January 10, 2011

QotD: Geeks and Hackers defined

Filed under: History, Media, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 16:29

One of the interesting things about being a participant-observer anthropologist, as I am, is that you often develop implicit knowledge that doesn’t become explicit until someone challenges you on it. The seed of this post was on a recent comment thread where I was challenged to specify the difference between a geek and a hacker. And I found that I knew the answer. Geeks are consumers of culture; hackers are producers.

Thus, one doesn’t expect a “gaming geek” or a “computer geek” or a “physics geek” to actually produce games or software or original physics — but a “computer hacker” is expected to produce software, or (less commonly) hardware customizations or homebrewing. I cannot attest to the use of the terms “gaming hacker” or “physics hacker”, but I am as certain as of what I had for breakfast that computer hackers would expect a person so labeled to originate games or physics rather than merely being a connoisseur of such things.

[. . .]

All hackers are, almost by definition, geeks — but the reverse is not true.

Eric S. Raymond, “Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries”, Armed and Dangerous, 2011-01-09

Kelly McParland on the bad old LCBO

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:22

Kelly McParland contrasts the Ontario government’s treatment of alcohol and tobacco as they’ve reversed position over time:

Ontario’s government-owned liquor monopoly operated bleak little dispensaries that had all the allure of an all-night pharmacy. No actual booze was allowed to be displayed, for fear the merest glimpse might turn solid citizens into a blubbering mass of addiction. You elbowed your way up to utilitarian counters with display boards that listed the limited products deemed acceptable for purchase. Using stubby little pencils, you scribbled down the name and code of the offending brand, then stood in line with similarly sad-sack individuals and handed your little list to a disapproving civil servant, who sent someone off to fetch your bottle and wrap it in a brown paper bag so as not to alarm any passing school marms or Sunday school teachers.

That was before the Ontario government realized just what a gold mine it had on its hands, and began redesigning liquor stores to serve as candy stores for grown-ups. Now there are free samples when you enter, kitchens to pass on recipes that encourage you to eat your booze as well as drink it, snob sections for high-priced wines and whiskies, and aisles full of expensive imported brews and hard-to-obtain craft beers, for people who only drink beer but want to feel just as snooty as everyone else.

I wrote about the bad old days of the LCBO back in my first year of blogging:

A few elections ago, the Ontario government under Premier Mike Harris started talking about getting the government out of the liquor business. The LCBO, which up until that point had operated like a sluggish version of the Post Office, suddenly had plenty of incentive to try appealing to their customers. Until the threat of privatization, the LCBO was notorious for poor service, lousy retail practices, and surly staff. Until the 1980’s, many LCBO outlets were run exactly like a warehouse: you didn’t actually get to see what was for sale, you only had a grubby list of current stock from which to write down your selections on pick tickets, which were then (eventually) filled by the staff.

If the intent was to make buying a bottle of wine feel grubby, seamy, and uncomfortable, they were masters of the craft. No shopper freshly arrived from behind the Iron Curtain would fail to recognize the atmosphere in an old LCBO outlet.

During the 1980’s, most LCBO stores finally became self-service, which required some attempt by the staff to stock shelves, mop the floors, and generally behave a bit more like a normal retail operation. It took quite some time for the atmosphere to become any more congenial or welcoming, as the staff were all unionized and most had worked there for years under the old regime — you might almost say that they had to die off and be replaced by younger employees who didn’t remember the “good old days”.

Now, contrast that with the way tobacco products — which used to be sold just about everywhere (and to anyone) — are now the pariah of the retail world:

Meanwhile, anyone desperate enough to buy a pack of cigarettes has been reduced to the status of those sorry, forlorn customers who used to slip into LCBOs hoping not to be recognized. The latest government regulations will increase the size of the warning labels and the sheer gore of the illustrations. To catch a glimpse of the rotting teeth and ulcerated organs you have to ask someone to fetch you a pack from the nondescript, unlabelled shelves behind the counter, where they used to keep the dirty magazines before we started getting our porn free online. Fierce competition and viticultural advances have relentlessly pushed down the price of booze so that wholly acceptable products are available at ever more reasonable prices; tobacco prices, meanwhile, are so prohibitive they’ve spawned a cross-border smuggling trade that would have impressed Al Capone.

I’m not kidding about the “sold to anyone” line either: I was regularly sent to the store to buy cigarattes for my parents even before I was in my teens. The odd punctilious shopkeeper would occasionally require a note from an adult, but generally they didn’t even bother asking.

Fighting pirates, privately

Filed under: Africa, Economics, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:42

Strategy Page reports on a new initiative to combat the problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia:

A major British insurer (Jardine Lloyd Thompson) is organizing a private armed escort service for ships operating off Somalia. Called the Convoy Escort Programme (CEP), the 18 small patrol boats will offer armed escort through the Gulf of Aden, and reduce overall security and insurance costs for ships using the service. It’s all about money, as the insurance companies don’t like the spiraling ransom costs, and especially the unpredictability of the pirates. While the insurance companies can pass the costs onto those who buy their insurance, the pirates could rapidly increase the number of ships their steal, and force the insurance companies to incur losses, not to mention the risk of more ships foregoing insurance and using increased shipboard security and armed guards.

The CEP is not a done deal yet. A country has to sign on to allow the patrol boats to fly their flag (and thus provide a national legal system to operate under). The patrol boats will carry heavy machine-guns (12.7mm/.50 cal), armed crews (all former military) and small boats to check suspected pirates. CEP will coordinate with the anti-piracy patrol, and let the larger warships spend more time pursuing the pirates that are now operating much farther from the Somali coast.

This may not be the answer, but it shows that creativity isn’t dead in the insurance industry.

An introduction to ecoNOMNOMNOMics

Filed under: Economics, Education, Humour — Nicholas @ 09:17

A painless and amusing introduction to some economic concepts:

H/T to Tim Harford for the link.

Facebook has a repeat of their earlier boob

Filed under: Health, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:58

Facebook apparently has something against breasts — specifically those used to feed babies:

Facebook had one of its nipple-related related brainstorms last week, banning, unbanning, then re-banning breastfeeding support group, The Leaky Boob.

The Leaky Boob group allows almost 11,000 mothers to share their experiences on breastfeeding — as well as providing casual visitors with a treasure trove of advice and tips. Well, it would do, if Facebook didn’t keep deleting it — as they did the previous weekend.

This provoked an angry reaction from the tens of thousands of women who use the page for information and support.

Breastfeeding supporters responded swiftly, creating two pages on Facebook, Bring Back the Leaky Boob and TLB Support, which gained the best part of 10,000 fans in just two days.

On Tuesday, according to group founder Jessica Martin-Weber, the page was back up.

On Wednesday it was gone again.

Then, later in the day, it returned and is still up today.

It’s easy to see how the content of TLB might be offensive to closed-minded people, and if the banning mechanism Facebook uses is mostly automated, it’d explain the way in which the group was originally banned. If all it takes is a complaint, and the (I assume automated) follow-up to the complaint only checks for certain things, the first shutdown is explained. The fact that the group has been through this process before shows a weakness in Facebook’s administrative tracking policies.

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