Why is Wikipedia Down?

If you're in the US you speak English and you visit Wikipedia today, you'll see a glimpse of the page you were trying to access, then you'll see the blackout message above. You'll see similar messages from Google, Reddit, and others. Why? Although each of these sites does a good job of explaining its position, here's a rundown of the issues involved in today's shutdown.

An Extremely Brief History Lesson

In 1998, the US Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a bill that, among other things, created a simple system by which copyright owners could request that infringing content be removed from websites hosted in the US. In short, the copyright owner tells the website, "I own this video/photo/song and you have to remove it, or I'll sue you." Then it gets removed, or they go to court. Have you ever seen a YouTube video that's replaced with the red sad-face? That's a DMCA takedown. This system has worked reasonably well for the past decade and a half, although there have been abuses -- sometimes copyright owners request removal of content they don't actually own. But in general, the DMCA has become accepted in the tech community as a reasonable part of doing business online.

The Bills

The DMCA is not enough for some copyright holders, partly because it only applies to US-hosted websites. Citing questionable statistics about the impact of piracy, the Motion Picture Association of America, the US Chamber of Commerce, and others demanded more. That's how we get to the anti-piracy bills currently under consideration.

Two bills are currently being debated in the US Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. Both were written to curtail online piracy of copyrighted content like movies and music; major backers of the bills include a laundry list of media companies -- in broad strokes, this is record labels and movie studios, though a few tech companies (most infamously GoDaddy) also support the bills. The bills are also heavily supported by the bipartisan committees considering them, although President Obama is against them.

Why today? There were supposed to be hearings on Capitol Hill today about SOPA. The various tech companies involved in today's protest timed their blackout to coincide with the hearings, to draw attention to them. But then the hearings were postponed...and the blackout continued anyway. Here's a snippet from a recent Ars Technica article:

Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a SOPA opponent, announced Saturday that he is postponing hearings on SOPA's DNS provisions that had been slated for Wednesday, January 18 before his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"While I remain concerned about Senate action on the Protect IP Act, I am confident that flawed legislation will not be taken up by this House," Issa said. "Majority Leader Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote."

The net effect of this (likely as Issa intended) is even more attention to the issue, plus time for citizens to become aware of the issues and pressure their Congressional representatives. Indeed, Google and others are hosting petitions and encouraging US citizens to make a fuss.

What's the Problem? Piracy is Bad, Right?

The bills have unintended consequences far beyond stopping piracy -- at least, that's what the opposition says. The main objection is that the bills use a very blunt approach to "stopping piracy," which can be summarized as "breaking the internet" by blocking DNS access to domain names with any infringing content. What Wikipedia is saying (and for the record, I agree with them) is that the entire Wikipedia domain would be blocked for everyone, every time a piece of infringing content was found, under the provisions of SOPA -- and because anyone can post anything to Wikipedia, this could happen a lot. Wikipedia could also be prevented from receiving credit card payments -- which is actually important, because Wikipedia is funded by donations. This is a far cry from today's DMCA regime, where the actual infringing content is removed or a court case occurs, rather than blocking the entire website.

There are many excellent metaphors out there to describe what's wrong with the legislation's proposed techniques, but one written up by commenter TechBear on The Stranger's Blog is particularly easy to follow: "A friend of mine described the draconian measures to shut down internet providers as 'cracking down on mail fraud by arresting postal carriers.'" Indeed, DNS servers are like the mail carriers of the internet.

The other existential objection to SOPA/PIPA is the notion that it will quell new innovation online. In a SOPA/PIPA world, every new web service that allows users to post anything would have to live under constant threat of a shutdown. The logical outcome is you wouldn't build new stuff that let people post anything. If entrepreneurs are afraid to build new online services, our economy and our culture would be under threat.

Opponents of SOPA/PIPA tend to agree that piracy is bad. But they're saying these bills are the wrong way to stop piracy. In other words, stop the people committing mail fraud -- not the mail carriers. This video is a pretty good explanation of the situation:

What Do Supporters Say?

I know this is utterly reductionist, but the gist of it is "Nuh-uh." To be a little more fair, proponents of the bill (there are many in Congress and in industry -- and it's a very bipartisan group) say that they're trying to protect jobs and the economy. They suggest that piracy costs jobs, hurting the economy, and we must do something to stop it -- and specifically SOPA/PIPA is necessary to target not just domestic pirates, but international sites as well (this is code for "The Pirate Bay").

The New York Times ran this quote today:

“The bill will not harm Wikipedia, domestic blogs or social network sites,” said Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas and a primary sponsor of the House bill.

Oh. I suppose Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, et al are all wrong about the effects of this legislation on their businesses.

What Happens Next?

We wait for a vote. Today, there are at least two Wikipedia pages that are still up -- those on SOPA and PIPA. Many opponents of SOPA/PIPA are promoting the OPEN Act instead. A list of striking sites is available from SOPA Strike. Read up on some more media coverage of the issue from The Week, or read my previous article on this stuff, What’s Wrong With PROTECT IP and SOPA?

Update, 20 January 2012: Just two days after the blackout protest, SOPA has been yanked and the PIPA vote has been postponed.

job secrets
10 Secrets of Hotel Room Service

Guests visiting New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1930s enjoyed an amenity that was unheard of at the time: waiters delivering meals directly to their rooms. While the Astoria’s reputation for luxury has endured, room service is no longer exclusive to five-star stays. Roughly 22 percent of the country’s 54,000 hotels [PDF] are willing and able to bring breakfast, lunch, or dinner to people who prefer to eat while splayed out on a large and strange bed.

To get the scoop on what goes into getting food from the kitchen to your floor, Mental Floss spoke with Matt, a hospitality specialist who spent a total of 10 years working in and around room service for a major San Francisco hotel. Matt preferred not to use his last name; since his stories sometimes involved naked people, undercooked chicken, and Oprah, you can understand why. Below, check out a few things you should know before you dig into that tray.


When a room service delivery employee takes a tray from the kitchen to your room, it’s typically covered in a metal lid to retain heat and to prevent other guests from sneezing on it. The higher up you are, the longer it has to travel—and the more that lid traps steam, soaking your food in moisture. “Food sweats in there,” Matt says. “Instead of having crispy, toasted bread, you get wet toast. The longer it stays in there, the worse it gets.” If you want crunchy fries, you’d better be on the first couple of floors.


A seafood dinner is presented on a plate

That lid is a nuisance in other ways. Because it traps heat, it’s effectively cooking your food in the time it takes to get from the chef’s hands to yours. “If you order a steak medium, it will probably be medium well by the time it gets to you,” Matt says. While you can try to outsmart the lid by requesting meat be cooked a notch lower than your preference, it's not so easy to avoid overcooked fish—which will probably also stink up your room. Instead, stick with burgers, club sandwiches, or salads. According to Matt, it’s hard to mess any of them up.


Just because you see a menu in your room, it doesn’t mean the hotel has a kitchen or chef on-site. To cut costs, more hotels are opting to out-source their room service to local eateries. “It might be ‘presented’ by the hotel, but it’s from a restaurant down the street,” Matt says. Alternately, hotels might try to save money by eliminating an overnight chef and having food pre-prepped so a desk clerk or other employee can just heat it up. That’s more likely if sandwiches or salads are the only thing available after certain hours.


Two coffee cups sit on a hotel bed

No, not for the reason you’re thinking. Because so many hotel guests are business travelers who are away from home for weeks or months at a time, some of them get tired of eating alone. When that happens, they turn to the first—and maybe only—person who could offer company: the room service waiter. “People are usually traveling alone, so they’ll offer you food,” Matt explains. Sometimes the traveler is a familiar face: According to Matt, he once sat down to eat with Oprah Winfrey, who was eating by herself despite her suite being filled with her own employees. He also says he had a bite with John F. Kennedy Junior, who wanted to finish watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High before heading for his limo.


Busy hotel kitchens aren’t always paying attention to whether the chicken wings they buy in bulk are frozen raw, frozen cooked, or somewhere in between. “Ask for them extra crispy,” Matt says. That way, they’ll be cooked thoroughly regardless of their freezer status. “I recommend that to everyone.”


A hotel guest pours milk into a bowl of cereal

Breakfast is undoubtedly the busiest time for room service, and those little cards that allow you to check off your menu items the night before are a huge help. “It’s great for everybody involved,” Matt says. “The kitchen can pace themselves and you can get your food on time.”


Yes, guests answer the door barely clothed. No, this is not optimal. “We don’t want to see it,” Matt says. “It's something we dealt with numerous times.” While it's likely your waiter will use discretion, any combination of genitalia, drugs, or illicit activity is best kept out of their sight.


A hotel room service tray sits in a hallway

That move where you stick your soggy fries outside your door? It can lead to some awkward encounters. Matt says he’s seen other guests stop, examine trays, and then pick up discarded food from them. Other times, people leave unimaginably gross items on the trays. “I’ve found condoms on there. Divorce paperwork. All kinds of things.”


Weird people aside, “We don’t really want it out there,” Matt says. “It stinks.” Instead, dial 0 for the front desk and let them know you’re done eating. They’ll dispatch someone to come and get it.


A tip is placed near a hotel check

People pay out the nose for room service, with hotels adding surcharges for “service” and “in-room” dining that can turn a $5 club sandwich into a $15 expense. That’s not great news for guests, but it does mean you don’t need to feel bad about not offering a cash tip. Those service fees usually go straight to the employees who got your food to your room. “I never tip,” Matt says. “Most of the time, the service and delivery charges are given to the waiter or split between the people who answered the phone and pick up the tray. It’s better to leave it all on paper to make sure it gets divided up.”

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.


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