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posts about thoughts.

nowadays, there are quite some fair trade products customers can choose when buying stuff. there’s fair chocolate, fair bananas, fair t-shirts, etc. one common denominator of these products is that they consist of not too many things, that they are not too complex. essentially for all kind of products which are too complex – think of electronics – virtually no fair products exist. and in fact, producing a 100% fair electronic device is essentially impossible without a huge amount of ressources available. there are just too many different tasks to ensure.
but fortunately, there are some projects which at least try. most notably, there are two projects i want to write about today. first, there’s the german faire maus, a (somewhat) fair mouse. the precise list of pieces need to assemble one can be found here, together with information what problems can arise in their production, which problems are (essentially) solved for the fair mouse, and which are still unsolved. so, while not 100% fair, at least the process is very transparent and it is possible to identity points where the process is still not exactly fair.
another project is the fairphone, a project from the netherlands trying to produce a fairer smartphone. compared to a simple mouse, a smartphone is way more complex, and depends on a much larger range of different parts. well, as a consequence, it is also much harder to make it fair. the fairphone project still tries hard. besides fair, they also try to be very transparent about where everything is from and under which conditions it was obtained/created. for example, there’s conflict-free tin from a congolese mine involved.
the fairphone project is currently trying to get enough advance orders to produce the first batch of fairphones. they need 5000 orders, and so far, they just got around 1640. the number is increasing now and then, but i’m wondering if it will reach the required 5000 early enough. in september, the fairphone team wants to inform about a possible delivery date, which will hopefully be in october. so if you’re planning to get a (new) smartphone somewhen in the near future, you should think about supporting that project. the price of 325 euros is quite in range, and you’re supporting a good cause. (and if it doesn’t work out, you’ll get your money back somewhen in fall.)
actually, i just ordered one fairphone last week. (well, and also two fair mouses.) not that i suddenly like the idea of having a smartphone (i still don’t), but then, i can still install linux on it – after all, i will be allowed to do that, as opposed to most other smartphones which you don’t really own when buying them. (isn’t that another reason?)

after some years of using it, i finally decided to leave facebook. i was never a huge fan of facebook, even though during some times, i used it rather intensely. over time, facebook changed. most of the time, not for good. facebook tried to create a own sub-internet, trying to convince users to only use this sub-net, ignoring the rest of the net. a recent peak was their (again, forced) introduction of email addresses for all their user, replacing user specified email addresses on the users’ profiles by the facebook one. besides that, facebook is spying on their users. a lot, in many regards. facebook is tracking their users while they use the web (using many websites which use the “like” button “correctly”). facebook evaluates all communication done over facebook. facebook is trying to keep track on how we live, offline and online, by keeping track of our position. facebook is trying to obtain information about us by trying to convince our friends to add stuff about us – for example revealing our correct name. and worst of all, facebook is trying to undermine many basic principles of data protection, including european data protection laws.
for me, there is almost no reason left to stay with facebook – except that it allows to keep track of people from all around the world, stay in contact with them; people i met at conferences, at places where i was living, during school, etc.
this is quite important, as it is not very easy to keep track of many people who don’t have a (permanent) blog, website, or email address. which is the case for the vast majority of people. for that reason, i will keep my account – at least for some time, maybe until a better alternative comes around. but i will not feed it with any information. i will only use it as a kind of “business card”, which points to spielwiese, and contains a working email address of mine. i might use it to retrieve contact data of other people, or see what they are doing, in case they still actively use facebook. but i won’t add any more content to facebook. no more posts, no more comments, no more photos, no more “like”s.
and in case you want to contact me, send me an email. or comment in my blog. but please avoid sending me messages via facebook :-)

posted in: daily life thoughts

i thought a lot about social networks recently. i want to write some of these down here.


during the last few decades, computers and internet made deep changes to our society, to how we communicate, to how we live. electronic communication has existed for a very long time, starting with bulletin board systems (starting in the 1970s), usenet (starting 1980) and internet relay chat (starting 1990). later, after the advent of the internet to public (in form of the world wide web) around 1995, new services emerged, like the ICQ instant messaging service and, one of the earliest “modern” social networks. later, myspace became well-known, as well as business-oriented networks such as linkedin, and later facebook (starting in the united states, later going worldwide) and studivz (started in germany and german-speaking countries).

facebook is the most known representant nowadays, but there are many more social networks out there – the wikipedia list for example contains 709 entries. depending on in which area you live, some social networks are much more popular amoung your local friends than others. (an article about a study analyzing the situation in germany some time ago can be read here.)

social networks play a more and more important role. you need to be connected to your friends to find out what’s going on. to see who’s going with whom, who’s a “friend” of whom, what’s in and what not, where and when are the parties. this does not only applies to the young generation anymore, especially not to just a small subset, but to a large part of society. it is not uncommon in some areas that even your parents or grandparents are on social networks. social networks allow you to see what happens to your family, friends, to people you know but don’t have much contact with anymore. you find out who of your high school friends is marrying whom, you see photos from vacations of people you haven’t seen since kindergarten, you find out that someone you knew from university got a job, or find out that some guy you met on a vacation ten years ago now became father. a lot of these things you would have missed without a social network, maybe found out about later by chance, but more probably never heard about them at all.

so definitely, social networks play an important role.


there are two fundamentally different criticisms one can write about.

the first one is about on the change of privacy, on the extended focus. things you say, you do, are now not just noted (and more or less quickly forgotten) by the people being present at that moment, but often dragged into your social network, shared with all your friends there, which might include distant friends you met at kindergarten, colleagues at work, many people with whom you are studying, your neighbor, your extended family, or whoever else can see what happens on your profile. you do something stupid, someone takes a photo of it, puts it into the network, tags you and everyone can see what you did. you wrote something stupid or very private, accidently on someone’s wall instead in a private message, and suddenly many people know about it. and not only that, depending on the privacy settings of the social networks, maybe the whole internet can read or see these things. but i don’t want to write about these topics today.

the other big problem, from my point of view, is the data ownership. think about it. why should a company create such a social network? provide lots of computing power to allow people to communicate, to search for friends, to exchange photos, etc., and that essentially for free? companies want to make money. in fact, need to make money, to pay for the servers, for the programmers, for the support people. of course, there are ads, which make some of the money. without ads it is essentially impossible to run a huge network. but ads are not everything. what is also very important is the collection of information. information on people, their age, gender, preferences, interests, friends, what they like or not, what they find interesting. if the state would try to get this information, people would protest against it. but on the internet, they give it to a company essentially for free. of course, it is true that many of these information pieces are available on the net anyway, at least for people like me. but then, if you have to collect them yourself, this costs a lot of time. if i have a profile at some social network and enter everything there into a form, they get all the information in a well-defined format which can easily be processed.

consider for example facebook. if you have a facebook account, they usually know your name, birthdate, email adress, gender, sexual interest, where you live, work, what your marital status is, who your friends are, which websites you like. some people also use facebook as their search machine, so facebook also knows what you search for. and depending on how websites included the facebook “like” button, facebook knows which websites you visit. if you’re logged in at the same time, they can combine that information with your profile to see what you’re doing on the web. since some time, facebook also tries to find out your location, by encouraging you to tell it to them, and also tell your friends’ locations to them. so they can also track you in the real world. besides these things, facebook is also known (and often criticized) for their very liberal view of privacy, and for storing all information without really allowing to delete it.

or consider google+. if you have an account there, google knows your personal information such as name, email adress, birthdate, … but besides that, google knows much more about you. google is the number one search engine in many parts of the world, and so most people use it to search for something. if you use their search engine while you are logged in at google+, they can connect that information. moreover, google analytics is a free service aimed at website administrators, which allows them to see how many people look at their website, what they do there, where they come from, etc. but it also allows google to see what people do. and if you have a google account (not just google+!), they can actually see what you are doing on the web. a huge amount of websites uses some google service or another. many google services are included by using some javascript, which is loaded from a google server, and so google can see where you are on the web and what you are doing there.

think about it. if the state would send out secret agents which would follow any person, look at what they do, where they are at any moment, what they look at. like in 1984. would you like that? i guess, most of you wouldn’t. but yet, many people allow google and/or facebook to do exactly that, without spending a thought about it.

a possible solution.

so now what? should one simply try not to use facebook or google? stick to smaller social networks, smaller services, which cannot track you that well? especially using smaller social networks would destroy a lot: many of your friends or people you know might not be in your network anymore, maybe forcing you to have accounts for many different social networks. this would make life much more complicated (which people do not want to), and is in practice just annoying. so this is not a solution.

if one wants to use social networks at all, one does not want such fragmentation. but one also does not want certain entities, such as big corporations or even the state, to collect all that information at one place. so the best solution would be to distribute the information in some way, splitting it up so that single entities such as google or facebook or the state cannot access most of it, but you can still see information about your friends, still contact them, communicate with them.

there is in fact a social network designed like this: diaspora. everyone can run their own diaspora server, you can have friends on any other diaspora server, you see what they do, you can communicate. every server can only see what’s going on the server, and what’s going on with the friends of the people having an account on that server, as far as these friends allow the people with an account on this server to see their actions.

unfortunately, when the first alpha version of diaspora was released, it had many vital security problems, making it essentially not useable for anyone with the slightest sensitivity for privacy and security. i don’t know what the current status is, i hope it dramatically increased. but even though the reference implementation is not good, everyone can create their own implementation, which could then communicate with servers running the reference implementation, or also any other diaspora implementation. this is what makes diaspora very attractive: you are not forced to use or trust specific implementations and servers. still, diaspora is probably far from perfect. i guess that one could write books about how to design a very good open social network. i wouldn’t be surprised if there are even research projects working on such topics.

anyway. in my opinion, the future belongs to such open distributed social networks. as soon as such a network becomes useable enough, i will migrate to it.

(originally, i wanted to discuss properties of such open distributed social networks in more details, discuss which aspects are important, discuss security of information, etc. but i’m afraid if i would really do this, the result would be way too long for a single blog post. and it will take a lot of time to write this down in detail and to reach a good enough description and discussion of most aspects; time which i simply don’t really have.)

(and a note about myself: i’ve been using several different social networks in the past, most prominently facebook and studivz. except facebook, i’ve deleted all my accounts. i’d also like to delete the facebook account, since i don’t really trust and like facebook, but the lack of alternatives currently makes me staying there. i haven’t tried diaspora yet, but that’s still on my to-do-list, though i want to wait until that projects reaches a more stable state.)

today i saw a movie, called flatland, based on a 126 years old novel. a must-see for any mathematician (or must-read). it’s about politics. about thinking. about imagination.
in flatland, a two dimensional world, the third dimension is known as a myth, and it is forbidden to talk about it. there are hints, which are well-hidden from the public by the rulers. until one day, little hex went out to see these hints, and her grandfather, after having more than dream, in more than two dimensions, tries to protect her.
apparently, the movie is much easier to digest than the novel.
another reason to read that book.

[[for legal reasons, i do not want to include youtube videos here anymore. please click on this link to watch the video at youtube.]]
posted in: math movies thoughts

today, i saw a remark on about a reportage by frontal21 titled der grosse bluff (direct video link here, will be online only the next few days). it covers the currently investigated extension of operation life span of nuclear power plants in germany, including the never-ending dicussion of ultimate waste storage in gorleben, and what is going on politically. in my opinion, its a real good reportage and you should watch it if you understand german (and it hasn’t been deleted).
another interesting link on this topic is the wikipedia article on deep geological repositories, in particular its list of such repositories and the following paragraph on safety and feasibility assessments.
future is sometimes really depressing.

while talking with a friend about learning programming, i searched for course material for the best programming course i ever had so far, namely dibo‘s “programmierkurs java” (which i praised so often when it comes to this topic). while looking, i found a new website by dibo, called programmierkurs java, which features the lectures (both slides and video recordings!) and exercises. in case you want to learn programming and understand german well enough, take a look there!
ok, so much for advertising. when taking to the friend, another topic was “what is the right programming language to begin with?” in this case, the canidates java and c++ were named. i would definitely go for java, even though i prefer to use c++ myself for most things i program, as java is more allergic to programming errors: if you try to access an array out of the boundaries, it will throw an exception and will not result in unexpected behaviour. moreover, it is widely available (for free!) and easy to set up, there is a huge amount of (good and bad) literature about it, it is not too far off from the real world programming languages which one might use later (in case one wants to learn more than one language, it might also be a good idea to start with something more esoteric, like functional programming). moreover, it can be used both imperatively (which is in particular useful in the beginning) and object oriented (which one shouldn’t touch too early, in my opinion).

posted in: computer thoughts

as you may have noticed, i use wikipedia a lot – both for linking to descriptions of terms i use in this blog, and for looking up stuff myself which i encounter somewhere, may it be offline or online. usually, chances are good that wikipedia offers at least some kind of description which answers my questions, or at least helps me getting an idea. but from time to time, it happens that you try to look something up on wikipedia, only to find out that such an article existed but was deleted – for example, because it was “not relevant”. i can understand that people do not want to see wikipedia flooded by biographies of john doe and jane roe – only a handful people are interested in these, probably most notably john doe and jane roe themselves.
but there are cases where i simply can’t understand the decision. for example, there is the chilenian doom metal band mar de grises, which i discovered by chance in zurich’s now deceased knochenhaus. according to the wikipedia deletion log, it is “not noteable” and failes some guidelines. so, who decides what is noteable and what is not? and, after all, the simplified ruleset explicitly mentiones

ignore all rules – rules on wikipedia are not fixed in stone. the spirit of the rule trumps the letter of the rule. the common purpose of building an encyclopedia trumps both.

i can pretty well understand that not every small band hobby band project should be mentioned – in particular the ones which sound bad and dissolve quickly with none or almost no productions. but that’s not the case for mar de grises. besides that, the deletion log also mentiones other problems with the article (namely, being badly written and failling to provide references for some claims), but why not throw these parts out or reduce the article to a stub?
two other examples, this time from the german wikipedia, are sinnlos im weltraum and lord of the weed, two fandubs. according to the english wikipedia, sinnlos im weltraum (a redub of a star trek series), dating back to 1994, is one of the first such projects, essentially starting the whole genre of fandubs. i don’t know how many people know it, probably a huge number. lord of the weed (a redub of the beginning of 2001′s lord of the rings) is also rather well-known; i don’t remember how often i saw it – at least ten times. well, it is obviously true that these movies haven’t been shown in movie theaters or on television – as they contain copyrighted material (i.e. the original movie), used without permission. for the same reason, they haven’t been shown on film festivals, you can’t buy them on dvd. they are also not listed on the imdb. but – so what? does that make them not noteable? irrelevant?
on the other hand, a lot of totally trashy movies – which, compared to sinnlos im weltraum and lord of the weed, are really crappy and lame – are featured on media, two good examples are a music video by grup tekkan and the infamous star wars kid, making a fool out of himself. these are pushed by media as “youtube movies you have to see” or are even shown on tv. and they can be found on wikipedia. even though they are real crap. in the case of star wars kid, the really embarrassing movie was uploaded by “friends” of its actor and will probably haunt him for a very long time. to make this even better, a lot of online versions of famous newspapers or magazines feature this video as well, showing it to an even wider audience. and i thought the use of a pillories are outlawed in modern countries.
anyway. i’m still using wikipedia, even though of these reasons. and i even created an account at the english wikipedia and started writing an article about infrastructures (number theory). as so far, nobody else dared to write something on this subject, and a google search only gives documents featuring other kinds of infrastructures, or scientific articles about this subject, i thought it would be time to add something to the web. i’ve started a series of posts on my math blog on infrastructures, but as google usually ranks wikipedia articles higher, i decided to also add something to wikipedia. so far, it is more a stub and far from being a complete article, but at least provides some information and several references to literature.

while updating some old posts with photos (just designwise, no content changed), i once again experienced a complete lockdown: the server became incredible slow and was floaded with apache processes, and i had to shut down and kill -9 all apache processes several times to be able to continue to do anything except waiting. this isn’t the first time this happend, but this time i had apache’s logging enabled (waiting for something like this) to see what was causing all the accesses. well, out of the 13.000 logfile entries (ranging over a week, i think), around 3.300 were by wordpress – and 99.9% of these happend in the last few hours, while i was updating the old posts. it seems that every time i updated a post, wordpress accesses all links and images in the post, also the local ones, and downloads them. yes, downloads them – also the big versions of panoramas. and if i’m updating posts with often 10–30 photos, some of them large, this clearly explains why the web server was dying. to put it that way, wordpress dosed itself. (the funny thing is that it did not first use a head first, to see what kind of link this is, but starts with a get to first download the whole thing. after downloading all links and images, it uses head on them.)
anyway. i don’t know at the moment what to do against that.
but another annoying thing is that the blog is loading rather slow. i also decided to see what is causing this. well, it turns out that the old main page was doing 298 sql queries. after disabling role scoper, this jumped down to 34, with loading times more or less the same. but then, i disabled the tag cloud. this just saved one query, but reduced the page generation time from around 10 to 2 seconds. wow. enabling role scoper again (i really need that one), i now have a bit less than 50 queries with maybe 4-5 seconds of page creation time.
well, still far from optimal, but already faster.

posted in: daily life thoughts www

just found on xkcd, and its so right:

(copyright © 2008 xkcd.)

posted in: daily life thoughts www

while i was searching for a plug-in which allows access control to posts based on users and/or user groups, i stumbled about many different plug-ins, some of them very promising, but either dead, not updated for a long time, or simply not exactly usable by producing a long list of php error messages already in the admin screen after activating them. grrreat. well, of course, i could also try to do it myself, as usual. but hey, that sucks: i’d be better of writing my own blog software.
well, i talked about the problem a bit with kornel, and we concluded that an optimal blog system would be a very slim piece of software, just providing the very basic features, i.e. managing posts, comments and pages, users and user groups/roles/whatever, and access privileges, while everything else—such as galleries, embedding videos, gadgets, comfortable post editors, …—is implemented as plugins.
anyone want’s to do this, and produce a well-documented, slim, bug-free blog system with a good plugin interface, together with a few standard plugins? :)