December 29, 2010

'Tis the Season To Be ...

Forgiving towards those who cause us distress, pain, and hardship. Let's assume that they did so through ignorance, inattention, or misunderstanding, rather than from malice, greed or envy.

Generous towards those whose lives would be improved by some small effort on our part. Give unwanted presents and other items to a charity, sell them and donate the money, share your good fortune by regular contributions throughout the year, or become a volunteer for a worthwhile cause.

Understanding of the foibles, fears, hang-ups and other "issues" that affect everyone, and which sometimes result in actions and reactions which are inexplicable or inappropriate.

Gracious towards those whose talents, skills, fortunes or relationships seem better than ours.
Resolute in the face of misfortune, injustice, and other calamities not of our making. Not being responsible for causing a situation doesn't mean we can't be responsible for fixing it.

Honest about our mistakes and errors of judgement. Trying to cover it up or, worse, shifting the blame to someone else is often tempting, but always makes the situation worse in the end, and adds to our own burden of guilt.

Patient with those who seem to be "wasting" our time. Rather than getting irritated and frustrated, let's assume that they are trying their best, or that they have other things on their minds.

Optimistic that the above virtues can be sustained just a little longer than they were last year. Perhaps even into the second week of January?

Realistic about success in this and all other endeavours. All we can do is our best with what we have.

Above all, let us be kind to ourselves and others, regardless of achievements, and certainly despite a lack of them.

Happy New Year everyone.

November 30, 2010

Forebears and Bugbears

Having grown up knowing almost nothing about my extended family, due to the disinterest of my parents in their relatives, it has been a great surprise for me to suddenly develop a passion for genealogy. Unfortunately I have left my investigation rather late, because most people from even my parents' generation have died, but thanks to the intrusive internet it is possible to unearth the sorts of facts previously found only in family stories or possibly the Family Bible.
Disappointingly, I have not yet discovered anyone particularly newsworthy or infamous among the 750 or so leaves of the family tree I have so far identified, but the exercise has given me several points to ponder:

  • The general expectation of a young woman in the 19th century must have been that she would bear 10 or more children, usually at intervals of a year or two. 
  • She would expect several of her children to die at birth or in infancy, and that she herself would probably die before she was middle-aged, most likely from infection, often as a result of pregnancy or childbirth.
  • Young men would expect to leave home in their mid-teens and then to spend almost all of their time working, often away from home. They usually married young, and began almost immediately to produce as large a family as possible.
  • It was very common for one parent to die while some of the children were still very young, and the remaining parent usually married again, often starting another family.
  • Any parent who managed to survive into old age always went to live with one of their children, usually an unmarried one.
  • Hardly anyone got divorced (although there is no reason to suppose that marriages were generally any happier or unhappier then than they are now).
  • Young orphans were far more common than today, leading to more formal or informal adoptions.
  • Families sailing from the UK to Australia not infrequently lost or gained a child during the voyage.
None of these are fresh or insightful observations, but the point is that these people were my family. They are not characters in a novel or part of a sociological treatise on "19th Century Life in the Colonies". My own (extremely unusual) middle name pops up at least once in each generation, tying me firmly to these women whose lives were unimaginably different from my own.

So one question is foremost in my mind as I unravel these histories ... "Could I have coped with lives like theirs?" Of course that is impossible to answer and therefore pointless to ask, but nevertheless I feel ashamed to say that I doubt it very much indeed.

(as in "things which incense me", not "things for waving incense about")

I am implacable about fairness, and this frequently gets me into trouble. My friends charitably call this behaviour "standing up for what is right" or "speaking out against injustice and deceit".
Just as accurately, my critics label me as a "troublemaker", 
or to use a more vivid expression, a "shit-stirrer".

Keeping out of trouble, avoiding confrontation, minding my own business, not fighting other peoples' battles for them, letting things be, remembering my (inferior) position, sticking to battles I can win ... these are lessons I seem to be unable to learn.
Most people very sensibly prefer a quiet life, and try to avoid situations which will cause them distress. Of course that doesn't mean that they are any less fervent about injustice than people like me - they just have a more self-protective way of dealing with it. And if someone else seems not just willing but actually eager to go into battle on their behalf, why not let them?

I have previously described two of my futile battles this year, but no sooner had those wounds healed than I was hurling myself pointlessly back into the fray. The same two "Goliaths" continued to raise my ire throughout the year by persisting in their shabby treatment of students and volunteers respectively, so after a very short period of meekly acknowledging those in "authority", I resumed my doomed campaign on behalf of those they treated with such disrespect. 
Of course the natural reaction of anyone to a persistently annoying pest is to swat it, which is precisely what happened (again).  

Will I ever learn not to keep trying? 

Probably not.

October 30, 2010

A Few Aphorisms

Nothing original today, and nothing cynical or world-weary either, for a change.
Instead, here are some quotations which mean a lot to me, and which might speak to you too.

The first one is as close as I will ever get to having my own motto.
I discovered it as an embroidered sampler in an historic cottage, with the name and date "Ann Hewson 1780". I was quite young at the time, but even so I felt that it perfectly mirrored my own outlook on life, so I copied the words and laboriously embroidered my own sampler, serendipitously finishing it exactly 200 years after Ann signed hers.
It still resonates with me all these years later ...
Learn by the bee from each event to find
Some hint of use or profit to your mind.
Nothing so small but you may draw from thence
Improvement for your virtue or your sense.

The next one is a lot less ponderous, but a very useful reminder that our lives are neither as important nor as serious as we may think. It's from Jerry Seinfeld.
Life is truly a ride. We're all strapped in and no-one can stop it. ...
Sometimes you put your arms up and scream, sometimes you just hang on ...
I think the most you can hope for at the end of your life
is that your hair's messed, you're out of breath, and you didn't throw up.

Life is full of uncertainty, and sometimes the number of necessary decisions seems overwhelming. Lewis Carroll's eternally untroubled Cheshire cat has the answer.
Alice came to a fork in the road. "Which road do I take?" she asked.
"Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat.
"I don't know," Alice answered.
"Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

It's unashamedly sentimental, but this quote from an American author named Agnes Sligh Turnbull never fails to bring a lump to my throat, and I'm sure it will do the same to anyone who has loved and lost a dog. (Vale Tess, Kimba, Mtani, Zu, Harry, Taka and all the similarly precious memories of my friends.)
Dogs' lives are too short. Their only fault, really.

Then, of course, there was Douglas Adams. Almost everything he said or wrote makes me respond "Yes!", so it is impossible to choose my favourite from thousands of insightful comments. Fortunately, there are many sites (such as this one) which share his witty wisdom, so for those who are unfamiliar with his view of the world, I'll close with this particularly pithy example.
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry
and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

October 23, 2010

Shhh. Don't Look Now, But ...

Like many other site owners, I am interested in who my visitors are, how they get here, how long they stay, and which pages they read.
For some people this is essential information in optimising their site for commercial purposes, but in my case it is simply idle curiosity about patterns revealed by the statistics. As you can see from the logo at the bottom right of this page, I use a free Sitemeter account to track visits, and although it shows very few details (just the IP address, for the technically minded among you), the records do provide occasional harmless amusement.

For example, every time I mention "DMOZ" or "ODP", or (nowadays) "DMOZ 2.0", and especially if I write about "Volunteer Admins", there is a flurry of visits from the same IP addresses.
Of course it may be sheer coincidence, but when those addresses match the countries or cities where DMOZ Admins live, I remind myself that I don't actually believe in coincidences.

But it is even more entertaining to see which blog posts attract the most general attention. Besides the above visits from people curious to see what I am saying about them, random visitors seem particularly drawn to posts about the following topics (in approximate order):
  1. British railways (yes really!)
  2. Ugliness
  3. Piratical eye injuries
  4. Bullying 
An eclectic bunch of topics, to be sure, and I guess some people might ponder their sociological implications.

Not me though - I just like sitting around, watching people come and go.


October 21, 2010

Beastly Backstabbing

There are few blows more shocking and painful than the betrayal of a "friend".
Being lied to by someone you trust is one of the most lasting and hurtful of all experiences.

It not only demonstrates one's own poor judgement, but highlights the widespread dishonesty and self-interest that we so often try to overlook.

Today I spent a happy hour or so chatting easily to an old friend, enjoying our shared interests and generally finding pleasure in each other's company.

Or so I thought.
How galling,
how humiliating,
how absolutely infuriating to discover just a few hours later that the conversation was a complete pretence.

This so-called friend had carefully refrained from mentioning a recent promotion that meant my "friendship" was now nothing more than a chance to gather information to my disadvantage.

What a despicable trick.

The deception is all the more distressing because of the years of friendship and trust that were so rapidly and carelessly discarded in the cause of self-glorification.

Loyalty? Honesty?

What a naive fool I am to assume these things are as important to others as they are to me.

October 05, 2010

ODP/DMOZ: 2 bad, so sad

Prompted by a recent comment/question on my last post, it's probably time for an update on how the DMOZ 2.0 debacle is proceeding.
Depending on your point of view, the answer is
  • a) badly: the situation is deteriorating, 
  • b) well: the debacle itself is growing daily, or
  • c) Shhhh"Don't mention the war".
Does anyone remember Simon and Garfunkel? Probably not, but they had a song with lyrics very slightly like these:
AOL only knows, AOL makes its plan
The information's unavailable to the mortal man.
Admins keep on reassuring, try to justify their name,
Pretending DMOZ 2.0's the answer, when in fact it's slip sliding away

Slip sliding away, slip sliding away
You know the more they try to fix it, the more it's slip sliding away

I have just returned from several weeks' holiday (in fact if you've lost interest in DMOZ 2.0, along with most of the editors, then you are welcome to have a look at my holiday snaps here instead), and I expected to find that most of the apparently unforeseen bugs had been fixed. I say "unforeseen", because as I have previously noted, hundreds of bugs slipped through the net during three years of development and several months of intensive beta testing by paid staff and many volunteer editors.

By the way, these bugs are not minor problems with esoteric functions - we are talking major disruptions to many of the most basic editing processes. Fundamental functions are still unavailable to most editors, although the higher levels of editor seem to have a lot fewer problems. Funny, that.

The robust insistence of the powers-that-be that "everything will soon be working just fine" is starting to sound almost farcical, more than two months after the "third-time-lucky" launch. In addition, their almost universal disinterest in the continuing problems faced by ordinary editors is not just rude, but does nothing to provide the sort of guidance and support for which their positions were created. Of course this is a generalisation, and a small but much appreciated number of Admins seem to be actively involved in bailing water out of the sinking DMOZ 2.0, but in general, the highest level editors seem to have vanished. Mind you, it's happened several times before, so we really should not be surprised.

This is pretty much the final straw for me and the ODP. As I have already lamented, I fell victim earlier this year to a prolonged and determined campaign of FUD, which left me in the impossible situation of trying to obey contradictory (and increasingly imperative) instructions from on high. I tried for many months to comply with both sets of demands, but of course it was impossible to "serve two masters" as the saying goes, and the inevitable result was that I was branded as insubordinate and had my much-used permissions peremptorily removed (without even the common courtesy of notifying me, which added insult to injury).

Annnnyway, the current, apparently unstoppable decline of the editor-side of DMOZ has made my restricted permissions even less palatable, so I was ripe for an approach by BOTW to transfer my experience and enthusiasm to their directory. Specifically, they have asked for my assistance with mentoring their own volunteer editors, which was one of my greatest interests in DMOZ.
It is always wonderful to be appreciated, and that is something BOTW has consistently offered its editors, along with a blessed absence of hierarchy, bullying, self-interest, and the sorts of power games which have in recent years made DMOZ unpleasant for so many. I do not expect to be anywhere near as active in BOTW as I have been in the last 6 years in ODP/DMOZ, but I am sure the experience will be a lot more positive than is currently the case in DMOZ.

Postscript (added a week later)
In order to avoid accusations of speaking out of turn (or worse) by publishing the above comments, I made sure to send a similar announcement to the DMOZ Admins themselves. I received a reply which, while thankfully not condemnatory, completely missed the point about why I am shifting my attention and  efforts to BOTW instead of the ODP.
Let me make it very clear that this is absolutely not because I no longer care for DMOZ. I always will care passionately for that directory, its welfare, its growth and its volunteer editor community. I have never lost that dedication despite all the personal distress I have experienced there in the past couple of years. My partial departure now is entirely the result of the actions (and even more the inactions) of most of those who are allegedly in charge. 
If/when they manage to get the directory back on track, make some effort to fulfil the roles for which they were appointed, and without personal agendas and prejudice, I will be back like a shot ... if they'll let me, of course, after speaking out like this. 

August 20, 2010

DMOZ/ODP 2.0 - Rather a Flop So Far

Well, after more than three years of anticipation, frequent (and increasingly hollow-sounding) promises, months of beta testing, and two aborted installations, DMOZ 2.0 has finally arrived!

So do we have dancing in the editorial streets?
Outpourings of joy and gratitude from the volunteer community?
A long-awaited fix for all the problems that arose from the 2006 AOL Server Crash?
A much-needed increase in enthusiasm and productivity?
In short: will I have to eat my skeptical post "DMOZ 2.0 - Nirvana or Neverland"?

In each case the answer is a despondent but unequivocal "No".

It's only been a day or two since the directory came back online after the "third time lucky" upgrade, but the bug reports keep streaming in from disappointed and/or confused editors.
I'm sure the more serious issues will get fixed eventually, but considering how long it has taken to reach even this point, it is very hard not to see the whole thing as a bit of a

August 07, 2010

Down with FUD! (2)

As I posted a couple of years ago, this is a useful acronym, usually taken to represent "Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt".

It is a sneaky but very effective way of undermining or discrediting others, and to quote from my earlier post,
  • In marketing or politics, the advantages of changing the direction of someone's loyalties are obvious ...
  • In other areas of life it can be used in a more subtle way, by gradually isolating someone from former associates ...
  • Sometimes it may achieve nothing more than intellectual satisfaction, or a sense of having influence.
Having seen this technique used to great effect in recent months, in both work and hobby situations, I can now pass on what I have learned. It won't help me, of course, but it may allow others to see what is coming.
FUD Primer
1. Gain a position of authority.
It can be as spurious as you like, but must allow you to humiliate and/or harrass those "beneath" you, without fear of censure.

2. Find a suitable target (or targets, if you have plenty of experience)
Desirable characteristics are an eagerness to contribute, a strong work ethic, and high levels of energy. Such people are easily ridiculed as "needy" - which starts the undermining process.

3. Fear is the Key
Start by demonstrating your "power" in as many subtle ways as you can manage. Ideally, these should be directed at your target in such a way that they completely understand that you hold all the cards.

4. Introduce Uncertainty
Once you have made your target sufficiently apprehensive, you and your colleagues can bombard them with contradictory instructions. If you have made them anxious enough, this will create the pleasing effect of complete confusion, as they will not know which way to jump without landing in trouble. Your work is nearly done.

5. Doubt and Despair
Your victim will be unable to juggle all the conflicting information they receive, and they will inevitably drop one of the balls. This is your cue to act in a suitably decisive manner, humiliating the target in a way that serves as a warning to others.

6. Follow through
It is essential to maintain complete solidarity with your colleagues after such a campaign, in case of tiresome repercussions or even a challenge to your authority. Such insubordination can usually be overcome by subtle harassment and warnings about further punitive actions.

Anti-FUD Tactics
1. Be Brave
Remember what your mother told you about sticks and stones? This stuff hurts, but it does not actually injure you.

2. Retain Your Values
Nobody can take these away from you. These people can ridicule and criticise as much as they like, but only you can revise your ideals.

3. Use Humour
A sense of humour is rare among those who rely on FUD to achieve their goals or justify their positions, so this can be a powerful defence. It could well be seen as insubordination, and punished as such, but a cheery smile can be an unnerving response, and it will make you feel better.

4. Learn to Cope

nil desperandum illegitimi carborundum

July 07, 2010

DMOZ Editor Corruption Shock (3)

I thought I made my point clearly enough the first time I wrote about the relentless campaign of vague, repetitive and unsubstantiated accusations thrown at volunteer editors in the Open Directory Project.

Unfortunately, subsequent insulting comments to this blog showed that those making the allegations had not even read that post, or had missed its message completely. So I tried again, pointing out the obvious flaws in their copycat claims. Sadly, this was equally ineffective, and I continue to receive (and read elsewhere) the same tiresome arguments and insults. I will present one such email later in this post.

But first I'll present the facts again, very simply and in large friendly letters this time.

1. It is always free to suggest a site to ODP/DMOZ ... why pay?
2. DMOZ is not a listing service. Suggested sites are just one of many resources for volunteer editors, who are the only people who can list sites in the directory.
3. Nobody can "get" a site listed, no matter what they might promise hopeful webmasters.
4. Anybody can easily check such claims: is the person named as an editor in that DMOZ category or anywhere else?
  • If not, they simply cannot do what they promise.
  • If they are listed as an editor, then they already know that requesting or accepting any form of payment will lead to permanent closure of their account. Besides, sites which are the subject of editor bribes (and even attempted bribes) are permanently banned.
Yes, that's right, the sites are permanently banned - even if they are involved in just an offer to pay.

But you don't have to take my word for this. See if you can find any DMOZ listings which have resulted from the thousands of payment offers made on various freelancer sites and webmaster forums.
  • If you do find such a listing, you know where to report it. (Of course if you believe that the entire worldwide volunteer community is engaged in a colossal cover-up over a single site, there's not much point in any discussion.)
  • If you don't find any such listings, then obviously these ineffectual offers don't "prove" editorial abuse. All they "prove" is that many people don't listen.
As promised, here's part of a typical email I received a few weeks ago, (as usual from "Anonymous"):
"The abuse is real, and it is endemic, and yes it has been going on for years. And I myself has (sic) used the 'report abuse' several times but the email goes into a black hole and you hear nothing further about it. Your arguments about the difficulties of sustaining such corruption are absurd. As soon as a whole bureaucratic structure gets sufficiently corrupted, you think a report to the supervisor is going to fix things? And the charges people are making are far from vague as you claim. Just read the talk: http://www ......."
Let's examine the assertions one at a time.
"The abuse is real, and it is endemic, and yes it has been going on for years."
Three confident statements of "fact", based on who-knows-what invention, supposition, misunderstanding or other faulty logic. We'll never know, because like his fellow campaigners, he doesn't bother to justify his assertion.
I could just as confidently say "The writer of the above letter is almost comically short, with terrible skin and a tendency to waddle."

"And I myself has used the 'report abuse' several times but the email goes into a black hole and you hear nothing further about it."
That dramatic "black hole" is yet another invention, based solely on the fact that he did not receive a reply. Apparently he didn't bother to read the Abuse Reporting FAQ, so I'll quote the relevant part of it here:
"Note: Even if you provide an e-mail address you will not be sent any information: on the report's status or otherwise."
Naturally a reporter may wish to know that his report has been received, so there is a simple way of checking the status. It's described very clearly on the form, but presumably "Anonymous" did not read that bit either.

"Your arguments about the difficulties of sustaining such corruption are absurd."
He is entitled to that assessment, of course, but without justification or explanation it carries no more weight than if I said "And you can't even write properly, so there."
Gratuitous insults do not form an argument.

"As soon as a whole bureaucratic structure gets sufficiently corrupted, you think a report to the supervisor is going to fix things?"
This is unrelated to DMOZ, because there is not "a supervisor", and so the analogy is meaningless.
Abuse reports are read by any number of the most experienced and trusted volunteers, and every genuine report is then appropriately investigated, also by any number of them. [See my earlier comment about irrational conspiracy theories which seek to implicate a huge worldwide community.]

And so we come to his closing argument, which I addressed in the first half of this post.
"And the charges people are making are far from vague as you claim.
Just read the talk: http://www .......".
One last time: the only "proof" of this type of editorial abuse is to show that a specific DMOZ listing has resulted from a specific editor accepting or requesting payment.

Along with other forms of editorial abuse, such actions have never been tolerated, as many removed editors can confirm.

June 19, 2010

Life is Like a Pickle Jar

An uncharacteristically short post today, and possibly a little corny, but I'll put two cartoons at the end to make it worth your while stopping by.

I've had a pretty rough couple of months, one way and another, with my health, enthusiasm, self-worth and energy taking a beating in a number of areas in my life, all at the same time. So when this parable was related to me by a colleague who has experienced more than his own share of setbacks, it certainly struck a chord. Apparently it is known as "The Pickle Jar Theory of Time Management", but I think it has a wider application in terms of keeping balance in life, and "not sweating the small stuff" (another useful cliche).

Here's how it was explained to me:
A teacher places a large empty pickle jar on his desk at the front of the class, and puts in as many rocks as he can.
He asks the class if the jar is full, and of course they reply that it is.
He then picks up several handfuls of pebbles and adds as many as he can to the jar. The class again agrees that the jar is now full.
Next, he pours in some sand. Quite a lot of sand, in fact, until it reaches the top of the jar. "Is it full now?" "Yes!!"
But no, because he picks up a big jug of water and proceeds to empty it into the jar.

I'm sure you get the point: make room for the big things in life first (health, happiness, family, friends etc). Less important things will just have to fit around them, and if there ends up being enough room for some of the really unimportant stuff, fair enough.

But if you start with the sand, there simply won't be room for all those rocks.

And now those cartoons I promised, either or both of which may or may not apply to me.

June 09, 2010

Leadership, Loutism or Blatant Bullying? (2)

When I discussed this issue 3 months ago, I was speaking more or less in the abstract, because it is a subject about which I feel very strongly, and a behaviour I witness far too frequently, in all its many forms.

However, since writing that post, I have unexpectedly found myself in the position of victim, whereas I have always considered myself strong enough to withstand and even expose this sort of unacceptable behaviour.
But as I wrote:

In such situations we all have a responsibility to stand up to bullies and those who similarly misuse their authority. If someone stands alone they are likely to be harassed, ridiculed, or even dismissed from the organisation.

Unfortunately I seem to have an unerring instinct for undertaking battles I can't possibly win, usually on behalf of people less foolhardy than myself. In popular mythology it is frequently possible to defeat overwhelming odds, but the reality is more prosaic, and Goliath usually wins.

Nobody likes to lose - it is always unpleasant and frequently humiliating, but when the winner is a bully and a person in authority, there is a shameful tendency for them to continue kicking the person who is down, knowing there is nobody who can stop them. It's hard to believe that they derive any pleasure or satisfaction from this (although anything is possible), so this post-victory intimidation is presumably in order to make it even more clear to everyone that any similar opposition would be very ill-advised, and the consequences deeply unpleasant.

Unfortunately for me, such a reprehensible misuse of power makes me even more determined to fight back, even if Resistance is Futile.

May 20, 2010

DMOZ/ODP - finally FUBAR?

a) DMOZ/ODP is the Open Directory Project

b) FUBAR is only one small step from SNAFU
A representation of a) and b) -->

To quote from my gloomy post of almost a year ago,
"DMOZ/ODP ... fills all the criteria for a fertile SNAFU breeding ground: Communication between [editors and management] is sporadic, and rife with misunderstandings due to the very different priorities involved. Every now and then a brave editor will try to point out some of the more damaging "foul-ups", but such impertinence is poorly received, and no changes ever result, despite a bewildering procession of New Staff Members who arrive with great fanfare, announce all sorts of improvements, and then vanish without a trace.
SNAFU, for sure, but at least it keeps going. I only hope it doesn't decline further into FUBAR
You be the judge ...
  • At the end of 2006, there was a major server malfunction at AOL (owner and operator of the project), and DMOZ suddenly vanished from view. It was offline for more than 2 months, but during that whole time, despite many many requests for information, thousands of volunteers (not to mention countless users) were left in the dark about the reasons and/or progress in repairing the problem.
  • When the server was finally fixed and the directory became functional again, it transpired that AOL had inadvertently destroyed or lost many of the backup files, meaning that tens of thousands of hours of volunteer work was lost forever. Heroic efforts by a couple of high-level editors resulted in a small fraction of the material being retrieved, but the effects of the missing data are felt every day, even now.
  • As if that were not bad enough, many of the internal functions and editor tools were broken in the Crash, making things much harder and more time-consuming for the volunteer editors. In fact, lots of basic features and tools are still broken, more than 3 years later, despite extensive and almost continuous bug reporting by volunteers to paid ODP staff and AOL technicians.
  • In addition to the persisting post-Crash problems, hardly a month passes without something else going missing, or failing to work properly, but the answer from AOL is always "We are working hard on DMOZ 2.0, so we can't spend time or resources on DMOZ 1.0."
  • Three years ago that seemed a reasonable allocation of priorities, but see "DMOZ 2.0 - Nirvana or Neverland?" and "ODP/DMOZ: Plus ├ža change" for how thin this excuse has become.
So, what has been the reaction of the international community of volunteer editors to all this?

Many, of course, lost interest during the Crash, and left the project forever.
Others remained, but with greatly reduced activity, preferring to spend more of their hobby time on something less precarious.
Some tried nobly to regain their previous productivity, but then drifted away over the next year or two as a result of the ongoing bugs, data loss, and general decline in community morale.

This leaves very few active and experienced editors to continue building the directory, to assist newer editors, propose and implement improvements, undertake quality control, and perform all the other tasks once shared between a much larger and more enthusiastic community.

But it's not just a matter of numbers.

The apparent disinterest of AOL and paid ODP staff, the lack of effective leadership, the continuing bugs and frequent server slowdowns, and the relentless accusations and complaints directed at volunteers ... is it any wonder that the editorial community has lost the sense of companionable enthusiasm and dedication it once had?
Not to mention the unfortunate tendency of some people in positions of power to react badly to any perceived criticism or disagreement from those they are supposed to be leading and encouraging.

It is so sad that something which has such tremendous potential seems to be falling victim to so many fixable problems.

Update 12 June 2010
A major part of the editor interface has been broken for over a week now, with many tools completely out of action, along with what anyone might consider to be essential user features such as the ability to report editorial abuse.
An all-too familiar situation for those editors who have not lost all patience with these breakdowns and moved on to less frustrating hobbies.

April 24, 2010

ODP/DMOZ and NDU: Goliaths 2, David 0

In common with other conscientious people, I always try to fulfil my responsibilities to the people I serve. The trouble is that these people are almost never the ones who have been put in charge. This leads to constant battles with "management" as I try to represent the interests of the people I believe I actually work for.
In the case of the Open Directory Project, my efforts have always been for the benefit of fellow volunteer editors and the average web surfer, and at Notre Dame University, my sole motivation is to provide the medical students with the best education possible.

Unfortunately these goals, simple though the y are, frequently run aground on the treacherous sandbanks of bureaucracy and self-interest which characterise the management of most large organisations.

This has happened twice in the last 2 weeks, and in both cases I have had to concede defeat ... for now. I have been variously ignored, ridiculed, and (in the case of ODP/DMOZ) comprehensively stomped on for my impertinence in insisting that those in management positions actually, you know, do something useful to help their organisations.

Unfortunately, when my wounds have healed, I will no doubt take up the battle again, because I simply cannot accept that people with so little respect or consideration for those "beneath" them are entitled to the benefits and privileges of their positions, without being called to account.

One closing comment: while it is heartening to receive a lot of private support from friends and colleagues who have similar concerns about mismanagement, it is somewhat disheartening that they are not prepared to speak up.
That hurts a bit, but it's completely understandable, of course, when they can see the consequences of doing so!

However, I hereby publicly salute two of those friends and colleagues who were bravely conscientious enough to make a stand.
Jim and Keith, you have long been heroes of mine for your aptitude, dedication, honesty and steadfastness.

In these opinions, if no others, I was absolutely correct.

April 17, 2010

ODP/DMOZ: Down the Rabbit-Hole (2)

In my last post I referred to the recent increase in unpleasant attention from some of the volunteer administrators who are supposed to lead the editorial community.
I also mentioned that I lived in daily expectation that they would eventually tire of my determination to reserve my genuine respect for those who actually earn it. I was right to fear the effects of their hurt feelings.

I have been very productive as a high level volunteer, and I have never used my position to abuse the directory in any way, so it is with great sadness (but little surprise) to find those high permissions have been peremptorily revoked. I am still an editor, because of course there is no justification for removing my editor account completely. I have broken no guidelines (except the unwritten ones about showing unquestioning "respect" for one's "superiors", whether they earn it or not), but it is a disappointing use of their power to exact such a harsh punishment on someone who has done nothing more than question the value of their positions.

As I wrote last time:
"... it is sad that dedicated volunteers receive almost no encouragement or support from directory management, who nevertheless feel they are entitled to be respected, solely as a result of their elevated position, even if their own contributions are negligible."
Their heavy-handed over-reaction is particularly ironic, because I have spent most of my editing time in the last couple of years identifying and investigating editors who are being dishonest, self-interested, and in other ways abusing the directory and undermining its integrity. In many cases the Admins have supported those editors and refused to close their accounts or reduce their permissions, so we now have the farcical situation where many abusive editors are free to damage the directory, whereas honest and productive ones are driven away.

A topsy-turvy "Wonderland" indeed.

April 03, 2010

ODP/DMOZ: Down the Rabbit-Hole

The title refers to the first chapter of "Alice in Wonderland", because for many people the Open Directory Project seems to be an illogical, upside-down world, full of confusing inconsistencies and bewildering rules.

Sometimes this is due to a simple misunderstanding of the nature of the directory itself, but unfortunately some of the difficulty is due to more fundamental problems.

The concept of DMOZ is very simple: an international community of volunteers finds and sorts worthwhile sites into an organised collection which is made freely available to everyone, so that web surfers can more easily find what they are looking for.

Unfortunately, that single paragraph mentions most of the problems.

1. "Community of volunteers"
I have written at length on the subject of attracting more people to help build the directory, and I have even provided a detailed guide to completing a successful application. My own contributions as a volunteer have continued to mount up since I recorded them here 2 years ago, and I take pride in having added almost 30,000 sites to the directory. As a meta editor, I've accepted over 340 new editors and restored the accounts of more than 1200 others who wished to return to editing after some time away.

Such contributions are by no means unique or even noteworthy, but it is sad that dedicated volunteers receive almost no encouragement or support from directory management, who nevertheless feel they are entitled to be respected, solely as a result of their elevated position, even if their own contributions are negligible.

Unfortunately, I am once again suffering the same relentlessly negative attention from "above" to which I have previously referred, but I will say no more about that, because I do not want to hear the famous cry of Alice in Wonderland's Red Queen!
2. "Finds"
Volunteer editors look for sites wherever they can, both on the internet and in the "real world". One place they may choose to look is the pool of websites suggested by other people, but this is seldom a fruitful source.
Hence the most commonly heard question about the directory: "I suggested my site to DMOZ/ODP ages ago, so why isn't it listed yet?".

3. "Worthwhile sites"
The criteria for inclusion are available for everyone to read, but that doesn't stop many webmasters from trying to get completely worthless sites into the directory. Dealing with the endless suggestions from spammers wastes the time of volunteers who could otherwise be building the directory with useful sites.

4. "Freely available"
There is never any charge for using the directory (despite idiotic "corruption" rumours).
AOL supplies the technology involved in keeping it running, but resources are naturally limited for something which makes no money, so any necessary repairs, maintenance or improvements happen very slowly indeed, if at all. For example, the AOL Server Crash of late 2006 took the directory entirely off-line for two months. Much of the lost data was never recovered, and many of the resulting bugs are still there three years later.

This is extremely frustrating for the volunteers who work on the directory, but there is nothing they can do except wait for the long-promised DMOZ 2.0.

5. "Web surfers"
Unfortunately many webmasters and marketing agents want to believe that DMOZ is a free listing service to assist with site promotion, but it isn't, and never has been. The directory exists simply to help internet users find information, answers, products, services, ideas, or anything else they wish.

If there is such a thing as an "average" web surfer, that's who the volunteer editors are working for. :-)

March 19, 2010

Selective Listening: A DMOZ case study

Why are those most in need of constructive advice the least likely to listen to it? [Rhetorical]

This phenomenon is not confined to DMOZ management, of course (although that is a great place to start). The same principle applies to any situation where someone's high opinion of themselves exceeds their capabilities.

The Open Directory Project has recently been granted the dubious benefit of a third group of volunteer administrators (NB that page is seriously outdated, by many years!), the first and second groups having mostly mysteriously disappeared.

Due to self-imposed (and self-protective) restrictions, I am unaware of the details of these new promotions, and of the reactions of the volunteer community, but I can guess. The appointments are likely to be as inexplicable and idiosyncratic as previously, with scant regard for the needs and concerns of those volunteers who do the actual work.
This is particularly unfortunate for those landed with the role, as they almost certainly believe they can effect the necessary changes.

Sadly, this is patently impossible, but we do wish them well.
It is needed.

March 13, 2010

Leadership, Loutism or Blatant Bullying?

Leadership: inspiring others in "the accomplishment of a common task"

Loutism: acting like a lout - "awkward, stupid, and boorish"

Bullying: being "habitually overbearing and intimidating"
It is a short step from loutism to bullying, because both groups have no respect at all for others, and a very high sense of their own importance. The lout acts in a selfish, non-personal way (like yelling obscenities or spraying graffiti), but I have a particular disdain for people who feel the need to boost their self-image through the repeated use of threats and intimidation against other individuals.
However, when such tactics are used by those already in positions of authority it is not only unacceptable but a complete misuse of their position, and brings the whole management/leadership process into disrepute.
  • Surely the fact that they have "power" over others would be enough to satisfy their need to feel more important and influential? Why on earth would they need to threaten and belittle their subordinates?
  • Their role is to manage, lead, direct, encourage, or otherwise exert their authority for the benefit of the organisation or community.
  • If there is a need for discipline, they are expected to carry this out in a firm but respectful manner, and only in the interests of the community or organisation as a whole.
  • Personal piques and prejudices are completely unacceptable reasons for unfair treatment of those "below" them.

Such behaviour is seen everywhere of course, with petty-minded, disturbed or ignorant people being ill-advisedly placed in positions of authority, where lack of supervision and monitoring allows them to indulge their greed for power over others. Prisons, detention centres, police forces, armies, schools, business corporations, nursing homes ... the scope for such people is depressingly wide.

All civilised people deplore such behaviour, of course, but most of us see it every day without doing anything about it. Sometimes a bullying culture is so ingrained that it is seen as normal, or perhaps even justified, as in the case of prisons, the army or even big business. It is much harder to excuse the situation in schools, hospitals, and other organisations where the primary goal is not punishment, discipline or profit.

In such situations we all have a responsibility to stand up to bullies and those who similarly misuse their authority. If someone stands alone they are likely to be harassed, ridiculed, or even dismissed from the organisation. Not an appealing prospect for even the bravest souls. But if everyone makes it clear that those in charge are expected to behave in a fair and respectful manner, without resorting to personal attacks, threats and intimidation, then there is a far better chance that message will get through.
Remember: bullies are simply insecure cowards who lack the talents and personality to succeed on their own, and therefore have to put others down in order to raise themselves up.

March 09, 2010

DMOZ 2.0 - Nirvana or Neverland?

As the Open Directory Project continues its stately pace into the Shiny! New! future, the volunteer editor community is receiving more frequent reminders of the wonders that await us. Well, only in the most general of terms, of course, but still, interesting times are apparently just ahead.

These changes (we cannot call them "improvements" as we don't know what they are) have been promised "soon" for the last 3 years, usually when volunteer editors have reported (and often re-reported) problems arising from the Great AOL Server Crash of 2006. As I commented last year, in the absence of any details, or in fact any noticeable staff activity at all, it has been impossible for editors to maintain the sense of keen anticipation that seemed to be expected of us.

However, it looks as if progress might be accelerating from its customary glacial speed. After several years with an increasingly absent management team, there seems to be a flutter of renewed activity at the top, which we all hope is a Good Thing. The involvement of volunteer administrators has fallen steadily ever since that management position was created, in spite of a subsequent boost in their numbers.
A year ago, when I lamented their continued disappearance, I drew the inevitable conclusion that the position must be one which de-motivates and un-inspires any individual who holds it. However, some volunteers apparently still hanker after membership of what a fellow editor irreverently calls "The Platinum Lounge", so here's hoping that any new appointees are able to make use of their increased permissions and authority to actually lead the volunteer community and inspire editors with renewed enthusiasm for the directory.

Otherwise, the so-long-promised DMOZ 2.0 will be nothing more than window-dressing on an empty house, or to use a more alarmist cliche ...

February 15, 2010

... like a fish needs a bicycle.

The title refers of course to the well-worn phrase (incorrectly attributed to Gloria Steinem) that "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." However, my use of it here is prompted not by feminist irony but by nostalgia.
I have recently returned from a month spent house-sitting for friends on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, which also happens to be where I grew up. During that month I re-discovered my love of a daily swim in the sea, and also the appeal of being able to cycle in safety on dedicated paths. (See the fish/bicycle connection? Yes, it's a bit tenuous I admit, but at least I explained it fairly early on so you didn't have to read too far.)

Since I left the coast at the age of 15, I've always lived at least an hour's drive from the beach, sometimes many more, and although I've been back to that area almost every year, it has never been for more than a few days at a time, so this was a very different experience.
It was a completely forgotten delight to be able to "pop down to the beach for a quick dip" at least twice every day, without the tiresome logistics involved in having to drive all the way across the city as I do here in WA.
Several times a week I combined the two pleasures by cycling to the beach (a pleasantly flat 10km), enjoying the surf for an hour or so, and then cycling home again.

And provided I was early enough to beat the holiday-makers, here's what I found each morning - what a treat!

In fact, I was totally unprepared for the overwhelming sensation that I was back where I belonged, and the famous poem by John Masefield keeps haunting me:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

I'm certainly not planning to set sail anywhere, but I do think it's time I made my home by the sea again.


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