can’t see the forest

These are a few of my favorite cyberthings

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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:

  1. 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?

    Ahem.

    Printing Press 1568 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.

  2. StumpleUpon
    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.

  3. Wikipedia
    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:

    DUH!

    wikipedia-logo 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?

  4. IMSLP
    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.

  5. eBay
    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?

Al Gore - Internet

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The Power of Decentralized Information

Posted in democracy, information, Internet, Journalism, media, Orwell, Propaganda, Web by Curtis on 9/28/07

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It is often in my thoughts that, in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world (but particularly in the so-called “First World” nations), the Internet is taken for granted.

My sister, a primary school teacher, was explaining to me tonight that most of her students have computers with Internet connections in their rooms at home. “We spend a lot of time going over the dangers of online predators, and how to navigate safely around dubious sites,” she remarked. “You know, most of their parents have no idea how easy it is for the kids to access pornography or to be preyed upon online.”

Then I think of Myanmar, where the régime in power—in addition to committing other horrendous atrocities—has recently flipped the switch on the Internet (and telephony in general, as it happens). I doubt the citizens of Myanmar took a blasé attitude toward the Web even before such an action. To much of the West and its sphere, the Internet is hardly more than an interesting plaything, another superfluous luxury.

Which is to say that, if you’re reading this, you’re probably part of a minority in the sense that you are utilizing the Internet for more than passive entertainment purposes. It is no accident that this is the case. Many of us remember the heyday of the BBS, and I remember when the first graphical online services were made available to the public.

They were centered, mostly, on shopping. And weather reports, maybe.

People’s Geography has, in her press picks, a remarkable piece by Greg Fulton from Information Clearing House called “War as Freedom, and Fraud as Fact: The media anesthetizes our minds.” Fulton discusses Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and 1984. Exaggeration is always part of satire—while Orwell’s scenarios seem extreme, it is readily apparent that his fears were justified and not solely applicable to Stalin’s CCCP. Fulton discusses the origin and evolution of a number of catchphrases which pervade in the news reporting of our own day, demonstrating how terms that seem harmless enough to the casual observer actually convey hidden premises and meanings. Here are a couple:

Anti-Semitism
This all-purpose epithet of opprobrium is designed to conflate Israel with World Jewry, thereby implying that to attack one means to attack the other. In truth, the term is meaningless, as I wrote in an earlier essay: “Strictly speaking, ‘semitic’ is a linguistic term denoting a family of Afro-Asiatic languages, of which we have today Arabic, Hebrew, Maltese, and the South Arabic languages of northern Ethiopia. Ancient semitic languages included Akkadian, Canaanite, Amorite, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Punic, Aramaic, as well as ancient Hebrew and Syriac.”

The unique association of Jews with Semites serves to reinforce the cult of Jewish victimhood and shut down condemnation of Israel.

Faith-based
This expression dates to the Reagan era and is a euphemism for “Christian.” Because religion has both positive and negative connotations and is often an instrument of repression, radical Christians cannot openly advocate their religion against the secular law or other religions. Also, the U.S. officially has no religion, and the separation of church and state is integral to U.S. democracy.

But “faith” affords the illusion of inclusiveness and absolute virtue. Even science has a faith component, albeit a rational one. Thus, expressions like “faith-based schools,” and “faith-based entertainment” covertly and innocuously serve the agenda of anti-democratic Christian religious exclusivity.

Terrorist
This term no longer has any objective meaning. It no longer refers to people or groups who use violence to bring about political change. It now is used to label any person, group or government that opposes U.S. and Israeli conduct in the Middle East. The idea that “terrorists” could be resistance fighters or people trying to defend themselves is not admitted. Because one cannot defend a terrorist, the term precludes rational debate. Therefore, the word is invariably preceded by “Muslim,” Islamic” or “Arab” to ensure that the orthodox, Zionist connotation comes across.

Moreover, this term has given rise to the nonsensical epithet “Islamofascism,” based on the fatuous assertion that Arab regimes are akin to Nazi Germany. From here, the term “war on terrorism” is repeatedly invoked to justify repression and mass murder against Isramerica’s enemies.

Taking an historical perspective, it seems to me that this kind of pettifoggery (thanks, PG—sweet goodness, I love that word!) is not as well understood as a malady specific to the present as it is a function of the organization and distribution of information from a centralized source, which has been the modus operandi for time out of mind—in the context of Western civilization, for instance, one can trace this machinery at least as far back as the Roman Empire.

But let’s begin with the printing press, for instance: here you have a capital-intensive piece of equipment that required wealth to own and operate. So, even in the 16th Century, there was the architecture of a centralized, high cost source of information which was produced in one place and disseminated outwards from there in an omnidirectional fashion.

How is it exactly, then, that radio was so different? And television? In all cases, the production of information—for that is what it is in this sense, a product—requires huge sums of capital, such that it invariably is associated with centers of wealth and power. To underestimate the anti-democratic, inegalitarian effects of such an association, is, in my view, quite inexcusably naïve.

This is why the Internet is such an exciting medium, and why it most certainly should not be taken for granted. Through the Internet, the decentralization of information is made possible and flourishes. For the first time in human history, it is feasible for people the globe over to share and discuss ideas in just the same way we imagine it happening in the Academy of classical Athens.

It is now technically possible to build awareness from the ground up. This is, one could say, the sociological equivalent of the development of the nervous system in biological evolution. It is no small matter, however one conceptualizes it.

Of course, in the comfortably numb world of the industrial superpowers, considerations of lifestyle get in the way for most. On the go! Got to grab dinner! Flip on the news! My show comes on at 4 o’clock! Time for soccer practice! You get the picture.

Affluence fosters apathy. There is a world at stake. The least any of us can do is communicate.

A Smooth Stressbuster Cocktail

Posted in Fun, games, humor, Internet, Psychology, Self-Help, Stress, Web by Curtis on 9/24/07

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First, go play with this. (You’ll need Flash.)

It’s super cool. Just keep at it until you realize how long you’ve been doing it and begin to feel bad about yourself.

Then, go here. Click a few times. Now, you’re ready to face the world again!

One Year Out – 10 Things I’ve Learned about Blogging

Posted in advice, Blogging, how-to, Internet, Personal, Web, writing, WWW by Curtis on 9/23/07

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Continuing my recent Lettermanian trend of this and that, I was able to survive introspection long enough to come up with ten things I’ve learned about blogging since I began this quest about one year ago. Maybe you’ll have something to add?

  1. Read more. Write less. You’ve probably heard me invoke this anecdote ten too many times already, but I like it—Isaac Asimov, when once asked to give his best advice to young writers, said “Read more.” Stephen King gave the same advice in his On Writing. But it’s not just about developing style and technique. One gains insight by writing, but quantity and quality of input can only help to increase quality of output, as I see it. When you find yourself far more focused on writing than reading, it might be time for a quality check.
  2. Don’t get too ambitious on a per-post basis. I am as guilty of this as anyone else I’ve encountered in the blogosphere. As raincoaster once pointed out to me, the medium of blogging is just not as well suited to long posts as to shorter ones. Splitting posts with —more— can help. It’s your blog—write as much or as little as you please. It’s wise to remember, though, that your blog post is a tangible product in that it shows up on a screen and will be, perhaps unconsciously, sized up as a whole before any of the parts are explored. For that reason, short and squat is more attractive for most people, no matter how many awesome things you might have to say. If the topic is too large for a single post, make a serial of it. That’s how most large works have historically been first published, anyway.
  3. Avoid hotlinking media. Not only is it discourteous (except maybe in the case of gigantic hosts), but it’s unreliable. Numerous older posts where I hotlinked images, etc. are now missing that media because the link has been killed or the target has moved.
  4. Remember your audience. This is one of those things that goes for writing in general, of course, but it’s particularly important if you’re trying to attract repeat visitors. Try not to write as if you’re talking to yourself, try not to overuse technical jargon and astronomical vocabulary; but, at the same time, don’t talk down to your readers, either.
  5. Avoid weak language. Another very general rule. It’s a good habit to avoid words/phrases like seem(s), maybe, I think, in my opinion, is being, was done—and try not to get too adverb-happy, also. Clean, straightforward language does wonders to hold interest. Weak, overly subjunctive writing is invariably too wordy and can get tiresome pretty fast. Remember: Subject, Verb, Object. It works. Variety is the spice of life, but not the meat-and-potatoes of life.
  6. Take your time. Hurry up. The choice is yours. Don’t be late. Tee-hee. What I mean is not to get too comfortable with the ‘Publish’ button. You can always edit later, but if you come across posts in your blog that cause you to wonder “When did I do that?” or “Why did I do that?” then you’re probably taking things too quickly. Or, maybe, you’re just a coffee addict like me. Or both.
  7. People and relationships are important in the blogosphere. Everyone’s style is different, but in some sense, each blog is an open book, a reflection of the person to whom it belongs. Be prepared to feel a kind of attachment to those bloggers with whom you identify. And while, yes, there are a lot of opportunistic f***s out there, one should always be open to the development of working relationships on the Web—while remembering, of course, that they are on the Web.
  8. Regular posting means regular traffic. Admittedly, some of my biggest days in terms of page loads have occurred while I’ve been away. As a general rule, though, regular traffic is created by regular posting and by regularly frequenting the sites of others. It’s easy to think that the posts you care the most about should naturally receive the widest viewing audience, but, in reality, that’s seldom the case.
  9. Categories and social bookmarking require thought and planning. Categorizing and bookmarking sometimes become chores I execute in a perfunctory manner. But using these tools wisely and with a little forethought can make all the difference in how visible and accessible your material is to others.
  10. If you care more about stats than comments, something is awry. Enough said. Seriously.