Six-month retrospective and evaluation

[16 July 2008]

This klog started about six months ago, as an experiment. In an early post, I wrote:

So I’m going to start a six-month experiment in keeping a work log. Think of it, dear reader, as my lab notebook. (I was going to do it starting a year ago, but, well, I didn?~~t. So I?~~m going to start now.)

My original plan was to make it accessible only to the W3C Team, so that I could talk about things that probably shouldn?~~t be discussed in public or in member space. Norm Walsh has blown a hole in that idea by pointing to this log [Hi, Norm!]. So public it is. (Ideally, I?~~d have a blog in which each item could be marked with an ACL, like resources in W3C date space: Team-only, Member-only, World-readable. Maybe later.)

Next year about June, if I remember, I will evaluate the experiment and decide whether it?~~s been useful for me or not.

So, as one of my teachers used to say at the beginning of a group evaluation of some student work: what works, what doesn’t work?

Things that don’t work as well as I would like:

  • As might have been predicted, the fact that Messages in a Bottle is public, not private, has encouraged me to be circumspect in ways that fight with the lab-notebook goal. I don’t want to be carelessly rude about colleagues or others in public, the way one can be in private conversations and to their faces. Across a dinner table, one can greet a claim made by a colleague with a straightforward cry of “But that’s bullcrap!” without impeding a useful discussion. (This depends in part on the conversational style cultivated by individuals and groups, of course. But as some readers of this post will know, this is not a speculation but a report.) It doesn’t feel quite right, however, to say in public of something proposed by someone acting in good faith that it’s just bullcrap. You have to spend some time thinking of another way to put it. Enrique comes in handy here, since he will say anything. It has not been proven, however, that Enrique will never piss anyone off.
  • For the same reason, I have not yet found a good way of recording issues and concerns I don’t have good answers for. In a lab notebook, or a private conversation, one can talk more forthrightly about things that are going wrong, or things that have gone wrong, and how to right them. But in public, members of a Working Group, and editors of a specification, do better to accept a sort of cabinet responsibility for the work product. You do the best you can to lead the group to what you believe is the right decision, and then you accept the decision and defend it in public. I have not yet found a way to combine the acceptance of that joint responsibility, and the concomitant need to avoid bad-mouthing decisions one is responsible for defending, on the one hand, with forthright analysis of errors on the other. Sometimes careful phrasing can do the job, but any need for care in phrasing constitutes a tax on the writing of posts about tricky subject matter.
  • So try as I might to keep pushing these posts toward being a work log, the genre keeps pushing back and trying to make them into something like a first-person newspaper column. That’s a fine and worthy thing, and I can’t say I don’t enjoy that genre, but it’s not quite what I was aiming for when I started. As a result, one cannot read back through the archives and get the kind of record one wants in a lab notebook, and I’m not sure Messages in a Bottle is working optimally as a means for me to communicate with myself, or with those I work with most closely.

And on the other side, some things do seem to work.

  • At one level of abstraction, the primary goal of this worklog is to improve communication between me and those I work with. There is some evidence, both in the comments here and in other channels, that some of those I work with do read these postings and find them useful, or at least diverting. I have never bothered to try to check the server logs for hit or visitor counts — my guess, based on my Spam Karma 2 reports, is that humans are strongly outnumbered by spambots among my readers, and I’d just as soon not have that demonstrated in quantitative detail — but it’s clear that more people read these posts at least sporadically than I would ever dream of pestering by sending them email meditations on these topics. If they read these posts and derive any insight from the reading, then this klog would appear to have improved communication at least somewhat.
  • It’s probably not actually a bad thing that I think of this as a public space. It makes me a bit more likely to try to write coherently, to supply relevant context, and to do the other things that help ensure that a communication can be read with understanding by readers distant in time, space, sentiment, or context from the author. If I occasionally indulge in a private joke or two, I hope you will bear with me.
  • It’s easier for me to find records of points of view and analyses that have gone into posts here than to find records kept only in files on my hard disk or on paper shoved into the shelves behind me.
  • So far, no one has complained even about the really boring technical discussions about regular grammars, even though it’s clear some of my readers would rather be reading about Enrique.

In sum, I think I believe the experiment can be adjudged modestly successful, and I will continue it for another six months.

A nicer editing environment

Since starting this worklog, I’ve been experimenting using the screen that WordPress provides for writing blog posts.

It’s good to see every now and then how the other half lives.

And I’m impressed: the blog editing screen WordPress gives you is significantly better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, which distinguishes it from some other systems I have experienced.

But, well, not so nice that anyone could plausibly expect me to use it instead of Emacs. So today I decided it was time to get a bit more realistic about how to draft posts, particularly those that are tricky and that I want to get right. That means, I need a way to edit in Xemacs, using psgml.el’s XML mode, and conveniently upload to WordPress.

The editing-in-Xemacs part is easy. All I have to do is stop not doing it. What was needed was a stylesheet to translate from the version of TEI Lite I habitually use for writing, into the odd mix of normal XHTML and blank lines for paragraph breaks that WordPress uses. (I should probably experiment with using normal p elements — will WordPress let me use them?)

Answer: yes. So I don’t have to render paragraphs using just blank lines. And I didn’t really need to do a new stylesheet; I could just have used my existing TEI-to-HTML translation. I’ll comfort myself with the thought that the new stylesheet is smaller and has less cruft.

It’s still a little awkward that I have to cut and paste from my Emacs buffer into the WordPress write-post screen; I notice that David Carlisle seems to be able to edit existing posts from within emacs, using T. V. Raman’s g-client package. This makes me jealous, but not jealous enough to drop everything to work on an emacs mode for posts to WordPress. (Everything I haven’t already dropped in order to play with my tei-to-wordpress stylesheet and to write this post, that is.)

When the cut-and-paste gets annoying enough, I’ll take the time to make the stylesheet generate the post in Web-forms submission format, and write a script to upload to the server. But for now, being back in emacs for editing is enough.

Spam Karma 2 installed

Installed Spam Karma 2, today, and hope it deals well with comments from real readers (who are welcome here) and from spambots and spammers (who are not).

There are a few points that have caused a little concern.

When I ran the filters on the accumulated comments and spam, it took half of the spam comments and approved them as OK.

I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt for now, assuming that it’s using some sort of Bayesian filtering that needs training. If this is still happening a month from now, it will be harder to be patient.

You can of course review approved comments and say “No! bad choice! that one is spam.” And similarly you can review the spam bucket and say that something is not actually spam.

It was at this point that I almost turned it off again, after ten minutes of use. It’s set up to display the lists of recently harvested spam and approved comments in a concise tabular form, with the admirable goal of getting more data onto the screen, and to expand any cell in the table if you hover over it, so as to show the full entry.

Perhaps my browser is set up to call the hover() method more quickly that the developer expects, but I found it impossible to move my mouse across the table (e.g. to reach the scroll bar, or to reach a cell I wanted to hover over) without one cell after the other exploding, shifting text around on my screen, and then collapsing again. It reminded me of nothing so much as flying as a child in a Cessna or Piper Cub and hitting air pockets that caused the plane to fall precipitously, climb again, and then drop again. I can almost smell that unforgettable stench of high-test fuel in an small enclosed space.

The only way I could reach something I wanted to hover over and look at was to sneak up on it by moving my mouse cautiously down the left or right margin and then into the table. And even then, it only expands one cell at a time, so you don’t get a good overview of any individual comment and its content and karma rating.

Fortunately, you can turn the hover behavior off. You have to turn on ‘Advanced’ options and uncheck the box that says “if using … css-impaired browsers, you should disable this feature”. It doesn’t mention susceptibility to motion-sickness.

The table of recently harvested spam is labeled as including comments with karma lower than -20; the threshold can be changed, and I’m glad to have a clear statement of what’s displayed and what’s not. But I found it confusing to have comments with karma of -6 and whatnot included. Eventually I concluded that the screen meant “higher” than -20.

The beauty of open source is that I was able to correct that typo without any significant effort.

The display of information about recently harvested spam with bad karma is as close to illegible as a mere color scheme can make it. (Well, that’s too harsh; I’ve seen worse, but not in a color scheme intended for actual use.) Dark green and medium-dark red against dark gray.

The beauty of open source is, again, I can change it. I’ve got CSS and I’m not afraid to use it.

And finally, the author has announced that he doesn’t expect to update it, because he’s tired of incompatible changes to WordPress that break plugins.

I can see his point. But any problem caused by his decision is down the road a while; perhaps others will pick up the code, or perhaps I’ll shift to a different tool later, just for educational purposes (the way I change Emacs color themes every few months or so, to see how they wear over time).

On the other hand, despite the concerns, Spam Karma appears quite popular and successful, and to have attracted fewer vehement denunciations than some other anti-spam tools. So the official attitude here is the traditional guarded optimism.

We will learn, as time goes by, whether that optimism is justified.

19 comments in one weekend!

[15 January 2008]

This morning I was a bit surprised to see nineteen comments on various blog posts waiting for moderation here. I hadn’t realized that such a queue had been built up since Friday, or that so many new people had discovered this blog and wanted to comment.

My slight flush of self-congratulation at the success of the blog lasted only a few moments, as long as it took to notice that of the nineteen comments eighteen were clearly spam, and the nineteenth is almost certainly spam (I’m going to sleep on that one).

Dealing with persistent spam attacks could take a lot of the pleasure out of maintaining a blog, just as dealing with spam made email an unbearable drain on my time before I started my white list. Time to spend some time investigating the blog-spam control tools available to me.

What’s a klog?

Why does the subtitle of this blog say “MSM’s klog” — don’t you mean “blog”?

Well, maybe.

But when I was thinking about this material, I thought of it mostly as a series of meditations on issues that arise in my work, with only the occasional piece unrelated to W3C or my working groups. So my own notes for Messages in a bottle call it a work log, or worklog, or (yes) klog.

Hence the term in the subtitle. If it comes to seem too precious or weird, I suppose I can always change it. (Cool URIs don’t change, it’s true, but maybe subtitles don’t have to be cool.)