Archive for the ‘WordPress’ Category

A world without Twitter

Friday, July 9th, 2010

This post has been rolling around in my mind for a while — along with my bank balance, the song “Gee, Officer Krupke”, and Jennifer Aniston’s … nevermind. I was inspired to finally commit it to paper, or whatever the heck this big rectangular white thing is, by a recent tweet from @danielpunkass, AKA Daniel Jalkut, AKA Mr. MarsEdit, AKA The Boston Strangler. As John Lennon might say if he were alive today, and unable to come up with any new ideas in the last 40 years: imagine there’s no Twitter. It’s easy if you try. Command-r, command-r.

The credit, or blame, goes to @rentzsch for luring me onto Twitter. Not once, but twice. The first time was as a requirement for attending the C4[2] conference. My initial run on Twitter came to a halt later when I famously (for some definition of famous) took a 5-month hiatus. At C4[3], however, ‘Wolf’ (as he is known in the porn industry) persuaded me to return to Twitter. You can see why C4 was evil and had to be abolished.

For a whale, err, while, Twitter was fairly stable, relatively speaking. Lately, though, the uptime has been absolutely horrid, even when there’s no World Cup game. The only thing that never fails is the status blog. (Why don’t they make Twitter out of the status blog? Or the black box?) The Twitter developers don’t really inspire confidence; they keep pushing code changes that are supposed to improve reliability but end up causing outages. Furthermore, after all this time they’ve still failed to implement any convenient way to follow conversation threads on Twitter. The @reply is only the most rudimentary step in this direction. To me, that suggests the developers have completely missed what is important and special about Twitter, the social aspect.

Another threat to Twitter’s future, besides the continued technical suckage and danger of collapsing under its own weight, is the need to make money. We’ve grown accustomed to receiving this service for free, but Twitter is not a charity, it’s a for-profit corporation. We’re starting to see this manifested in ‘promoted’ trends. Third-party spammers have existed on Twitter from the beginning, of course, but the question is whether commercialization will transform Twitter itself into something repulsive (cf. iAds). On the other hand, there’s a possibility that Twitter cannot make itself commercial enough. If Twitter doesn’t generate sufficient revenue to sustain itself and make a profit over the long term, it may have to close up shop and go out of business. It certainly wouldn’t be the first dot-com service to disappear. I believe that if Google wanted, they could create a serious competitor to Twitter, backed with Google’s superior knowledge, reliability, and bandwidth. Indeed, I’m surprised that Google hasn’t attempted this already. Maybe they don’t see any profit in it. But that doesn’t bode well for Twitter either.

As good programmers, we always have a backup. (Right? Right? Redundant and off-site, right?) The purpose of this post is to consider, what is our backup to Twitter? If Twitter dies, or if we’re compelled to leave, where do we go? We could go back to our pre-Twitter existence, back to our spouses, children, neighbors, and back to writing long blog posts instead of pithy 140- character tweets. We could, but blech! The un-tweeted life is not worth living. There would always be something missing. Twitter allows us to connect regularly with many friends that we don’t get to see very often (and to make arrangements when we do see them). It introduces us to people that we’d never meet or be able to talk to otherwise. It provides a unmoderated, unstructured forum for sharing crucial tidbits of information and knowledge with people we trust and respect (as well as everyone else, for better or worse). Twitter is like Cheers for the internet, except without Sam Malone. Oh wait, it’s got Sam Malone. The problem is, we don’t have a good backup. Without Twitter, we’ve got nothing. (Please don’t even mention Gary’s Old Towne Tavern.)

Admittedly, there are some alternatives to Twitter, a few services that are similar, but they all suffer from the same inherent limitations as Twitter. They present a single point of failure. If Twitter’s servers are overloaded, then the service becomes unusable. Everyone gets the fail whale. In order to reliably handle the traffic, a centralized service require a large amount of resources, and thus money. So the only hope for a reliable, centralized Twitter-like service is heavily commercialization, and it’s not clear that a heavily commercialized service is one we’d want to spend our time on. Would a profit train be recognizable as the little Twitter we know and (sometimes) love? Besides, any centralized service is still prone to catastrophic failure. Even the mighty Amazon goes down.

So I had this idea. In the shower. (With Jennifer Aniston.) What if we made a distributed Twitter? Like DVCS. All the hip young programmers today use DVCS, whether that’s Git, or Mercurial, or … yeah, Git or Mercurial. The key to DVCS is that there’s no single point of failure, no centralized repository. Each working copy is its own repository, with the entire commit history. And you can commit locally! If one repository goes offline or disappears entirely, the other repositories can continue operating indefinitely without it. Nothing is lost. Similarly, each user of Dwitter (clever, huh?) would install Dwitter software on a web server, which would keep a record not only of the user’s own dweets but also the dweets of everyone the user follows.

When you follow someone, your Dwitter server would send a request containing information such as your name and server address to the Dwitter server of the person you follow. The followee’s Dwitter server stores this information, and then when that person dweets, his/her/its/their Dwitter server would send the dweet to the Dwitter servers of all followers. To prevent connection overload, the rate of sending out dweets to followers would be limited, perhaps to something like 1.5 followers per second. This would allow a dweet to be propagated to 5000 followers in less than an hour. And if you compose another dweet while your followers are still getting notified of the previous dweet, the dweet notifications would get consolidated for the followers who haven’t yet been notified. Furthermore, any Dwitter user directly mentioned in a dweet would receive immediate notification of the dweet, prior to anyone else, to facilitate quick conversation.

Obviously, this system won’t scale for someone who has a million Twitter followers. However, the only people who have a million Twitter followers are celebrities. There are plenty of other, better outlets for celebrity news, we don’t need Twitter for that. Note that celebrities did not make Twitter popular. Rather, celebrities came to Twitter because it was already popular. What makes the presence of celebrities on Twitter mostly useless is that they rarely participate in the culture of Twitter, they don’t foster conversation. You can’t have a conversation with a million followers, because that doesn’t scale either.

A potentially more serious problem for the distributed version of Twitter is the difficulty of use. Running your own Dwitter server requires a fair bit of technical knowledge. It’s much more difficult than going to a web site and signing up for an account. This may exclude mom and pop from joining Dwitter. However, I personally don’t consider the loss of mom and pop to be worse than the loss of celebrities. Frankly, I don’t want my mom following me on Twitter. Have you read my tweets? She’d make me wash my mouth out with soap! Almost all of the people I follow are programmers. They should be fully capable of setting up a Dwitter server on their own internet domain. Even though Twitter is completely public (except for protected tweets, you bastards), the irony is that it’s best suited for insulated groups such as programmers. 140 characters is not enough to teach outsiders your terminology and concepts. When you tweet, you’re forced to leave out a lot and to use shorthand that only likeminded people will understand. Tweeting is kind of like sending out coded messages. (@IwayAmwayAwayUssianrayYspay)

Even with the distributed system, there may be options for less technical users. WordPress operates under a similar model. You can install WordPress software on your own web server and run your blog yourself, or you can sign up to have a hosted blog on wordpress.com, where they take care of the technical aspects for you. The key is that even if one hosted Dwitter service fails, that would only prevent new dweets from the hosted accounts. The rest of the Dwitterverse would go on as usual, and the archives of the hosted dweet accounts would continue to exist on the Dwitter servers of their followers.

I don’t personally have the expertise to design a distributed Twitter-like service. I have some web knowledge, but I’m mainly a desktop programmer. Nonetheless, I will take all glory and riches arising from this idea. All I ask in return for all the glory and riches is that the designers of the new service don’t create a half-assed API. I’m tired of crappy, fatally flawed designs becoming popular by virtue of being first to market. Indeed, this is how Twitter itself became popular. Please, do it right the first time. Or I’ll be looking for an alternative to you too.

WordPress hacking: more comments in your feeds

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Unless you’re the Tolstoy of blogging — Does that even make sense? It’s like being the Gandhi of boxing — you’re probably not writing thirty WordPress posts a day. At my rate — the Def Leppard of blogging — I’m lucky to produce thirty a year (not counting my posts under the pen name “Arianna Huffington”). However, it is possible for one post to receive thirty comments in one day, especially if it contains provocative statements, e.g., AppleScript, Die! Die! Die! or Please leave your comments below. (This is assuming that you allow comments. And that someone reads your blog. And that the someone is not an NSA agent.)

Unfortunately, WordPress uses the same limit on the number of items in a syndicated feed for both the main post feed of the blog and for the comments feed of an individual post. By default, that limit is 10 items. Thus, if you try to follow an active comments thread on a post via the feed, you’re likely to miss comments (unless you’re one of the scourges of the internet who have their feed readers set to check for new articles every two minutes). It completely defeats the purpose of subscribing to the comments feed if you can’t track the comments with the feed. As a solution, you could raise the overall WordPress item limit, for both posts and comments, but this may increase the bandwidth of your web site significantly, enormously if you’re one of the angels of the internet who put the full text of their posts in the feed.

Fellow blogger Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software has filed a feature request for a separate limit on comments feeds. However, you don’t need to wait until WordPress 2.7 for this request to be implemented, because you can implement it now by hacking your own WordPress installation. With Daniel’s help, I was able to get this to work in WordPress 2.5.1. You just need to modify one file, wp-includes/query.php. The ending of line 1380 in query.php is currently

	DESC LIMIT " . get_option('posts_per_rss'));

You need to modify it as below, replacing 100 with your desired item limit for comments feeds.

	DESC LIMIT 100");

You also need to modify the ending of line 1437, replacing

	DESC LIMIT " . get_option('posts_per_rss');

with

	DESC LIMIT 100";

That’s all there is to it! My usual disclaimers apply here: I take no responsibility for breaking anything of yours, for breaking anything of anyone else’s, or indeed for anything that happens in the universe. I do offer this guarantee: if my hack doesn’t work for you, I’ll gladly refund my consulting fee.

Please leave your comments below. AppleScript, Die! Die! Die!

WordPress Bug Fix: more props for me

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

Although I abhor self-promotion — much as Roger Federer abhors winning tournaments — someone must take on this thankless task. (I had to fire my publicist, because he had never heard of me.) Thus it is with great regret and sorrow that I announce my latest contribution to the WordPress open source project. It was just one minuscule twitch for mankind, yet one ginormous vault for a man, viz., yours truly.

Now some critics might claim that the security issue was trivial. In my defense, I would argue that critics are doo-doo heads. Except the ones in New York: they all love me.

What ever happened to Cocoa Blogs?

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

It seems dead, though the clock is still ticking. (Countdown to extinction?) Anyway, I’ve just updated my own extensive list of cocoa blogs and other favorite feeds, which you can download from the Downloads section of my sidebar. FileMerge will reveal the changes in my all-important favor. Remember bloggers, X-Mas is coming soon, not to mention Y-Mas and Z-Mas. I’m keeping track of who’s naughty and nice — mostly by intercepting your wireless packets. If you’re nice, you’ll get a hot dog and a shake.

WordPress Bug Fix Near Saturday: props lapcat

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

The network has decided to renew my series for at least one episode. WordPress 2.3 is approaching release, and I’m pleased with the progress that it has made in supporting syndicated feeds. The patch I submitted to fix the Atom feed modification date bug has been committed to the trunk. RSS 2.0 feeds still don’t give modification dates, but that could be considered a personal preference. (As can RSS 2.0 itself. Of course, no one would prefer the worse to the better, as Socrates would say, if he were 2500 years old and spoke English.)

Other syndication bugs that have been fixed in the trunk include checking the last modified date of posts rather than comments for comments feeds, an obsolete Atom feed template, and checking the last modified date of unapproved comments for comments feeds. WordPress 2.3 should be a good update for feed readers such as you and feed readers such as Vienna.

Time to go. Joan Cusack is calling again.

WordPress Bug Fix!

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

This is the first post in what I hope is a series, which I’ll call “WordPress Bug Fix Near Saturday”. And while I’m naming things, I’ll call this first post “Episode IV: A New Hope” (to be followed, no doubt, by “Episode V: All Hope Dashed”). I’m very happy to report that the ETag parsing bug has been fixed in WordPress 2.0.7. Thus, if you’re running WordPress 2.0.7 on your site, you no longer have to comment out the following line in the file wp-includes/classes.php:

@header("ETag: $wp_etag");

My logs confirm that WordPress is now correctly parsing its own ETags and sending out HTTP 200 and 304 responses as appropriate. The Penultimate Warrior is victorious and undefeated! Note, however, that none of the bugs that I reported before the Warrior started Running Wild® (cp. Going Wild®) have been fixed yet.

Speaking of my web site logs, they contain a list of phrases that were used to find my site from internet search engines. I’d like to share a few of them that have caught my eye:

  1. instructions+for+using+the+thighmaster

    Squeeze, release, repeat. You’re welcome.

  2. how+do+u+declare+a+pointer+to+an+array+of+pointers+to+int%3f%3f+in+c+language

    int * (* ptr)[];

  3. talk+to+cat+software

    That doesn’t exist, Dr. Doolittle. Try meowing.

  4. cat+lederhosen

    I’ve given your IP to the SPCA.

  5. betamax+the+sausage+and+the+mouse

    These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.

  6. what+does+ns+stand+for+i+cocoa

    NeXTSTEP. Next!

  7. circle+k+employee+uniforms

    I’m so very sorry, dude.

  8. if+jeff+s+usual+is+a+hint+for+a+password+what+is+the+password

    Stop trying to hack into my account, you scoundrel!

WordPress Bug Near Friday: HTML Injection Vulnerability

Saturday, December 30th, 2006

No sooner had I posted this, I noticed this. Case closed. I win by TKO.

WordPress Bug Friday: Wasting your bandwidth

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

I intended to post this on Friday. As they say when receiving a crappy Christmas gift, It’s the thought that counts. (They lie.) I should probably give myself a break and just change the official name to WordPress Bug Near Friday. Well, so be it. Make it so. Engage. Energize. Giddyup!

Usually I’m bemoaning the existence of HTTP 304 (Not Modified) responses, but this time the problem was the non-existence of them. (Can there be such a thing as non-existence? Where would you find it? And can you deduct it from your taxes?) I noticed when looking through my web site logs that feed requests from NetNewsWire always received an HTTP 200 (OK) response from WordPress, never 304, which means that NetNewsWire downloaded the entire content of a feed on every request. Since my web site gets more hits from NetNewsWire than from any other browser, that’s quite a lot of bandwidth used. (Relatively speaking, that is. In the grand scheme of things, my page ranking is right below the site for Grasshopper Enthusiasts of Eastern Ontario.)

Brent Simmons, the creator of NetNewsWire, was kind enough to talk to me about the problem, despite the fact that my app, Vienna, has undoubtedly taken away some sales from him. (In fact, I was all set to purchase NetNewsWire myself until I discovered Vienna.) I’m not worried about Brent, though: I heard that NewsGator paid him something like a trillion dollars for NetNewsWire, give or take. Plus he gets as many Café Lattes as he likes. Anyway, he explained that WordPress does not handle entity tags correctly.

In addition to Last-Modified headers, WordPress sends out ETag headers, which are basically gobbledygook strings that identify web content. Some web browsers, such as Vienna, only send conditional If-Modified-Since requests based on Last-Modified dates, but a browser can also store ETags and send them back on subsequent visits to the site as part of conditional If-None-Match requests. If the ETags don’t match the current content on the site, then there is new content that needs to be downloaded. NetNewsWire sends both kinds of conditional request. Unfortunately, WordPress does not parse its own ETags correctly on receiving If-None-Match requests — there seems to be a problem with quoting — so a match is never found, and it always sends a 200 response, along with the full feed content.

Brent passed along a suggestion to remove or comment out the following line in the file wp-includes/classes.php:

@header("ETag: $wp_etag");

After that, WordPress no longer sends out ETags, so it relies totally on Last-Modified dates. I’ve been testing this modification for a week, and NetNewsWire now receives both 200 and 304 responses, as appropriate. Moreover, my bandwidth has been cut by more than half. Thanks, Brent! We should form a tag team wrestling duo to pin down the WordPress developers and make them fix their feed bugs. My wrestling name will be the Penultimate Warrior.

WordPress Bug Friday, nth edition

Friday, November 24th, 2006

Yesterday was Thanksgiving in the United States. Thanksgiving is a day for giving thanks, obviously. More important, it means that we Americans get to be ungrateful boors every other day of the year. Don’t you love holidays? Now that I don’t have to be thankful again (or eat again, for that matter) until next November, I’d like to take this opportunity to rip on WordPress. For the most part, WordPress works admirably. However, as I’ve noted once or twice, it doesn’t play well with syndication, which as you may know is something I’m familiar with. A number of you have WordPress installations on your own web sites, and even those of you who don’t have WordPress installations probably experience these bugs by following the syndicated feeds of this site and others in your favorite feed reader (Vienna, perhaps).

Today’s bug, which still exists in WordPress 2.0.5 (but has been fixed by me on this web site), afflicts comments feeds : for example, the main comments feed for the blog as well as comments feeds for individual posts. In order to prevent spam — as well as egg, bacon, spam, and sausage — I moderate all comments. No matter how long it takes for me to approve a comment (not long, usually, unless I’m asleep: that’s when I’m a Viking), the comment will appear with the date and time it was written. That’s fine, except that if your feed reader is polite like Vienna and sends an If-Modified-Since header in the request for articles, WordPress looks at the date of the latest comment in the database, regardless of whether the comment has been approved. Thus, if your feed reader checks the comments feed after a comment has been written but before it has been approved, the feed will give an HTTP 200 response (“OK”, “Yea!”, “Come hither”) and send the feed data, though thankfully WordPress won’t actually send the unapproved comment. Until another comment is written, however, the feed will give an HTTP 304 response (“Not Modified”, “Can’t Touch This!”, “I have a headache tonight”) on all subsequent checks, so you won’t see the comment in the feed after it’s approved.

By the way, if you wonder why I read the Hypertext Transfer Protocol document, take a glance at section 13.1.4. It’s good stuff, folks! I have yet to see a browser that follows the suggestions given by the RFC. Core Animation should make it easy.

Anyway, to fix the bug in WordPress 2.0.5, you need to modify the function get_lastcommentmodified in the file wp-includes/comment-functions.php. Replace the switch statement with the code below. You’re just adding $wpdb->comments.comment_approved = '1' AND to each of the cases.


switch(strtolower($timezone)) {
    case 'gmt':
        $lastcommentmodified = $wpdb->get_var("SELECT comment_date_gmt FROM $wpdb->comments WHERE $wpdb->comments.comment_approved = '1' AND comment_date_gmt <= '$now' ORDER BY comment_date_gmt DESC LIMIT 1");
        break;
    case 'blog':
        $lastcommentmodified = $wpdb->get_var("SELECT comment_date FROM $wpdb->comments WHERE $wpdb->comments.comment_approved = '1' AND comment_date_gmt <= '$now' ORDER BY comment_date_gmt DESC LIMIT 1");
        break;
    case 'server':
        $lastcommentmodified = $wpdb->get_var("SELECT DATE_ADD(comment_date_gmt, INTERVAL '$add_seconds_server' SECOND) FROM $wpdb->comments WHERE $wpdb->comments.comment_approved = '1' AND comment_date_gmt <= '$now' ORDER BY comment_date_gmt DESC LIMIT 1");
        break;
}

Alas, WordPress Bug Friday is already over again, too soon! Remember that there are now only 30 shopping days left until Christmas. You can get me anything from the store.

Vienna 2.1 and WordPress 2.0.5

Friday, November 10th, 2006

Ok, I lied. I won’t be talking about Cocoa programming in this post, except insofar as Vienna is a Cocoa program. This is really more of an announcement than a discussion, though. The Emergency Broadcast System has instructed me to annoy you with a series of loud beeps. If this had been an actual emergency, I would have been looting your valuables right now.

Beep! Beep! Beep! People of Earth, your attention, please. The developers of Vienna formally announce the release of … Vienna. Specifically, Vienna 2.1, the exciting sequel to Vienna 2.0. In a surprising turn of events, the incumbent, build 2107, has been upset by the challenger, build 2108. Sadly, build 2107 refuses to concede and is demanding a recount. Meanwhile, build 2109 is already setting up an exploratory committee for the next release. The release notes for Vienna 2.1 can be found in the forum. For those who prefer pictures over text, check out the illustrated list of features.

I would like to thank Steve Palmer for letting me mess with and mess up his app. Hopefully I’ve fixed more things than I’ve broken. I’d like to thank the Academy (Plato’s). It’s an honor just to nominate myself. Thanks to my cats, for helping me type. Thanks to caffeine, in all its forms. Thanks to my user agent, “Vienna/2.1.0.2108″. Finally, I’d like to thank all the little people: Dr. Ruth, Dustin Hoffman, Kerri Strug, Prince, and Ronnie James Dio. (Cue the band.)

My other important announcement is that the blog may be unavailable for a minute or two while I update from WordPress 2.0.4 to 2.0.5. By the time you read this post, it’ll all be over. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Just a little pinprick. Ahhhhhh! If you notice any problems after the update, please contact me. This is a recording. So long, and thanks for all the fish.