I submit to you five of my favorite things about the Internet, and encourage you to feel free to add your own in the comments:
- The Blogosphere
Yeah, the term is cliché now, and then some. I know. It’s a mot d’habitude, much like that French term I basically just made up to mean “a word of convenience.” Not bad, eh? NOT BAD, EH?
To me, blogging represents the sociological nuts and bolts of the Internet, if you will. We’ve had enough of epoch after epoch of ‘centralized capital-intensive source projecting outwards to the masses’ communications models, and the Internet, if it is to be anything at all, ought to serve primarily as a means for user-generated content to flourish.
This is why I rejoice that, if the Internet is going to be used as a vehicle for pornography, at least there are now sites where users can upload their homebrew. It’s a crass thing to say, I know, and therefore *incredibly* unlike me, but you get my drift.
Blogs out there really run the gamut. Here’s another cliché for you: there as many different kinds of x out there as there are y who z them, where x = blogs, y = bloggers, and z = post. Some of them are great for entertainment purely by virtue of the excellent writing and/or the zany subject matter; some are incredibly informative and thought-provoking. And, sure, a lot of them are crappy, but who defines ‘crappy’ these days, anyway? The important thing is that blogging at its best promotes literacy, creativity, and communication, and is not a Barnes & Noble.
StumbleUpon is my favorite browser plug-in of all time, ever, amen. I can’t say it has done very much for my insomnia, but it has contributed smartly in some way to practically every other area of my life. StumbleUpon provides a randomized browsing experience that you can tailor to your interests, and which is regulated by a user ratings system to which you constantly contribute through your Stumbling. It also functions as a social networking/bookmarking platform where users can review websites and set up groups to share links, among other things.
When you know exactly what you want and you want it right by-God now, use a search engine. When you’re ready to come down off your high horse and have some fun, try StumbleUpon. It will change your browsing forever, especially if alcohol is somehow involved. Either way.
Wikipedia gets a lot of bad rap in academia, and that’s an understatement. It didn’t exist back when I was in high school and when I went through college the first time (I feel old now), but in the past few years I’ve sat in front of at least a couple dozen different professors and only one of them has made positive statements about Wikipedia to the class. “It’s so dangerous.” “It’s not reliable.” “It’s not peer-reviewed.” “Anyone can edit it.” To contrarian interpolations such as these, I find it most effective to reply:
Fortunately, people have sensors called eyes that, in healthy specimens, are connected to computers known as brains. Working together, these tools can determine how well-cited a given Wikipedia article is, and whether or not it makes outlandish claims like “Columbus made landfall in the West Indies in 1942” or contains bizarre statements such as “SASSAFRASS420 IS AWESUM.” When these assessments are conscientiously carried out before citing Wikipedia as a source, good things occur.
I remember how excited I was as a kid to get my first PC with a CD-ROM drive. Know why I was stoked about it? Because the first CD my dad brought home with it was Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. I could never have dreamed that there would one day be something called the Internet and that it would contain a much, much larger encyclopedia full of user-generated content to which I–little old me–could responsibly contribute through copyediting and content editing in my areas of expertise. It is a stunning resource of unprecedented breadth and depth which is accessible worldwide for free. ‘Nuff said.
I’m also partial to Wikipedia because founder Jimmy Wales is from my hometown of Huntsville, AL.
Did I mention most of those professors were really old and probably not a little pissed off that Wikipedia wasn’t around for their undergraduate research?
I have to throw this one in there for my fellow musicians. IMSLP stands for the International Music Score Library Project, an astounding compilation of scanned, PDF-ified public domain editions of classical (and other) music scores. In this sense, it is an analogue of the literary-minded Project Gutenberg. As a piano performance student, I can go online and, free of charge, obtain perfectly sound editions of works from the (roughly) pre-1920 literature, and the collection–which also includes orchestral scores, operas, you name it–is vociferously expanding as we speak. As should have been expected, IMSLP has had to deal with its share of flak from music publishers . . . like, say, Universal Edition. As a result, the project was offline from late October 2007 through June of 2008, but has been faring much better since.
The amount of money I could have saved on sheet music in my younger years is . . . not something I’m going to think about right now. Suffice it to say, the folks who do document processing and general maintenance for IMSLP can redeem this empty promise for a free foot rub from me–any old time.
I know, I know . . . some of youse guys may be hatin’ on me for this one. I am about as far from a consumerist as one could get without being absolutely frickin’ ascetic, but there is something way cool about eBay. Going once . . . going twice . . . SOLD! A perfectly good pedicurist wall clock for US$17.99!
eBay is not something I use a lot, but I have, in the past, conducted fairly major transactions through the service as both buyer and seller. My mom trades crystal dinnerware and other collectibles through eBay and actually manages to turn quite the profit through her dealings.
In them fancy city places, they’s even got eBay stores!
Like liquor, mascara, hot sauce, electric fences, and guaranteed blockbuster comic book-themed film sequels, eBay is subject to user-end error of the obsessive variety. Too much of a good thing is not always wonderful. But even if you haven’t a penny to spend, it can be mighty fun to see just who’s trying to rip the world off over what lamentable piece of junk under the auspices of the world’s largest virtual flea market.
We can only guess what the future holds for Al Gore’s brainchild. Given what I guessed twenty years ago that computers would be used for in the future–like doing my algebra homework for me–I feel sorely unqualified to speculate. I suppose we’ll just StumbleUpon it as it comes our way.
NOT BAD, EH?
For eight years, Eric Ramsay has been ‘locked in.’ Since a terrible car crash, Ramsay has been conscious but almost completely paralyzed and unable to communicate with the world around him except through eye movements.
But neuroscientists from Boston University, according to Communist Robot, have implanted an electrode in Ramsay’s brain which, they say, currently allows them to correctly record the sounds Ramsay is imagining about 80% of the time. That is, the patient merely thinks the words he would like to say, and the electrochemical signals recorded by the device are interpreted by the researchers. The implant monitors the activity of about 41 neurons located in an area of the brain which is responsible for generating speech (perhaps Broca’s area? Just an editorial guess).
Soon, the electrode will output to a computer which will play the interpreted sounds back to Ramsay in real time, allowing him to more precisely calibrate the device to the speech he is imagining.
Over ten years ago, Mitchel Resnick and Brian Silverman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with an interesting software demonstration of the phenomenon of emergence. Emergence is loosely defined as the appearance of complex architecture or behavior that follows from simple rules, and is a cornerstone of most conceptions of biological evolution. Evolutionists believe that the preponderance of evidence suggests the sufficiency of emergence as a driver for adaptation, that no appeal to a ‘watchmaker’ of super-humanesque intelligence is necessary.
In their demonstration, Resnick and Silverman work with a black, two-dimensional plane composed of small squares which can ‘turn on’ (turn white) according to the action of a very few simple rules upon some initial state. In one example, ‘Seed’ rules are applied: a square turns off if it is on, and a square turns on if exactly two of its eight neighbors are on. One can begin with a very simple pattern, start the engine, and end up with a dizzying array of gliders, blinkers, and asymmetric noise. A slightly more complex set of rules, called ‘Life’ and invented by John Conway in 1970, produces more intricate and unstable patterns.
As the researchers point out, one very interesting aspect of these simulations is that the strange patterns and shapes created through these rudimentary interactions exist only in the mind of the observer—in reality, it’s just a bunch of intermingling black and white squares. The suggestion is that much of what we perceive as reality may be a secondary, artificial construct.
If your browser is Java-capable, you should be able to walk through the site in just a few minutes. Be forewarned, though: it’s hip to be square, and awfully addictive.