “Here’s a list of pictures I took on this day during the last 2-3 years, according to Everpix”).

They were in the web mindset and incurred the web’s costs for hosting and bandwidth without taking advantage of any network effects. It would have worked just as well as a desktop-only application and ended up being cheaper for them.