How I Use Social Media

I, like many many other people, am plugged into a ripe half-dozen social media sites.  Each of them has different functionality that makes it vary just ever so slightly from its cousins, and as a matter of course I have evolved in using them.  So here is a cluster of the sites that I use on a regular basis and the way in which I use it.

Facebook

I have the most connections on Facebook. But I made a conscious choice early on to only accept Facebook friends who I either a) actually knew in person and felt comfortable with or b) had clear intentions that I would be meeting them at some time in the future and trusted them.  These restrictions have meant that I have massaged my Facebook profile to be just crazy enough to still fit in with my crazy friends, but polished enough that my co-workers on Facebook would not be inadvertently treated to things that they ought not to see.  I feel comfortable sharing photos that I’ve taken, links to things that I’m reading online and silly status updates.  I occasionally get a little political, and sometimes share some spiritual stuff there.

Twitter

Twitter was a service that I had practically abandoned until I got the iPad.  Flipboard has TOTALLY changed that.  Flipboard converts all those tweets into a collection of valuable articles that I’m actually engaged in reading.  So, I resubscribed a bunch of friends and co-workers that I had ditched before, and started jumping on feeds for news sites and celebrities that I respect.  Now, via Flipboard, I am reading and retweeting articles that I would never have seen before.  So I am basically using it as a link sharer.  Zite is anther iPad app that makes Retweeting easy and I am using it all the time.  You’ll see me tweeting in bursts over the course of a couple of hours at a time.  It’s cause I’m reading probably a hundred articles from the iPad and I’m on a brain jag.

Google+

The experience on Google+ has been much more professionally oriented for me.  I’ve added about 200 people to my “Librarians” circle and I’ve got a growing collection of people that I follow across a bunch of different tech and geek sites.  It’s a place where I have been able to discuss issues around library science, philosophy, technology and get actual feedback from people who have proven to be incredibly reputable and active. I find myself really trusting the people I’m working with on Google+ to give me answers to questions that are thoughtful and maybe even provide links or citations.  It’s very cerebral interaction.  No offense to my Facebook people, but my friends are not always my colleagues.  That’s okay too.  They don’t have to be.

LiveJournal

Again, LiveJournal is a service that I kind of abandoned for a while, and then when I took my trip to Asia I just dove right back in like nothing ever happened.  But I discovered that my writing style had dramatically changed.  I had gotten into more thoughtful blogging, with links and citations as well as images.  Perhaps it’s just that I had been writing for like a month solid, but maybe it’s a product of the fact that I had been involved in blogging since 2002 and I had just matured as a person and a writer over that time.  But LJ was always a personal space, and it still is.  It’s a place for public confession and public soapboxing.  I have no compulsion about making bold statements over on my LJ about politics, sexuality, religion, the occult, and whatever else happens to strike my fancy.  It’s been less frequent since my Asian extravaganza.  But I’ve been shifting gears of late.  So, LJ hasn’t been on the forefront of my thoughts.

WordPress

This blog was established with clearly defined outlines.  It is a place for me to write about professionally related topics of interest like books, technology, libraries, conferences, and other things that I feel will be of general use to folks in the information professions.  I may occasionally diverge, but not too far from that plan.  I’m also pretty glued to my stats page and looking at what it is that people are actually interested in reading about.  Sadly, my book reviews aren’t as gripping as talking about how much I hate memes and parsing out the intricacies of terms of service agreements.  We’ll see if those trends hold, but I’m thinking that the shine will wear off of Google+ enough to thrust me into discussing other things.

Yahoo Groups

I’ve pretty much given up on Yahoo Groups, and many listserves as well.  In fact, I’m not even logging into my Yahoo email for much of anything any more either.  I’m debating just killing it.  My gmail is much cleaner and doesn’t get the hundreds of messages a day that I get there.  But email groups just don’t mean anything to me any more.  It’s like getting a daily newsletter.  Things function better in Facebook where you can get your updates as a quiet little number hanging out there.  And if the group gets crazy you can just drop them with the push of a button.  No maze of links to go through.

Klout

I don’t really use Klout for any kind of public thing, like I do with everything else.  But I do find it fascinating in a Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator kind of way.  It’s kind of fun to watch the little score jump around like the Dow Jones telling me how popular I am online and who I’m “influencing.”  I’m no internet celebrity, nor do I fancy that I will ever be such a person.  This won’t be from lack of putting myself out there.  But I’m content just being me, online.  Though vanity will always drag me back to look at that Klout score.

Alternion

A friend recently remarked to me that I was too scattered online, and that he wanted one place to stay caught up with all the myriad things that I do.  A kind of “Meta-Eric” if you will.  After being totally flattered, that someone would actually try to hunt down all of the disparate pieces of me online I wondered if it would be possible to actually see all of those bits in one place.  Enter Alternion.  This is a beta level social media dashboard client, with API access to over 220 different social media applications.  You just start going through their MASSIVE list of sites to which you post your random crap and you can begin to synchronize your life into one handy place.  They’re currently just test-driving the service, and it’s a little buggy. But the developers are really great and they love getting feedback on how to improve things.  It doesn’t do everything, because not everyone is interested in opening up their API yet (I’m looking at you Google+!).  But it does do a tremendous amount of things that is pretty damn impressive.  I’ve added the tab to my standard FireFox windows.  I’m actually kind of rooting for this service.  I’m hoping to see my friends updates rolling by like a stock ticker all day.

Just a couple of quick observations.

Apps have changed the relevance of some services over others, as evidenced by my upsurge in Twitter usage via Flipboard and Zite.  These apps make the social media service more relevant, not less.  I hope that in time these apps become web based and accessible to anyone, and not just iPad users.  I mean, the iPad is great for some things, but it’s a pain in the ass in many other ways.

Aggregation sites like Alternion are going to need to become more common.  This patchwork landscape we’ve built up is bizarre and leads to a lot of identity fragmentation.  I know that for some people that’s necessary, and I admit that it’s been useful for me to parse out my life in this way.  However, I feel even stronger that I’ll want something for a unified access feed that I can link to something like my about.me landing page.  I think that’s going to be extremely important in the future when we’re marketing ourselves for jobs.

Convergence

Tonight I finished reading Lev Grossman’s latest novel The Magician King.  Oddly I liked it better than the first novel of the set The Magicians, which just felt like nihilistic jaded assholes in Narnia.  In this latest installment I felt that there was actually character growth, and it left me with a perverse hope for more.  I had hoped for a devastating ending, and while the ending did sting, I wouldn’t call it devastating.

Anyhow, being of a magic mindset I figured I would poke around Kindle and see what I could find.  I went wandering down the usual roads of Thelema and ceremonial magic from the Golden Dawn.  But then it occurred to me that many of these titles are probably in the public domain and I could possibly find them in Google Books.  So I started poking around there as well.

It’s clear that there is no catalog going on with Google Books.  Much like the archives in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind it’s a rather chaotic mess.  Sure you can attempt an author search using “inauthor:” as a prefix, but that doesn’t take into consideration variants in names etc.  Just searching for a name without the “inauthor:” limiter will turn up hundreds of hits across a multitude of things, many of which are simply references.

I started poking through the Crowley books.  It was kind of a bust.  Then I figured Eliphas Levi would be something worth giving a go.  I found a lot of his stuff in the original French, which was kind of cool.  But again, version control revealed that much of what it was were titles that I already had in translation on my bookshelf.  So I poked around A.E. Waite.   Again, a total hodge podge.  So I tried Arthur Edward Waite to see what that brought up.  Interestingly, it brought up volume 47 of Library Journal from January 1922.

Isadore Gilbert Mudge (what a name right there!), Reference Librarian of Columbia University, compiled a bibliography of Some Reference Books of 1921.  It’s pretty scattershot, but covers the bases of different subject areas.  On page 9 in the Sociology reference books she says in a hilariously offhanded manner:

“A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry” by Arthur Edward Waite, should perhaps be mentioned as a recent publication in its field.

I love the “perhaps.”  Lovely dig there Isadore!

Sadly, even though the 1921 New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry may in fact be in the public domain it is not exactly in the free section of Google Books.  There are more recent editions available, but given that freemasonry is only tangential to the kinds of stuff I actually like to read about, I’m not going to buy it.  Even as an eBook.  If it were available for free I might poke around through it, but just to see what was in there.

The thing that killed me about this moment was the accidental convergence between my personal reading and my professional literature.  It didn’t occur to me that someone reviewing reference books in 1921 would be citing authors from the Golden Dawn, but maybe it should have.  I have never just, of an evening, decided to go browsing through historical archives of Library Journal to get caught up on occult lore.  Google Books just kind of threw it up in my lap.  I guess that’s the bonus of fuzzier retrieval systems. Sometimes you find something worthwhile in your piles of crap.

Open v. Closed Systems

So, Paul Tassi took several hundred people’s criticisms of his article to heart and decided to play in the Google+ waters a little harder than before to see what all the fuss is about, and ultimately found that it’s not as dead as it seemed to him originally.  The difference is not just the number of people you have in your circles, but rather why you have them in your circles.

At this stage of the game, G+ is really still a fairly elitist system, with the invitations still playing a factor in the sign up process.  Once the system is open to everyone and their mother, the user experience will definitely change.  So, you can’t really use it like Facebook yet.  All of your friends and family aren’t on there, so you won’t be seeing their posts of their babies and the updates about the night at the club.  There just aren’t enough users to get there.  But it will change over time.  Right now however, the millions of people who are using it are using it to connect fairly professionally.  Programmers, librarians, authors, publishers, home-schoolers; these are the people that I’m seeing. Not my aunts and uncles.

I mentioned in a previous post that Facebook, with its mutual handshake, is a venue where I’m more selective about who I add.  Many of the people whose blogs I read or whose Twitter I follow are not the people I have friended on Facebook.  It feels oddly more intimate in that I feel I should actually have met you at least once before I add you, or that I have the potential to meet you personally to want to add you there.  On Google+ I do not have that same compulsion.  The field is wide open and I’m following people on G+ that I would never have friended on Facebook.  In fact, the vast majority of people that I’m reading on G+ are people I have never met, and may never meet.  And I’m totally okay with that.

That’s really the difference in these two systems.  Facebook is a closed system.  The mutual authentication means that you both recognize each other.  People are more likely to only friend those people who they know, and only retain those that they like.  I can’t tell you the number of family members I have dropped from Facebook because I couldn’t stand to see another anti-abortion video, or another flag waving, jingoistic, save the troops meme.  Eventually the content that your Facebook friends share will become a kind of echo chamber, with things floating between the same people.  I know that I have occasionally seen the same lefty liberal article piled up with five different friends names and comments under it.

Google+ on the other hand is a much more open system.  You’re not focused on your “in real life” friends, but rather adding people who you’d like to follow, people of similar interests, or professional contacts within your field.  And the things that come across your stream are much more diverse as a result of that.  I haven’t bothered to even look in the “sparks” section, because I never need to.  There’s so much interesting stuff just feeding directly into my stream that I don’t need to go hunting for new content.

Here’s an app analogy: Facebook is to Google+ as Flipboard is to Zite.  These are iPad apps that are content aggregation systems.  Flipboard allows you to select web feeds that you know and love and creates a little web magazine out of them.  It kind of looks like Time magazine.  Zite on the other hand allows you to select subject matter that you like, and finds the content across a whole host of different blogs and websites, and then delivers them in a magazine format not unlike the New Yorker.  Now, Flipboard I love because it is one stop shopping for all my favorite sites, and it looks absolutely gorgeous.  But Zite is far more interesting because I’ll discover things there I never would have found if I were looking in the same old familiar places.

I think that Facebook and Google+ will not really be battling it out in terms of content, because they offer completely different experiences.  The question that it boils down to is do you listen to your friends, or do you listen to respected strangers.  I think there’s room for both.

Whither Horror?

I got into a discussion about horror films the other day when the NY Times published the list of horror films that disturbed even the horror film directors themselves.  There are many of the usual suspects in there, The Exorcist, The Thing, Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  All of these movies, any one would expect.  And I’ve seen all of these films, and yes, they are pretty damn terrifying.  I remember watching the director’s cut of The Exorcist as a midnight movie at the University of Washington right when I first arrived on campus.  At 3:00 a.m. I had to go back to my basement apartment, with my black refrigerator, with the image of that white skull burned into my eyes.  I couldn’t sleep.  I saw it always on the door of the refrigerator (because it was a studio basement, my bed pointed right at it).  If I rolled over I could still feel the eyes on my back.  It was a restless night to say the least.

But all of these I could brush aside as fantastical things that could never really happen.  The film that disturbed me far more than any of these was Heavenly Creatures.  This is the story of two young girls, who become fast friends.  Some would say they were lovers, as there is certainly that element to it.  The relationship that they have is swollen with fantasy, and they share an incredibly tight bond.  However, when one girl’s mother decides they must be separated from each other, for the sake of propriety, the girls hatch a plot to murder her.  The final scene of this film just left me completely traumatized.  The knowing dread, the shock of the act itself, the brutality of it, and the culmination of the girls running out of the garden screaming about the death as if someone else had done it.  It was probably the most shocked I’d ever felt in a theater (at least until I saw Brokeback Mountain, which was a different thing entirely).

So I wrote about this on my Facebook and I got some flack from my friends about it.  The major consensus was that, while shocking, this isn’t a “horror” movie per se.  It’s more of a True Crime film or a Thriller.  And this got me to thinking.  What actually constitutes “horror?”

Of all the films listed in the NY Times piece the majority of them involve some kind of supernatural element, such as demons, vampires, aliens, ghosts, etc.  But there is a section of those films that focuses on the horror that only people can make, like serial killers and deranged people, e.g. Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Henry.

The Horror Writer’s Association Wiki also has a list of some common topics of horror novels.  Again there, the vast majority are creatures, demons, aliens, etc.  But they also have a section that focuses on psychological horror.  Among the novels they list in there they reference Cujo.  That is a really interesting choice, because there’s nothing supernatural about it at all.  Cujo is just a rabid dog, and this is the story of a mother and child trapped in a hot car, with no gas and a rabid dog penning them in for days.  So, is it psychological horror in that the people in the story are traumatized, clearly that’s happening in Cujo and The Pit and the Pendulum.  Or does it also count if the reader/film viewer is traumatized?

Wikipedia has a great little tidbit from 19th century Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe about the difference between terror and horror.

In 1826, the gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe published an essay distinguishing two elements of horror fiction, “terror” and “horror.” Whereas terror is a feeling of dread that takes place before an event happens, horror is a feeling of revulsion or disgust after an event has happened. Radcliffe describes terror as that which “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life,” whereas horror is described as that which “freezes and nearly annihilates them.”

So let’s look back at Heavenly Creatures.  The story does not involve any kind of supernatural antagonist, it is purely human.  The terror of the story is primarily focused around the end of the film where we experience the shift from happy childhood friendship/romance to calculating murder.  It is not something that is throughout, though I would argue that this shift makes the final act all the more horrific.  The horror, as Radcliffe would describe it, is solely in the climax of the film.  In many horror movies and novels this is spread out over the course of the entire narrative.  The horror in this story is that the viewer has developed an empathy for the girls over the course of the film, and when they begin diverging from our empathy is when everything goes off the rails.  In that sense I feel like there is a sort of psychological horror to this film, though it is something that takes place in the viewer, not to the characters themselves.

One may say that this is more of a Thriller than a horror story. It could easily be compared to the kind of drama that Hitchcock would have created, like in the film Rope.  Even though Rope opens with the murder, and it occurs on screen in front of the viewer, it doesn’t have the same kind of emotional tension and revulsion that the viewer experiences with the climax of Heavenly Creatures.

I don’t really know the answer, but I’ve written to Roger Ebert, the movie answer man, in the hopes that he may respond to talking about the difference between horror and thriller, and I specifically brought up Heavenly Creatures, which he reviewed when it came out in 1994.  I would love to see what he has to say.

User Error

Paul Tassi wrote a Eulogy for Google+ in Forbes.  He goes to great lengths to talk about the tumbleweed blowing through his G+ page.  But let me point out two pieces of information here:

How many friends does he have on Facebook?

One simple click takes me back to Facebook, and my wall is flooded with updates and pictures from 400+ friends.

How many friends does he have on Google+?

As active as I am in social media and the latest and greatest internet trends, I have 26 people who have added me into circles, only 8 of them being people I wanted to add back, as for all Plus’s claims of privacy and intimacy, I don’t know most of the others.

400+ vs. 8.  Is it any wonder that he feels it’s useless?  You get out of it what you put into it.  If you’re only going to bother adding 8 people, you’re not going to see much.  If, on the other hand, you added 400+ people, many of whom you don’t actually know, so that you’re not listening to an echo chamber of your friends, then maybe you might actually discover that the value of the service.  I would also point out that he states that he only added people who added him first.  That is just user apathy.

It’s poor journalism to call the death knell of something you haven’t even bothered to use properly.

The Name of the Wind

I just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ novel The Name of the Wind.  I had no less than six different people rave and tell me about the awesomeness of this book, who shared John Scalzi’s breathless review of it, and also heard about it on episode 2 of BoingBoing’s Gweek podcast.  Normally this kind of passionate overflow is a turnoff, and out of sheer spite I will deny sharing in the flavor of the week.  But I found myself in Toronto, with nothing to do for a day, and figured I would fall back on the thing I always do when I’m bored and have nothing better to do: go book shopping.  So I picked up The Name of the Wind.

Like many fantasy stories this novel involves magic, monsters, faeries, music and food.  And you can find synopses galore if you wish to find them.  That’s not really what I want to talk about here.  The story, while absolutely gripping, meant less to me than the subtext of the book and the mechanics of the world. I know that sounds incredibly dorky, but hear me out on this one.  The Name of the Wind is more than just a story about a heroic bard who lived a hardscrabble life who rises to power and prominence.  It is really the story about the power of language, the power of perception, and the knowledge of how to wield the two of them properly.

Half-Built Houses

There are two moments in the city of Tarbean when narrators other than Kvothe begin a meandering tale down a road paved with religious mythology.  The first is Trapis, who Kvothe believes may be a former priest of Tehlu.  Trapis tells the story of how Tehlu bound Encanis to the iron wheel.  Within that story there are elements of truth, but those elements are often obscured by the religious pretext of the story as it is told.  Within this novel we never discover which of them is which, but there is a clear importance to the inclusion of this story.  Secondly is the story told by Skarpi the wandering tale-teller in the pub.  Skarpi tells the story of an ancient empire and the betrayal of Selitos by Lanre, and the founding of the Amyr knights.  He concludes his story that Tehlu, their God, is but one of these many knights.  This earns him the ire of the priesthood of Tehlu and he is escorted off stage to answer for crimes of heresy. The very explicit statement here is that the church may not be giving us the whole story.  That for whatever reason they have chosen to believe and enforce the belief in an entirely separate mythos, where Tehlu is born of a virgin, descended of himself, and comes to this earth to cast out demons.

Who knows whether either of them is correct.  But given that the story of Lanre is what led to the protagonist’s first dramatic loss, I think we can see which way the author is leaning.  However, it’s not their correctness that is really the point, it’s their incompleteness.  Each of them is a shadow of the truth.  These stories are half-remembered whisperings of people who lived and fought and died eons before.  If the chaos of the Archives* is any indicator, and I believe it is a huge one, it should just be assumed that no one really knows the truth of anything.  The very few, who know oh so little, are the ones who have lost their minds in order to find that truth.

Naming

Much like Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea there is an intense focus on the power of naming things. However, unlike Earthsea the reality is that very few people understand or know these names.  Much like the stories of ancient peoples, faeries, and Gods, the true names of things are lost to them.  Only in brief glimpses of deep, deep understanding or subconscious upswell do any of these names come forth.  They are primal.  They are the foundation of the world. They are something more than a word.  They are the very nature of being.  In this sense Rothfuss is touching on the ineffable names of things we see in mystical traditions like Kabbalah, where inscribing a word of power on a clay mannequin would bring it to life, and removing a single letter would make it crumble to dust.  This kind of understanding is something that the Kvothe has been pursuing all his life, however short that life has been at this early stage in his tale.  But again, their understanding suffers, because the world has moved on, languages change and names of power are lost in the chaos of the world.

Seeming

The other important element running through the novel is the discrepancy between outward appearance and interior nature.  Kvothe, as a trouper, was skilled in the art of changing faces, being what he needed to be when he needed to.  He forgets that skill early on, as a result of his young tragedy.  But time heals all things and he regains his ability to become who he needs to be.  My mind turns again to magic, specifically the art of glamour.  This is a common faerie story element.  The faeries appear to us as shining, beautiful creatures, haloed in light and full of grace and poise.  And yet, when that glamour is cracked, the truth of what lies beneath is revealed and we see the dark and ugly things that they may be.  People are not so different.  Ambrose certainly may look like Prince Gallant, but he is a lech, a bully, and harbors murder in his heart.  Kvothe on the other hand projects an image of steel, passionate fire, and sprinkles the school with tales of his unnatural heroism.  Deep inside him, he has doubts, he questions his ability to do things, and yet in moments of crisis he is able to tap into his projected persona and make the miraculous happen.  Sometimes these things will never be known, or never known in their truth.

All of these elements are woven into each other throughout the course of the novel.  There are many things that we know.  There are vast oceans of things that we don’t know.  There are things that were known, but are lost to us.  There are things that we believe we know, but which upon examination betray how much we don’t know. 

The Name of the Wind asks the reader to develop his Alar so that he can believe that there is a fundamental, objective truth to all things and at the same time believe that he will both know it and never fully understand it.  The stone will fall and it will fly away at the same time.

And that is why this book is brilliant.


* And oh yes, I was totally geeking out about the library. Especially the delicious madness of medieval filing systems, and the ineffability of subject analysis.

Wikipedia and Knowledge

Last week an article came out in the New York Times discussing the western research bias of Wikipedia.  Let me summarize.

The western tradition of knowledge is based on a chain of source material upon which further scholarship can build and grow.  Primary source material is something that is wholly original, such as personal papers, video and audio from events, direct scientific experimentation, and other sorts of realia.  Secondary source material is a step removed, where a scientist, historian, or other type of commentator discusses the primary source material and its meaning. Tertiary sources are compilations of primary and secondary source material, things like textbooks and encyclopedias.

Wikipedia operates under a similar modus operandi as traditional encyclopedias, which requires citation of documented sources.  Unlike traditional encyclopedias it doesn’t require that the contributor be an expert in the topic in order to contribute, only that the contributor document the origin of the claim.  The documentation doesn’t have to be available online, but that does help when verifying the accuracy of the statement.

However, there are untold multitudes of information which are undocumented, especially in countries which don’t follow Western academic traditions.  This undocumented life is trying to find its way onto Wikipedia, specifically in their indigenous language variants.  But Wikipedia, holding the line on being a tertiary source.  As a matter of policy Wikipedia doesn’t want people to contribute original research.  The argument is that this policy is culturally biased, and that Wikipedia will be forever incomplete because of this.

But there are ways to make this work, without going direct to Wikipedia to explain these things.

The first thing that came to my mind in this was the story of the woman who taught the reporter how to make this indigenous drink.  Say there is a video of her brewing.  Why can’t this video get posted onto Wikimedia or the Internet Archive?  Along with say, three videos of different other women from other parts of the country where this drink is made?  That would compile a list of sources from different places that could provide an objective viewpoint into the brewing of this drink.  The sources would be housed at Wikimedia or Archive.org, and the article on Wikipedia could reference back to those videos as the context for the piece.  Yes it is original research, but the resulting follow up from the community could expand from there.

In the context of the children’s game from India, the problem is that this is a game that everyone knows about but no one has written about.  Again, Wikipedia doesn’t have to be the first step.  India is a very tech savvy country.  Someone could encourage people across the country to blog about the game and their experiences as children playing the game.  There could be video footage of children playing saved in various places.  This could create a body of work for the Wikipedia community to build from.

Yes, these are both end-run arguments that continue to operate in the context of textual citation.  The alternative is to have Wikipedia change its policy to allow original research to happen directly on the site.  Wikipedia doesn’t want that to happen, and it has good reason.

The word that has been going through all of this is “verify.”  The reason why Wikipedia does not want to have original research presented directly on the site is because original research is impossible to verify, and this deems the material untrustworthy.  Wikipedia wants to be a resource that is seen as trustworthy.  Someplace you can go and see what something is about, and have a degree of confidence that what you’re seeing has been verified by a number of people, and that you can check because it lists all of its sources.

This is why academic journals go through a peer review process.  If someone is making a new claim, there needs to be a degree of confidence among people within that field that the research was done in a sound way, that the claims can be verified against the method and sources used, and that the community can respect.  This is also why the scientific community abhors people who try to do an end run around the peer review process by holding a press conference.  You probably don’t have the think back to far to remember the Arsenic-based life story, and the resulting backlash that came from the scientific community.

Bold claims from original research can be extremely challenging, and sometimes those claims are flat out wrong.  This is not something on which you would want to stake the reputation of an entire encyclopedia.

But if you look back at the history of famous encyclopedias, they are often riddled with bias and the spurious claims of the day.  Often too filled with original research from experts in the field who believed they were correct.  Take for instance the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1910-1911.  It’s in the public domain now, so you can just go and take a gander at it all over the internet.  But the content is so grossly outdated that even Wikipedia points it out.

This edition of the encyclopedia is now in the public domain, but the outdated nature of some of its content makes its use as a source for modern scholarship problematic. Some articles have special value and interest to modern scholars as cultural artifacts of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yup.  And this is where Wikipedia is valuable.  Articles don’t have to suffer because they were written incorrectly a century ago and scholarship has moved on.  The content of the article can change as new scholarship comes out and the piece as a whole can be modified indefinitely, subject to citation.

Could Wikipedia be a venue for original research and documenting the undocumented history of the world?  Yes, it could be that place.  Does it have to be that place?  No.  There are many other venues that can provide a place for original research, and Wikipedia can remain the tertiary source that it wishes to be.

Future of the Web: Web Apps v. Data Flow

This week at the library we were handed out iPads and told to just play with them and use them to demonstrate things to people at the branches.  So, I took them to heart and have been playing with the iPad for hours in my off time.  I spent a lot of time going through Lifehacker looking for fancy iPad apps and experimenting with ways to use it as a convergence device.  It has been absolutely illuminating in the way that many of the apps function.  Especially Flipboard, which has completely changed the way I see things like Facebook and Twitter.  Especially Twitter, where Flipboard transforms it into a magazine.  Yes, a Twitter magazine.  You will never believe how amazing this is unless you see it for yourself.  Seriously, go read that link.

And then, as I’m sitting there reading Flipboard, it hits me all at once.  This is a blip on the radar, and will fade like autumn leaves.

The iPad and many other mobile devices have built themselves around the use of platform oriented apps.  So, something that works on the iPhone, doesn’t work so hot on the iPad unless you change the scope of it.  And something that was developed to run on the iPhone may have to be completely re-written for the Android platform or the Windows platform.  We have all these competing visions, where Apple likes to be very controlling about the kinds of apps that they have and Android has this crazy free-for-all market place, but that sometimes they vary from carrier to carrier.

But the reality is that platform based Apps are going to die, and soon.

There are several signs that are the birth pangs of this change.* Let’s start by looking at the Chromebook.  This is a netbook that has no operating system whatsoever.  It is simply the Google Chrome browser, and nothing else.  Google is assuming that all you’ll be doing is going to be online.  You won’t need to save documents, because you can do that in Google docs.  You won’t need music storage, because you’ll be streaming music over something like the Pandora site or Google’s Cloud Music service.  You don’t need to insert DVD’s because you’ll be streaming video over Netflix, or maybe some new service that Google will be offering (like maybe Hulu).  Everything in the entire operating system is going to just be web based, and no one will bat an eye at this.  Your computer will simply be the terminal by which you access everything.

And this is going to be happening to your phones as well.  Mozilla is building a mobile phone that will operate entirely using Firefox.  So, just like the Chromebook, you’ll have an entire computer, this time your mobile phone, that will function entirely as a web access point.

Now think about this. With HTML 5, damn near anything is possible in website development.  You can build mobile versions of your website that will function entirely as these platform specific apps have done in the past.  There will be no need to have an “app store.”  You simply bookmark the mobile version of the website you want to go to, and bam, it’s functional across every device that exists.  Be that an iPhone, Android, Blackberry (which won’t exist much longer anyway), Windows phone, the Firefox phone… You get the picture.  You design the site to function like a mobile app, and it just works.

This is already happening.  Apple has been playing bitchy games with the App store, and in an attempt to try to cut down the competition in the eBook arena began charging a 30% charge for ebooks sold over its apps.  So, Amazon said “up yours” to Apple, and created an iPad webpage for Kindle.  Users who don’t want to give apple a cut of the eBook pie can simply bookmark the Amazon iPad Kindle page, and buy their books directly through there, access them via the cloud reader and download them directly to the iPad app from the Kindle Archive if they wish to read the book offline.  Apple never gets a dime.  It’s a bullshit workaround, but this is how the world will be soon.

Here’s the wrench in this beautiful plan.  Data capping.  Every mobile phone company in the U.S., save one, has set their data limits to be a maximum of something like 2 gigabytes of mobile data per month.  As PCMag pointed out, you can blow through the entire data cap in 32 minutes on a 4G phone.  Now, that’s not even doing anything in particular, that’s just doing your average stuff.  Imagine that your entire cellphone existence is online.

This is a completely untenable situation.  Either mobile data becomes useful, or you don’t connect to the next wave of the internet unless you’re in a Wi-Fi hotspot.  It’s ridiculous.  Not to mention that Wi-Fi usage can slow to a crawl, especially in heavy traffic areas like Starbucks.  And what about the home lines?  Well, there are data caps there too, as ISPs  are being run by people who have a competitive stake that makes them want to compress usage of the internet in the first place.  Watch too many movies on Netflix, and you wind up getting throttled by your cable company ISP.  Yeah.

So, this brings us to loggerheads.  The next wave of the internet is about web apps on everything.  But the people who control the pipes on which web traffic flows want to squeeze the traffic to a crawl.

Here’s a plan for America.  Let’s put people to work building 4G and maybe 5G cell towers, laying fiber optic cable, lighting up dark fiber, and rolling out broadband to everyone as a public utility, a national resource.  Let’s encourage development in technology, and not stifle things just because that’s the way it’s always been done.  This is the future of communications, even if it’s only the next blip on the radar.  But where we’re at right now could kill it in its infancy.  Let’s give it a shot, and see where innovation takes us when we give it a great big playground.

It’s the least we can do.


* That line made me want to write this big book of revelations metaphor, but for the sake of everyone’s sanity I chose to forgo it.

Meme Buster

Maybe I’m just a jerk, but when people post these memes to social network sites that make factual claims, I actually go and research them and respond back.  I know it’s like spitting in the wind, because memes travel faster than actual truth.  But I feel like its sometimes necessary to correct someone if I feel like what they’re saying is bogus.

The Foreign Aid Meme

In America – The Homeless go without eating.
In America – The Elderly go without needed medicines.
In America – The Mentally ill go without treatment.
In America – Our Troops go without proper equipment.
In America – Our Veterans go without benefits they were promised.
Yet we donate billions to other countries before helping our own first.
Have the guts to re-post this. 1% will re-post, 99% won’t.

The Point: Why are we spending so much in foreign aid when we’re not accomplishing what we need to back home.

The Reality:   The amount we spend on foreign aid pales in comparison to what we’re spending on entitlement programs that directly address the issues at play in this meme.   This NY Times infographic shows you visually the amount spent in the federal budget in 2011 and where it was going.  The highlights:

Social Security – 738 billion
Medicare – 498 billion
Health Initiatives – 381 billion
National Defense – 738 billion
Veterans Benefits – 251 billion

Total = $2 Trillion & $606 Billion

Compare that to: International affairs – 65.32 billion

That number includes not only all the money spent in foreign aid, but also the entire budget of the State Department, which operates our embassies in nearly every country of the world and maintains diplomatic relations with those nations.  The money spent abroad pales in comparison to what is spent at home.  So before we go complaining that we’re just “giving away the farm” to foreign countries, let’s back it up and ask why all the trillions of dollars we’re spending here isn’t quite cutting it.

The Heat vs. War Meme

Ok folks I am seeing the most complaints about the heat coming from individuals that have A/C. Get over yourselves, stop watching the thermometer and acknowledge the fact it is hot out and that after a point you really can’t tell the difference between 95 or a 105, because it’s all hot. And remember there are those who are not as fortunate as you who don’t have A/C, and remember 1.) It isn’t 109 degrees; 2.) I’m not 5,700 miles from home; 3.) I’m not dressed in a full BDU uniform and helmet and carrying 70+ lbs.; and 4.) There is very little chance that anyone will shoot at me or that I might drive over a bomb in the road today! Thanks to all who serve., so quit cher bichen.

The Point: Complaining about the heat is nothing compared to being in a war, and we don’t have air conditioning either.

The Reality: This meme implies that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have no air conditioning at all.  In fact, the U.S. military is spending $20.2 billion a year on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan annually.  Yes, war is hell, and when you’re out in the field it’s hot as blazes.  But that’s not all the time, and we’re spending an absolute fortune in air conditioning to keep our troops from dying of the heat over there.  And for the record, you can tell the difference between 95 and 105.  When the external temperature rises above 100 degrees Fahrenheit more people develop hyperthermia, especially those who are more vulnerable like children and seniors. This is why cities declare heat emergencies and direct people to cool off shelters to prevent death.

Both of these memes are playing on emotional situations: the heartbreak of poverty, the horror of war.  But the facts are grossly distorted to make a point, which in a moment of critical thinking and research one could easily refute.  But again, that’s beside the point memes are the chain letters of our era.  With every refutation there comes another onslaught of reshares.

So how do you bust a meme?  You can’t really.  It’s already probably flown around the world twice before you could blink an eye.  But what you can do is:

  • explain the facts to your friends who post memes, which may discourage them from resharing in the future.
  • write a corrected version of the meme which provides a link to the facts.
  • OR, and best of all, don’t share memes yourself, especially if you haven’t verified their accuracy

Remember kids: Friends don’t let friends share memes.

 

You Know Nothing (about A Song of Ice and Fire)

On Thursday I finally finished my month-long reading of the new George R.R. Martin book, A Dance with Dragons.  And while I could sit down right now and reveal a ton of spoilers, I will instead take a different road and talk about the overarching story themes that I’ve only just realized.  Sometimes I’m a slow reader, not just in terms of pace, but also in terms of picking up on the broader details in a work until I’ve sat with it for a some time.  I’ve spent months going through A Song of Ice and Fire and only now has all of this actually struck me.  The following is a kind of thematic overview of the series as a whole coming from the mottoes of the lordly houses of Westeros.

The Starks: Winter is Coming
Work For The Common Good

When Old Nan tells you stories about The Long Night, you had better listen, because there’s wisdom in those words.  Very few people are looking at the bigger picture, and perhaps no one is at all.  Those who do act in concert with the bigger picture get derided as mad, but ultimately this will lead them to a better position. Most everyone is only looking out for himself, and doing things that are utterly destructive (to others and themselves) regardless of the consequences.  With a winter of indeterminate length settling into the country, Westeros is still in the dregs of a continent wide civil war utterly destroying the last harvest and killing off the people who would have brought that harvest in. This can’t possibly end well.  Only those who have been working for the common good, and they are few, can even begin to help people make it through this grim future.

The Targaryens: Fire and Blood
Birthright Varies From Kin to Kin

One of the recurring themes in Song of Ice and Fire is that there are certain qualities in each royal house that are just waiting to be awoken.  There are talismanic creatures whose fates are entangled with those of their owners.  When the humans fail to become one with their beasts, or even recognize their warnings, the human suffers, and harshly.  Beyond their animal ken, there are also near magical abilities that only work when one is truly aligned with his/her true nature.  When a pretender to that power tries to exert some kind of authoritative claim to that power, he is viciously cut down.   But become one with your power, and you will see the most miraculous things you will ever know and people will tremble before you.

The Lannisters: A Lannister Always Pays His Debts
Debts Must Be Repaid

While not their official words, this is the most common phrase associated with the Lannisters.  This is taken both literally and metaphorically.  It’s no secret that from the very first book that the kingdom is totally bankrupt and been amassing a tremendous amount of debt for bread and circuses.  They’re borrowing from every royal house and foreign countries to keep King’s Landing fat and fatter.  But every debt has to be repaid eventually, and if the king doesn’t pay up, well, maybe the banks will find someone who will and finance them instead.  I find it amazingly prescient that Martin went to the lengths of exploring defaulting on the national debt, especially in our current political situation.  Beyond the debts of actual monetary value, there are also debts of besmirched honor and tarnished virtue.  These require acts of contrition in order to truly expiate the guilt.  Some characters take this seriously and go to great pains to restore their honor, and others do only what is required while crossing their fingers so that they can get through the shame and get back to business as usual.

The Wildlings: You Know Nothing
Presumption is Hubris

I know the Wildlings are not a royal house, but theirs is the greatest wisdom, especially in the latest book. The biggest mistakes are those created from characters who are completely ignorant of the culture that they are attempting to dominate.  People just grossly assume that everyone just acts the way that they do, and that they can proceed as they always have and force their way upon the group they’re conquering.  You see this when people take the wrong hostages (people who have no value in terms of lineage, because succession doesn’t occur the same in other parts of the world); when people attempt to operate with a concept of honor when cunning is required, and vice-versa; when someone attempts to act where he is unqualified or ill prepared; and when someone veers from the course that they must take.  All of these people succumb to their hubris to some degree, and often unto the bitter, bitter end.  Interestingly only those who know that they know nothing are doing well, and those who feign at doing nothing are thrown for a loop.

I’m certain that I could pull more of these from the words of the other houses, but I’ll leave those to other readers.  But know that I’m going to keep combing through these words to see what else I can find.