How Not To Run An Internet Contest

Little background for people who aren’t in my Twitter feed: for years now, I’ve been doing Word of the Day tweets. sends out a “Word of the Day” every day. I take that and turn it into a short story on Twitter using the hashtag #wotd. I don’t manage to do it every day but most days during the work week, I do this. It’s a fun creative way to start the morning and I’ve gotten good feed back about it.

For those not familiar with how Twitter works, it’s a microblogging platform (or it was until it went public and now has no idea what it’s trying to be). You are limited to 140 characters in your Tweets. Lots of people complain about this but it’s actually a great restriction if you’re trying to improve your writing. It forces you to distill your content down to the bare minimum. It’s definitely cleaned up my writing and made it stronger as I eliminate unnecessary cruft like adverbs. Hashtags are ways to categorize what you’ve written and allow searching. They are also used to show how funny you are. For a much better and funnier explanation, Mom This Is How Twitter Works

So imagine my delight when announced a contest designed around that exact principle. Based on the URL, I’m assuming they announced the story on the 14th of February. I discovered it on the 23rd. The rules were pretty simple. Wait for the word of the day on February 25th, write a short story using the hashtag #WoTDStory. If you search Twitter by that hashtag, you’ll find quite a few Tweets using it. Digging deeper, you’ll find that has run a story similar to this before using the same hashtag.

On February 25th, I got the word of the day which was sciamachy. I wrote what I thought was a pretty good story (no bias of course). And I waited.

Now the astute reader may have noticed something wrong with this entire procedure. Though if anyone did, your detective skills are incredible. In the post linked above outlining the story contest, says the hashtag to use is #SuperShortStory. Problem is, that’s not what they said on February 23rd. I don’t have proof of this as Google cache and the Wayback machine don’t have archives of the page but if you search #WoTDStory on Twitter, you’ll see that there are hundreds of tweets using that hashtag and the word of the day for the 25th, sciamachy (which ironically means fighting with a shadow, something I am clearly doing here but everyone needs their own personal windmill to tilt against).

Some time between the time I found the contest on February 23rd and when it started, updated their blog post WITHOUT ANY NOTIFICATION OR UPDATE and changed the hashtag for entry. Now obviously, this is a stupid internet contest. I didn’t need the ipod or whatever they were giving away. Still, it’s not exactly in the spirit of competition and fairness when you change the rules on people. So I left a comment on their blog mentioning how annoying it was that they had changed the hashtag. I did that on the 26th.

When I went back to see if they had bothered to apologize or at least let people know, my comment had been deleted. This is not how you engender people to trust your word (pun fully intended), Changing the rules of a contest 1 day beforehand because you don’t want to wade through old Tweets or whatever reason caused the change is OK. Going out of your way to try and hide the evidence is pretty disingenuous (oddly disingenuous has never been Word of the Day, that’s some Alanis Morrissette irony for you there).

Now I’m off to post this link to the blog even though I’m sure it will be deleted. Even a sciamachy can have meaning to its participant.

Analyzing My Facebook Friends

Because I am weird (and because I only have 35 Facebook friends, making it possible to turn my weirdness into some data observations), I have spent the last 10 minutes analyzing how many friends my friends have. On average, they have 162.8857 friends (the person who is .8857th of a friend keeps showing up as a suggestion but I keep ignoring him, preferring whole friends to percentages). The standard deviation is 93.06284 which is remarkable (only in the sense that I am remarking on it) because even at only 35 friends, I am with 2 standard deviations of the mean.

My friend with the fewest friends is Jane at 50. The friend with the most is Madison with 409. Madison is almost 3 standard deviations above the mean of my friends which is probably completely meaningless. There seems to be some inverse correlation with number of friends and age though I have not run the numbers to tell you what the Pearson’s is.

In figuring out the numbers, I only ran into 4 friends with whom I had no friends in common (one old high school buddy, one CrossFit friend, one old AOL/chat/email buddy and one friend from our dog boarder) and in the remaining graph of friends, I only ran into a dead end three times (a dead end being defined as reaching a point where I could not find a friend’s friend numbers without having to return to my home page, once with my family, once with previous work related friends, and once with mutual friends of Kathryn’s. My friends seem to be tightly integrated through a handful of limbs on the tree.

What all this means is that I slept 12 hours last night, haven’t had a drink tonight and thus am not the slightest bit tired at 11 PM. I have finished the book that I said I would (Wisdom of Crowds, highly recommended but you can’t have my copy because I borrowed it from Matt F , another friend, also the friend who shares names with the largest number of my friends at 3), I have roasted and deboned a chicken, I have bought groceries, I have watched Bode Miller win Bronze in the downhill and so I am allowed to waste time on Facebook though I will have to admit, this is the most fun I’ve had on Facebook since starting here. See, I told you I was weird.

Why I Quit Twitter

I joined Twitter in August of this year without a great deal of thought and after long decrying the effect I was sure it had on attention. I did it mostly because there are usually 5-10 times a day when I have a thought or see a link that don’t warrant a full blog post but that I find interesting enough to want to share it with people. I tried Facebook originally but that didn’t really feel like what Facebook is about. Twitter on the other hand seemed to be perfectly designed for that sort of activity. So I joined up and started updating pretty regularly.

For my purposes, Twitter was excellent. A majority of my updates were links to something that seemed interesting enough to share. Other times, I’d have a thought that seemed Twitter worthy and based on the responses I got from people who followed me, about 25% of them actually were. Over the course of my time on Twitter, I updated 373 times or about 4 times a day. I got 159 replies to my updates. I was following 37 people and being followed by 47. I was happy with Twitter and Twitter seemed happy with me.

The Pale Facsimile Of Fullfillment

Unfortunately, there was a darker side. I already have issues with attention and focus. I LOVE anything that gives me a dopamine fix. Twitter was rapidly becoming a dopamine fix. My real writing completely dropped off the map. I wrote 9 posts total in 2 months on my tech blog and this one. Several of the posts on my tech blog were almost Twitter-like in their brevity. I was doing no fiction writing and no journal writing. I began to notice that I was checking Twitter 5-10 times a day, even on days when I left TweetDeck turned off. When I updated and didn’t get a response, there was a distinct mental reaction in that I didn’t get any feedback. This caused me to update more.

My focus at home on projects was nil and I had trouble getting into anything. Whenever I got stuck on something, off I went to check Twitter updates. Twitter taught me that I don’t have the discipline necessary to turn off Twitter when I needed to be working on something else.

On top of all that, I started thinking about what the result was of all this *effort* I was putting into Twitter. There was nothing meaningful going on. In 2 months, I had 1 conversation that could be considered interesting and productive. I produced nothing that I’d want anyone to remember me by, nothing useful to the greater good. The irony of my reasoning for joining Twitter is that even though I was posting things that I found interesting, none of them led to greater, more in-depth conversation or learning. They were just informational junk, no different from the junk mail that I get every day. Things that I thought were interesting were really just information junk mail, even if people voluntarily signed up to get it from me.

None of this is a judgment on Twitter. I actually think it is quite useful as a mini-RSS reader in a way, a tool that someone might use to successfully market or promote a business or a blog. I wish I could use it for that. Twitter did drive my viewing stats up on my tech blog from 1 a day to 9 a day on those days I mentioned a post on Twitter. I just don’t have the ability to compartmentalize Twitter the tool from Twitter the dopamine provider. I don’t want to look back on 12 months of Twitter and wonder why in the hell I didn’t write more in that time period. I want to produce things and that takes focus and attention, something Twitter increasingly was stealing away from me. I have a limited store of attention and the more I divided it hoping to hear that stupid little TweetDeck notification sound, the less I had to pour into something that actually mattered. I really do want more than the pale facsimile of fulfillment.

Cross posted at Mental Pandiculation

Hope And Change In High Tech Land

I wonder how all those high tech workers feel after having supported Obama so strongly during the election only to find out that he wants to do things like regulate venture capital firms with over $30 million in managed money. This covers most of the VC firms out there and means that they would have to register with the SEC and jump through god knows how many hoops to fund startups. If this happens, it will certainly have a cooling effect on innovation and I can’t imagine all those VCs up in San Francisco are happy about it.

The financial meltdown will result in higher government regulation of all kinds of industries and it will have negative long term effects on innovation in this country. This is only the beginning.

Speaking Of Open Source

PostgreSQL is looking for a web designer to give their site a new look. From the mailing list:

To help find a great designer, we’ve decided to put $2000 on the table.

The first stage of the project is a design mock-up. A panel of
PostgreSQL community members will act as judges for a $1000 (US)
prize! We want our web design to reflect the care, dedication and
excellence of our developers. We’ve outlined in detail what we’re
looking for at

The second stage of the project is implementation. The winning
designer will develop the stylesheets and create any images required,
and work with the PostgreSQL Web Team to deploy the new design
throughout our infrastructure. An additional $1000 will be awarded to
the designer once the new look goes live!

So if you’re a web designer who fancies contributing to a great open source project but would also like a little cashola if you win, this could be your chance. More details on the mailing list.

Hungarian Government Socializes Open Source

There’s some chatter in the internets this morning about Hungary “boosting” open source use by requiring all their civil servants to spend equal amounts of money on open source software and proprietary software. According to the linked article this “will be the first time that open source will gain equal status with proprietary vendors in centralised public sector tenders.”

Of course, the problem is that open source is only gaining equal status at the point of a gun and NOT based on its superiority. There is just as much chance of this having a detrimental effect on open source as it does having a positive effect. When you throw money at things that don’t deserve, you don’t often get a superior product.

I use quite a few open source tools in my day to day development but I do that because they are better than the proprietary alternatives. I donate to these projects because they make my job or life easier. There are lots of open source tools I’ve tried that aren’t too great and I can’t imagine being forced to spend money on them just to supposedly level the playing field.

Open source succeeds because of the dedication and talent of a very diverse community. Forcing people to use it doesn’t further that cause. If anything, it may end up attracting people with less talent but more greed as they eye 40 million euros in government largesse. Forcing taxpayers to fund projects that may or may not be better than their proprietary counterparts will likely be largely counterproductive and lead the open source community, at least as it relates to what Hungary spends its dollars on, away from innovation and towards a chase for cash.

Further and deeper thoughts on what the cause and effect of this will be can be found here.

Getting It All Wrong

Because the internet is such a big place, occasionally you will read something that is so profoundly wrong that at first you are sure it’s parody and only later, does it come clear that the author is in fact earnestly trying to argue for something based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works these days. The latest example I’ve seen of this is this commentary by Henry Porter in The Guardian that makes more dumb statements in 500 words or so than I’ve ever seen. Among them:

  • Google doesn’t produce anything
  • Google doesn’t have the right to control the content it offers on YouTube.
  • Google should have to pay whatever royalty amount an artist demands for YouTube videos.
  • Google is a monopoly (how can one be a monopoly and not produce anything?) and there is no other way to get content out to users other than YouTube.
  • Without old-style newspapers, democracy will crumble.
  • Google Street View invades the privacy of citizens. (The irony that this is a British writer who lives in one of the most privacy-insensitive places in the world with all the cameras they have watching people is apparently lost on Porter as is the delicious irony that Google Street View is a product of Google.)
  • Google is an amoral menace.

I know that this man is clearly an anachronism, longing for a time far past that can never return and would undoubtedly be detrimental if it did return. I feel sorry for his obvious bitterness at a world changed before him but that doesn’t excuse the fact that he’s writing in a major paper fundamental inaccuracies about, well, everything he writes. It’s called commentary which excuses it in the newspaper world but that’s just a cop-out. In any other profession, making this many mistakes in so short a period of time would warrant his dismissal. This is yet another reason why newspapers are failing.

I can’t fathom someone so confused as to look at Google and say they don’t produce anything. Perhaps there is nothing tangible to the old coot, but then there’s nothing tangible produced by his local pub or mom and pop market. These types of companies are what is colloquially called “service providers”. They don’t actually produce things, they provide services. How it is that he can both work for a major newspaper in Britain and yet fail to comprehend such a fundamental fact is beyond me. Again, it seems like it would be grounds for dismissal in any other profession.

His assertions that artists should be able to charge whatever they want and Google should not only have to bear the costs of the royalty demands but also the costs of hosting the content for free on YouTube is ridiculous on its face. Google should no more have to do that than a publisher should have to pay some third-rate author whatever he demands.

I put off writing about this article for over a week because it just seemed so sad that I wasn’t sure it warranted a response. But in the end, it’s these kinds of “voices” that have to be pointed out and held to task for things to improve. I’m sure that there has always been people like Porter resisting technological change to the end and the world has progressed quite fine. However, ignoring the fact that people like this still work for major newspapers and are allowed paid to write such tripe is a mistake. He says nothing true and nothing of value. Articles like this shouldn’t make it past the editors’ desk.

My New Favorite Web Browsing Tool

If you are a Firefox user, I highly suggest installing Ubiquity. It’s a current experimental plugin for Firefox but it’s beginning to change how I surf the web, send things to people and in general, how I interact with the browser.

Ubiquity is an attempt to use natural language to interact with the browser. You can do things like email links, map addresses and search the web using natural language instead of trying to mentally map what you want into the language of the browser.

Just a few quick examples: Lots of times you run across a page that you’d like to send to a friend. To do that, you have to copy the link, open up your email client, type their address, write a subject and then paste the link in which typically doesn’t include any information about what the link is or why you’re sending it. Enter Ubiquity. Let’s say I want to send the Ubiquity announcement above to Kat. First I call up Ubiquity by hitting Control-Space which launches the small screen in the left corner of the browser as you can see below.

Once I’ve done that, I can tell Ubiquity what I want to do. In this case, I want to email it to Kat. Currently, Ubiquity only supports Gmail but since everyone and their dog has a Gmail account, I don’t see this as a problem. I type the “email this to Kathryn” in the Ubiquity window. Ubiquity knows that “this” refers to this page and it looks up Kathryn in my contacts. I can arrow down to the entry I want.

When I hit enter, I get a new email message with everything filled out for me. I can add some text but all the manual stuff is done.

There are ton of other ways to use Ubiquity including maps. One of the coolest is ways happens when you’re already on a page with some text that you’re curious about. You can highlight the text and then call up Ubiquity to give you suggestions about. For example, if you highlighted a city in a story and started Ubiquity, you’d have the option to map it, google, get the weather for it, search Wikipedia for it, etc.

This is where the web should be going in the future. There are still some rough edges to Ubiquity but it’s a pretty damn cool start.