Enter the Dragon

No martial arts hereNo, I haven't succeeded in reanimating Bruce Lee, but I'm a little bit excited just the same. My wayward parcel turned up, finally, and in it was a disk containing Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice-recognition software. I've played with this sort of application in the past, but none of it was really usable as a substitute for the keyboard. But based purely on initial impressions, this one may actually work.

NaturallySpeaking has been around for some time and has been very positively reviewed, so it isn't like this application recently showed up and no one knew about it. Currently in its ninth release, the software continues to enjoy a high level of popularity, and not only within the sphere of hobbyists; the professional-level versions include packages specifically tailored for the medical and legal professions. It's no toy, and reports of 99% accuracy aren't unusual.

In my case, the current version's system requirements exceeded the capabilities of my obsoletei.e. more than a year oldhardware, but the previous version seemed perfectly acceptable, so that's what I ended up with. So far, version 8.0 appears to be happy in my notebook's 1.3 GHz/.5 gig RAM/XP environment; I haven't seen any ominous blue screens or application lockups, or otherwise noticed any problems. Although, legend has it, the current version of NaturallySpeaking offers a few enhancements and improvements over mine, none of this matters if it won't run properly, and new hardware isn't something I'm willing to contemplate right now. Anyway, I installed the software using the custom configuration option, which saved a bit of disk space. For me, the British and Australian English options are unnecessary, as are a couple other things that would have been included had I chosen the default installation.

Then came the grueling part. In order for the system to understand as many spoken words as possible, it's necessary to read it a predefined story so it can get the hang of the user's pronunciation and inflection, as well as the characteristics of the input deviceusually a microphone or headsetthat will be used. In my case, I decided to use a digital voice recorder instead. This avoids being leashed to the computer with a headset cord, or wearing the equivalent of a small microwave oven on my headI still don't like the idea of wireless headsetsand I can take the recorder with me wherever I go. I probably spent 45 minutes reading to the system, and then it spent about the same amount of time working away on its own, constructing the various databases and files associated with my individual user profile. I note in passing that the current version, according to what I've read, doesn't require this training process.

The acid test, of course, was dictating my own words to see if the system would print what I had spoken on the screen, or merely the skewed approximation I had witnessed from other voice-recognition systems in the past. Out of curiosity, I instructed it to guess at the placement of things like periods and commas, instead of verbally inserting them myself during my dictation. I read it the text of a recent monologue, and here's what showed up on the screen.

Say you have some old notebooks gathering dust in a closet somewhere. Maybe those notebooks contain poetry or short stories from the distant past, and maybe no one is ever read that stuff because well, because it's an old notebooks in a closet somewhere in e-mail conversation the other day reminded me that you don't need a traditional web site to collect those old writings for posterity. All you need is a blog.

I haven't tried the other blogging platforms so your mileage may vary, but I know it's easy to reconfigure blogger for the sort of application. The daily journal style that characterizes the average blog and defines it really is the limitation so much as a convention doesn't have to be used that way. If you turn off or decide the elements that have come to be associated with blog state and timestamps comments track back links, who created the post. You're left with a nice clean space in which to collect the fruits of your labor. Since chronology is no longer a factor. Things like previous posts lists can go

to the use poetry as an example, you can adjust the dates of the poems formally known as posts to change their order on the page. Individual short stories or whatever you happen to be collecting can be similarly arranged photos or drawings would work the same again assuming blogger blogspot is the platform, everything can easily e-mailed to the blog for publication. If you aren't quite ready to show your creative products to the world, you can always make your blog invisible to the masses while you experiment

while disabling the very features that make a blog a blog may seem misguided. There are some fairly attractive blog templates out there. Blog operation in general is straightforward, and it isn't necessary to pay for the privilege. The standard blog configuration is undeniably useful and appropriate for chronological applications. But the few simple adjustments can result in attractive free, easy to use web site for a variety of purposes beyond journaling or aggregating news and opinion. Options. It's nice to have options.

There you have it. Aside from manually breaking the paragraphs, that's exactly the way it came out. Comparing this to the original post, you can see it buggered up a few words and the punctuation needs work, but this was only the first try. I'm encouraged, because with additional training things will only improve.

With any luck, maybe I can soon say goodbye to aching fingers, and hello to mobile dictation. It remains to be seen whether speaking produces the same results as typing; for me, writing is a decidedly visualnot auditoryendeavor. But from what I've seen so far, this ought to at least reduce the need for typing.


Cardboard Consciousness

The sentient boxI guess it was bound to happen. Every day, so many parcels make their way through skies and highways that we no longer pay it any mind. They're just cardboard boxes, mostly, and who cares that the baggage hold is unheated, unpressurized, and altogether inhospitable? Not us. And if our packages languish in the trailers of cross-country diesel rigs for days on end, what is that to us? Nothing, that's what. The truth is we simply don't care about our parcels' feelings, and that's bad. Really, I'm guilty of this flippant disregard myself, and it took UPS to show me the error of my ways. Our packages, according to United Parcel Service, are sentient beings.

The revelation occurred last week, while watching the progress of a holiday package on its journey across the states. It had departed New York on Tuesday via UPS' two-day air service, so there was ample time to reach its destination before Christmas. Periodically, I would log in to United Parcel Service's Web site and enter my package's tracking number, thereby discovering its last known location. Everything was going along splendidly until Wednesday, which happened to be the day my parcel was on its way through Colorado. Wednesday, of course, was the day of the Big Colorado Blizzard, which paralyzed much of the state for two days, and even longer in some places. It seems my package had blundered into the Denver area just as airport operations were grinding to a halt.

Thursday morning brought the full extent of the fiasco into focus. I entered the tracking number, clicked the button, and waited while the UPS system located my parcel. The results were disturbing, to say the least. The parcel had been scanned at o'dark-thirty, but there in bold type was the revelation that not only was my package delayed due to adverse weather conditions, but it was sentient, and possibly suffering.

Your package has experienced an exception.

I sat in stunned disbelief for a moment, trying to make sense of the words. I didn't want to believe it, but the evidence was unassailable. Clearly, my package was having some sort of experience, although the exact nature of it wasn't immediately clear. Something exceptional in any case. I imagined my package alone on the tundra, a single tear frozen in place by the wind-driven snow. After hurling myself against the wall, I decided to call UPS' customer service number.

The automated voice-response system wanted the tracking number, which I provided in the best robotic voice I could muster under the circumstances. The computer simply repeated the information I was already staring at on my own screen, so I said "customer service" in the hope of speaking with a human. The tone of the robot's voice had become noticeably strident when it informed me that customer-service agents had no information beyond what had already been provided, and therefore what did I really want to do? I repeated the aberrant request, after which the line went abruptly silent as I was ejected into the next-available-representative queue.

The human also wanted my tracking number, but it didn't help. She only reaffirmed the package's last known location, and assured me that Colorado's UPS workers were doing all they could to ensure delivery before Christmas came and went. She mentioned the possibility that, in an effort to speed the process, parcels in that area might not be scanned anymore. This led me to ponder the idea that my package was, in fact, speeding toward its intended destination; it just hadn't checked in to inform anyone of its good fortune.

Of course, it might also have meant that UPS operations in that part of Colorado had effectively ceased; it might have meant they threw up their hands in despair over the utter futility of the thing. According to Denver media, the airport became a hostel for the many holiday travelers stranded there for two days, or more. I saw a photo of two men sleeping—or at least attempting to sleep—in an airport baggage cart, and then there were the four-hour boarding lines after they finally got the runways cleared. I saw the snow-depth reports, too.

So here it's Tuesday again, the same day my sentient package left New York a week before. Had I understood the futility of the situation I might have opted for mule train, or other similarly reliable shipping method. But at this point all I can do is wait for UPS' glad e-tidings of successful parcel delivery, hopefully before 2007 comes around. And should those tidings fail to arrive, well . . . perhaps some lucky individual in Norway, Egypt, or Australia has received an unexpected surprise. If that happens to be you, try to treat it as you'd like to be treated yourself. After all, cardboard boxes have feelings, too.


Happy Merry

LightsI know some of you have been celebrating already, and others are nearly there. Those of us who procrastinate still have a couple days to rub elbows with our confederates at the marts and malls before we collapse, at last, in a steaming heap of holiday goo. Or not, if this is the year we finally decide we've had enough, and no one is getting anything but our best wishes, if that. Those of you who already had all the shopping out of the way in August . . . well, you're despicable.

Unfortunately, it's almost a sure bet there will be at least one storm, somewhere, that keeps a few of you from arriving at your intended destinations on time. This is normal, and shouldn't be taken as an indication of bad mojo. We're thinking of you, and hope you get out of that airport lobby before you're forced to consume another one of those plastic cheeseburgers.

All you guys and gals out there spending the weekend in the bunk of your idling diesel rig: we're thinking of you, too. It's a good life, mostly, but I know it gets kind of quiet sometimes. And remember, if you aren't sure if you want to pull the red knob or the yellow knob, it means you're way overdue for a nap. Same thing if you can't decide which way to slide the tandems after you pull away from the scale.

If you're reading this on a computer in a public library and too often sleep in your shoes, we remember you. Every day one more person wakes up and asks why this is happening; maybe one day soon there will be enough to keep it from ever happening again.

If you're wearing body armor and have a rifle between your knees, our thoughts are with you most of all. Just do whatever you have to do to get through this day, and by this time next year things will be different. Nothing lasts forever.

The truly fortunate among you have a little girl or boy—or a matched set, even—through whom you can relive the bright moments of seasons long past. In this way, we never become too cynical to hope, or too old to dream.


Shaking the Section 230 Tree

Who knows what's hiding in thereThe trouble with nutshells is a lack of space; there's just enough room for the bare necessities, but sometimes that isn't enough. When it comes to legal cases, especially, the entire tree may be required before the facts become clear. And sometimes it's interesting to shake the tree just to see what else might fall out. Yesterday's nutshell summary of a recent California appellate court case that found Communications Decency Act protections appropriate in a corporate environment didn't explore the details surrounding the decision. Some of those details were brought out in the comments section yesterday, so there's no need to regurgitate those here.

As it turns out, the court found absolutely no evidence that the company at which the culpability suit was aimed had any reason to suspect the employee was sending threatening messages while at work. This, combined with the utter impracticality of monitoring the communications of every employee in an environment that specifically relies on computers—and their connection to the Internet—to accomplish this communication made the court's decision relatively easy. One paragraph in particular from their opinion discusses the changes to our workplaces that now make all the difference when it comes to defining a company as a service provider. Colorful emphasis is mine.

We are aware of no case that has held that a corporate employer is a provider of interactive computer services under circumstances such as those presented here. But several commentators have opined that an employer that provides its employees with Internet access through the company's internal computer system is among the class of parties potentially immune under the CDA. (See, e.g., Zion, Protecting the E-Marketplace of Ideas by Protecting Employers: Immunity for Employers Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (2002) 54 Fed. Comm. L.J. 493, 496 ["it is evident from the language and legislative history of the [CDA] that Congress intended employers to be covered under § 230," (fn. omitted)]; Garvey, The New Corporate Dilemma: Avoiding Liability in the Age of Internet Technology (1999) 25 U. Dayton L.Rev. 133, 139 ["corporations with direct Internet connections are indeed [Internet service providers] and, therefore, should receive [CDA] immunity from employee computer abuse"(fn. omitted)].) Certainly, it is beyond question todaycertainly more so than 10 years agothat "Internet resources and access are sufficiently important to many corporations and other employers that those employers link their office computer networks to the Internet and provide employees with direct or modem access to the office network (and thus to the Internet)." (American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno (E.D.Pa. 1996) 929 F.Supp. 824, 832-833, affd. sub. nom. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997) 521 U.S. 844.) And Agilent clearly meets the definition of that term under section 230(f)(2) (see fn. 20, ante), in that it "provides or enables computer access by multiple users [i.e., Agilent's employees] to a computer server." As noted in Rolfe's declaration, Agilent's proxy servers are the primary means by which thousands of its employees in the United States access the Internet. In light of the term's broad definition under the CDA, we conclude that Agilent was a provider of interactive computer services. (See, e.g., Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore, supra, 87 Cal.App.4th at pp. 692-693 [rejecting contention that library was not immune because of its governmental entity status]; Donato v. Moldow (2005) 374 N.J.Super. 475, 486-488; 865 A.2d 711, 718 [Web site's noncommercial status and limited use irrelevant to CDA immunity analysis].)

There are a number of additional reasons for the court's decision in this case, but I'll leave it to the reader to explore the opinion in its entirety online, if that seems interesting. Personally, I think it's worthwhile for the insight it affords, particularly with future cases in mind.


Doubting the Communications Decency Act

Yup. It's section 230 againAnother day, another Section 230 test case. In a nutshell, an employee of Agilent Technologies had already admitted using company computers to send threatening messages over the Net, but the recipients of those messages thought Agilent ought to be at least partially responsible as well. If you've been following similar cases, you can probably guess how it turned out.

Right. In deciding Delfino v. Agilent Technologies, Inc., a California appellate court found no responsibility on Agilent's part; it was merely providing Internet access, and also had no part, directly or indirectly, in those threats. Had Agilent taken an active role in monitoring its employees' e-mail, and Internet usage in general, this case might have taken a very different turn. But the company's hands-off approach shielded it from legal harm; it's difficult to establish culpability if the employer is unaware of the employee's online transgressions.

While this outcome is undoubtedly vexing for the plaintiffs, a company the size of Agilent would require a battalion of full-time monitors to keep an eye on the communications of every employee. But in that situation, any unobserved—or ignored—wrongdoing would expose the company to potential litigation. Similarly unrealistic expectations could be applied to any venue that provides Internet access, whether it's a small coffee shop or a library. Considering the already ubiquitous character of Net-based communication, it's no longer practical—nor desirable, in the context of censorship—to make the medium's provider responsible for the message.


Constrained Writing

Constrain thyselfWhen it comes to effective writing, economy is as important as word choice or syntax. The old never use two words where one will do maxim is more important than ever; most people are pressed for time, and wading through a lot of extraneous words doesn't help. In an attempt to apply this idea to my own writing, I use poetry as a training method for tightening up the prose in my other, less than poetic writing.

The logic of this exercise becomes clear when you think about a poetic style like Haiku. Since you have only seventeen syllables to work with, economy is of the essence. Thus constrained, the repeated challenge of so tightly encapsulating a given concept results in conscious scrutiny of which words are truly necessary. Haiku is an extreme, but the idea is to enforce a limit; it's easy to get carried away when you have an entire page to play with. Compact and powerful, poetry at its best proves the pen's might.

So this is the goal: that every word should tell. Strunk and White may have lived in a different age, but many of their guiding principles remain perfectly valid today. If less is more, simplify.


Audio Surrealism

Oh surreally?I can't be the only one who's noticed this. It doesn't happen all the time, but every so often there's one day during which newscasters, commentators, and others on radio and television broadcasts are unable to speak in any useful way. I don't mean they're just fluffing their lines; I mean they're using words that don't exist. Hear it once and it's an insignificant anomaly. But when one after another is emitting gibberish, on different programs and at various times during the day, the listening experience becomes an exercise in audio surrealism.

Why is this happening? Yesterday, I listened as otherwise articulate speakers on national radio blurted out munged sentences as if some demented trickster had gotten hold of their scripts. I wish I had stopped to write down those gems of miscommunication, but alas, I did not. Words like communicationism, possibly, just to give you some idea of the flavor. If all the speakers were in the same place at the same time, you could chalk it up to things like ultra low-pressure systems, or atmospheric inversions resulting in extraordinarily high pollution levels. But these people aren't in the same place at the same time; they're probably separated by hundreds of miles, if not considerably more. What could possibly account for such a phenomenon?

A black-ops government scheme, maybe. Or aliens. Someone engaged the experimental switching mindbeam apparatus at NORAD, only this time it affected more than just garage-door openers. Or perhaps the little grey guys aboard the orbiting mothership were bored, so they decided to play with the synaptic disrupters they keep on hand in case they get tired of card games, or tickling the abducted Irish Setters' tummies to make their legs jerk. Whole lot of telepathic chuckling going on around the holographic monitors, no doubt, every time one of the radio journalists said "communicationism."

Anyway, you might want to keep your ears peeled for the next big audio surrealism event. It's a little bit creepy in some ways, not unlike listening to a presidential speech. Except in this case, everyone is doing it.


The Multipurpose Blog

OptionsSay you have some old notebooks gathering dust in a closet somewhere. Maybe those notebooks contain poetry or short stories from the distant past, and maybe no one has ever read that stuff because . . . well, because it's in old notebooks in a closet somewhere. An e-mail conversation the other day reminded me that you don't need a traditional Web site to collect those old writings for posterity. All you need is a blog.

I haven't tried the other blogging platforms so your mileage may vary, but I know it's easy to reconfigure Blogger for this sort of application. The daily-journal style that characterizes the average blog—and defines it, really—isn't a limitation so much as a convention; it doesn't have to be used that way. If you turn off, or at least hide the elements that have come to be associated with blogs—date and time stamps, comments, trackback links and who created the post—you're left with a nice, clean space on which to collect the fruits of your labor. Since chronology is no longer a factor, things like previous-posts lists can go, too.

To use poetry as an example, you can adjust the dates of the poems-formerly-known-as-posts to change their order on the page. Individual short stories, or whatever you happen to be collecting can be similarly arranged; photos or drawings would work the same way. Again assuming Blogger/Blogspot as the platform, everything can be easily e-mailed to the blog for publication, and if you aren't quite ready to show your creative products to the world, you can always make your blog invisible to the masses while you experiment.

While disabling the very features that make a blog a blog may seem misguided, there are some fairly attractive blog templates out there, blog operation in general is straightforward, and it isn't necessary to pay for the privilege. The standard blog configuration is undeniably useful and appropriate for chronological applications, but a few simple adjustments can result in an attractive, free, easy to use Web site for a variety of purposes beyond journaling, or aggregating news and opinion. Options. It's nice to have options.


Houston, we have a problem . . .

Distress signalsYou remember Liz, don't you? Distressed septum, and all that. Well, now she's gone and damaged her head, and possibly the contents thereof if an infection happens to spread beyond the sizeable gash she created with the edge of that kitchen-cabinet door. Hey, it happens. You're running late in the morning, trying to get the kiddo off to school, and suddenly you're on your butt on the kitchen floor with a bunch of little birdies flying around your head, struggling to remember your own name. If you're like most people, the vertigo combined with the blood running down your forehead might signal (1) a possible concussion, (2) the possible need for stitches and (3) the need to reconfigure the day's schedule.

Not Liz. She has a math final to take and nothing is going to stop her. Holding a towel to her head, she phones her father to advise him of the circumstances, just in case there's a problem with the navigation systems that might prevent her from arriving at one or more of her intended destinations. Shrugging off his pleas to postpone her morning travel, she hangs up and staggers off in search of hydrogen peroxide. Its bleaching action momentarily forgotten due to the trauma, she pours the bottle's contents on her head, grabs the towel, and heads for her daughter's school. As you might expect, the staff is horrified.

"Oh my . . . Liz! What happened? Are you alright?"

"I'm fine. Just bumped my head."

"You don't look fine. You're covered in blood. Why don't you sit down?"

"No. I'm fine. I have to take a math test."

"Liz, you don't look so good. Your eyes are . . ."

"Bumped my head. Gotta go. I have a math final."

With that, Liz is off. The teacher watches, open-mouthed, as Liz makes her way out of the school, bloody towel pressed to her head. She's listing to starboard.

On the highway, motorists are alarmed at the sight of the muttering, bloodied driver. She seems almost unnaturally focused on the road ahead, ignoring the speed limit and anything else that might impede her purpose. She has a math final to take.

When Liz arrives at her destination, the college staff is similarly alarmed. They gasp as the bloodied woman makes her way through the hallway, glazed eyes fixed on the door of the classroom at the end. She's repeating a phrase over and over, as if chanting a mantra. Something about a math final.

Liz bursts into the classroom, startling the professor. He jumps to his feet, understandably distressed at the sight.

"My God! Liz! Did you have an accident?"

"I'm fine. Just bumped my head."

"But you . . . you're covered in blood! Here, let me have a look at that . . . oh man . . . that might need stitches . . ."

Liz pushes him away. "No one is sticking any needles in my head. I just want to take the test. I don't want to come back during break. I'm fine."

Realizing the futility of his protests, the professor returns to his desk, silenced. Liz is already engrossed in the exam, pencil in one hand, towel in the other. The professor shakes his head as a drop of blood obscures an equation on the test sheet.

That evening, Liz is back at her job at the restaurant. She's cleaned herself up in the meantime, but the hair she has brushed over the top of her head in an effort to hide the bleaching effects of the peroxide gives her the look of a lopsided, demented parrot. A few customers make the mistake of mentioning it, and are given a brutal lesson in the aftereffects of head trauma. An employee expresses concern over Liz' drooping eyelid, and the disparity in pupil size. He pays with his job.

It's been a tough day for Liz, and now for others, too. Some of us are more fortunate; some of us were far, far away on that day, and so are able to talk about it now, or write about it. Of course, there's still the possibility of infection, and all the danger that sort of thing presents not only to Liz, but to us all. Better to have dinner elsewhere, maybe.


Take My Picture, Human!

Say Cheese!Back to the old—and also new—professional versus amateur debate, this time in the context of photojournalism, but applicable to so many aspects of this brave new e-world. Yesterday's Editors Weblog article titled Photojournalists to disappear in light of Flickr? discusses the inevitability of unemployed photojournalists due to new media techniques in the hands of the public. The underlying question is whether—or to some folks, when—the ready availability of non-professional visual content will remove the need for professional photographers. It's the now-familiar professional journalist/citizen journalist question applied to photography.

Although it's impossible to argue with the article's time will tell conclusion, I'm still a bit confused by all the anxiety over the idea that an amateur product can simply replace the professional equivalent, regardless of the medium in question. In the context of photography, it's always been possible for Joe Citizen to go out and buy exactly the same equipment used by his professional counterpart. Expensive, but possible nonetheless. But this doesn't mean Joe suddenly began taking Pulitzer-winning photographs; it only means he wasn't limited by the hardware. The playing field was leveled, but that's all.

Technology, whether applied to cameras or Web sites, provides opportunity. A college education provides opportunity, too, but it's also possible to be educated beyond one's intelligence, or creativity, or simply beyond the desire to make effective use of that education. Photography and writing exist under the common metalabel of communication, but effective communication is no more guaranteed by Nikon than it is by Movable Type.

If photojournalists lose their jobs, I think it will be for the same reason that threatens to put most of us out of work, if it hasn't already. It's those wonderful, infernal silicon slaves that work 24/7 and seem quite content to do so. If the slaves happen to be configured as cameras, and are, at some point, literally blanketing the planet, what need is there of human fingers? To press the electronic shutter release, perhaps?

In the meantime, amateur photography—like amateur journalism—is interesting, sometimes, and even compelling. But short of a sudden universal clamoring for snapshots, I don't expect it will take over the pages of National Geographic anytime soon.


Less Is More

How can this BE?Sometimes a concept is so familiar that it no longer gets the attention it deserves. For example, the idea that less is more has been around for a very long time, and everyone knows what it means without having to think about it much. At least we think we do. Mostly, it's taken to express a kind of minimalism; it encourages the old keep it simple maxim. But when you really stop and ponder, the concept is not only illogical, but thoroughly Zenlike in its irrationality.

If less and more are exactly equal—and they are, unless the is word has multiple meanings—then the inverse must also be true. But if more is less, I'm right back where I started. Let's say you have a pile of beans, and your friend has a pile of beans, and when you look at your pile it's clear you have far more beans than your friend has. But do you, really? I mean, if less is more, it's obvious he has the larger pile and no amount of eyeballing will disprove it. On the other hand, more is less. This means that, although your friend has the larger quantity of beans, you'll always have more, and also considerably less. It jams the gears, and confounds the noodle.

I think I'll go back to contemplating the sound of one hand clapping. It's easier.


Your Unknown Audience

They could be hiding anywhereOne of the principles of effective communication is know your audience. It's good counsel, not unlike write what you know, don't try to be funny if you're not, or similarly useful guidance. But when it comes to the average blog, how is this possible? Sure, there are blogs whose authors enjoy a consistently high level of readership, and in those cases there's generally enough feedback to get a pretty good idea of who's out there, and who isn't. Blogs in that category also tend to be aimed at a specific crowd to begin with; in effect, the subject matter determines the audience. Even when readership is low—or unknown for that matter—a blog focused on a particular topic or concern releases its author from that unknown-audience quandary.

Because blogs are such versatile instruments—as versatile as any Web site, since that's what they are, really—their applications are limited only by the imaginations and purposes of those who use them. For those of us who take pleasure in words for their own sake, identifying the audience probably isn't the overriding concern. In such a situation, the blog may be more creative instrument than soapbox; communication remains the goal, but would exist whether or not anyone is there to receive it.

Where simple creativity isn't the imperative, who's in the audience becomes more important. But as a blogger, or someone who otherwise publishes words on the Net, the audience may be forever obscured behind the scrim, and the glare of the klieg lights. There's no help for it. Perhaps the best we can do, if we can't know our audience, is attempt to follow those basic principles of effective communication. Write what you know is always good advice, and I might add the warning of my first and favorite English professor: Never write down! Thanks, Dr. K, wherever you are.


Three Types

TypesI've never been big on labels, on the classification of everything in neat, tidy little boxes. For one, it always struck me as an attempt to assign order mostly for the sake of the assigner, whether or not it actually reflected the true nature of things. Sometimes, the classifications seemed to reflect little more than ambiguity. Especially where the categorization involved people, the labeling process struck me as overly simplistic given the complex, even paradoxical nature of the human condition.

Of course, it's useful to be able to identify the components of one's surroundings. The complete absence of labels would result in some fairly awkward situations, such as being handed a wolverine when what you really wanted was catsup. And then there are the top-level labels—the metacategories, perhaps—that don't identify things so much as define them. These tend to be the result of painstaking research and observation, often over a period of many years—the better part of a lifetime, even. It helps, no doubt, to have the sort of mind that brings together seemingly unrelated pieces of a puzzle; it helps to be extraordinarily intuitive, preferably to the point of genius.

Verena Huber-Dyson is emeritus professor of the Philosophy department at the University of Calgary, and got to know Kurt Gödel in Princeton. The correct interpretation of his work is, it seems, a driving force in her life. In a brief Edge.org article, somewhat disturbingly titled Gödel in a Nutshell, she divides people into three types.

The essence of Gödel's incompleteness theorem is that you cannot have both completeness and consistency. A bold anthropomorphic conclusion is that there are three types of people; those that must have answers to everything; those that panic in the face of inconsistencies; and those that plod along taking the gaps of incompleteness as well as the clashes of inconsistencies in stride if they notice them at all, or else they succumb to the tragedy of the human condition.

As metacategories, I think, these do a wonderful job of defining the fundamental distinctions that so often make all the difference between a life of relative contentment, and one that seems primarily engaged in the process of extinction.


Grinding the Section 230 Axe

Section 230 flowdownIf nothing else, Sunday's op-ed piece by the Yakima Herald-Republic's editor, Sarah Jenkins, proves that not everyone is thrilled with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Her Lack of responsibility makes Web a reckless place article was, I suppose, intended to add fuel to the outrage at Section 230's use as a shield by Internet libel-mongers, and conversely, its utter uselessness in protecting professional journalists.

As I read it, the logic of the article can be summarized thus:

1) John Seigenthaler Sr. is a cool dude. He stands—as he always has—for freedom of speech.

2) Last year he was libeled—in an anonymous Wikipedia entry—by an unknown person using BellSouth as his/her ISP.

3) He was unable to determine the identity of that person because BellSouth refused to provide it.

4) BellSouth was able to hide behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is a double standard. It protects the unregulated, unaccountable world of the Internet, but leaves print and broadcast journalists to twist in the wind.

5) Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is bad.

After doing my own research, I came to the conclusion that items one through three are virtually indisputable, but after that the logic train derails. According to the article, Mr. Seigenthaler expressed understandable frustration—in a column he wrote—over Section 230's protection of online service providers when no such protection is available to the print and broadcast media.

As Seigenthaler explained in the USA Today column, "Federal law protects online corporations -- BellSouth, AOL, MCI, Wikipedia, etc. -- from libel lawsuits. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that 'no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker.' That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens posted by others."

As it turns out, the guy who posted the defamatory biographical information on Wikipedia did it as a joke; it was a prank designed not so much to defame Mr. Seigenthaler as to tweak a coworker. According to a Wikipedia entry on the subject, the prankster decided to do a little editing on John Seigenthaler's biography.

Brian Chase was an operations manager of Rush Delivery, a delivery service company in Nashville, Tennessee. As a prank on a colleague, Chase modified Seigenthaler's Wikipedia biography to suggest that Seigenthaler may have had a role in the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. While at his workplace on May 26, 2005, Chase added the false texts . . .

The fake entry wasn't noticed until September of the same year, and in October it was removed from public view on the Wikipedia site, although it took several weeks to disappear from other sites that mirrored it. The fiasco resulted in a number of changes to Wikipedia's policies and procedures.

The most frightening aspect of the whole thing, writes Ms. Jenkins, isn't so much that this happened to John Seigenthaler. The really scary thing is that, if this "flawed federal act" isn't repaired, it could happen to you. While it seems obvious enough that this sort of thing could indeed happen to anyone, that direct connection between libel-with-impunity and Section 230 seems considerably less certain.

For one thing, Section 230 doesn't condone defamation, and in no way reduces the libeler's responsibility. The intent of the law is simply to prevent an impossible burden for the conduits through which information flows; the sheer volume of information flowing through any Internet-connected digital pipeline makes the whole idea of monitoring it for content absurd. Even a relatively small, low-volume ISP would be crushed under the administrative weight of such a requirement. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an organization in the business of sifting through virtually all the content on the Net—Google for example—wouldn't be technically able to manage the burden at all, regardless of how many millions of workers they might hire.

In the context of professional journalism, Ms. Jenkins' suggestion of a double standard seems to miss the rather significant difference between the hands-on, low-volume environment of traditional journalism and that of the often impersonal, automated, high-volume Internet. In cases where the protections of Section 230 are put into play, one of the primary issues involves the distinction between deliberate, hands-on editorial control—a newspaper, for example—and the generally robotic operation of the Net. To frame it in the older, more traditional concepts of the world in which many media organizations were incubated, the phone company wasn't responsible for the conversations of its customers, but letters to the editor were always a different matter entirely. It's a similar double standard, in no small part due to Section 230's place within the federal laws that govern large-scale telecommunications enterprises.

Mr. Seigenthaler ran into a legal barrier when he attempted to obtain the identity of his defamer; the ISP would not—and legally could not—simply hand over the name of one of its customers on demand. While it's true that BellSouth couldn't be made liable for defamation posted on Wikipedia's site by one of its customers, and equally true that Section 230 is the legal mechanism responsible for the ISP's lack of responsibility in this case, the logical connection between the ISP's request for a court order and the protections offered by Section 230 is fuzzy at best. Even if Section 230 didn't exist at all, Mr. Seigenthaler's efforts to clear his name wouldn't necessarily have resulted in culpability on BellSouth's part, or for that matter the discovery of his defamer. The likely effect would have been a deep chill on free speech, and in fact this seems to have been one of John Seigenthaler's main concerns at the time, according to the same Wikipedia article on the controversy.

On 9 December, Seigenthaler appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal with Brian Lamb hosting. He said he was concerned that other pranksters would try to spoof members of Congress or other powerful figures in government, which may then prompt a backlash and turn back First Amendment rights on the Web.

As it turned out, Mr. Seigenthaler received a written apology from his character assassin, so although it seems he wasn't contemplating legal action against Mr. Chase anyway, a court order requiring the ISP to identify one of its customers was unnecessary.

The idea of modifying Section 230 to better address current issues in the publishing arena isn't without merit by any means, and the idea has its proponents in the media, and in the legal profession, too. But simply doing away with Section 230 and the protection it provides—whether it's BellSouth or Craigslist—is clearly not a practical solution. Newspapers, and similar organizations that rely on external sources for information, aren't exempt from the benefits of Section 230, either. Their online forums—blogs or otherwise—become a liability when externally-generated content is modified, but that's true of any online forum, newspaper or not. Private-sector bloggers may enjoy a greater level of irresponsibility than their commercial counterparts, but neither can cross the line of libel with impunity. A reckless disregard for the truth doesn't indicate an intrinsic problem with Wikipedia, or BellSouth, or Section 230; it's just part and parcel of the free flow of information. It ain't perfect, but it's still pretty good.


Scary Monsters

Sometimes monsters are cuteYesterday was my lucky day. One of my news and blog alerts sent me a link that did, in fact, turn out to be an excellent example of citizen journalism in action, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Really, to call it citizen journalism and stop there would be nothing short of ironic; it goes to the very heart of the communication ideal. I arrived at Citizen Rob's Blogspot site—only one of many related sites, as it turns out—via a link to a blurb he titled Cue sympathy in 3... 2... 1... about the absurd antics of a local news team, but fortunately I didn't stop there.

Fortunately, I began poking around and discovered not only the reason for the My Beloved Monster & Me blog title, but a most excellent collection of Rob's writings from the distant past to the present. Blogs link to blogs, and Web sites to Web sites; I lost track of all the levels between my original entry point and his more official, serious representations elsewhere on the Net. Man, can this guy write. He's one of those natural writers, I think, to whom written communication is second nature, if not first. I'm guessing his often self-deprecating sense of humor works the same way: it's the natural expression of a unique and priceless personality. This is from one of his bios—others are a bit more serious—that I happened to stumble upon during my travels through his many online points of presence.

Rob is the author of the following: a book-in-progress about his daughter called Schuyler's Monster (to be published by St. Martin's Press in 2008), several half-completed novels, the most recently being a serious gloomy ghost story, World War One sort of a thing; some stuff that he doesn't really want to talk about that got him in a great deal of trouble but nevertheless still cracks him up a little; an early and embarrassing collection of journal-like essays called Robservations (a title that perhaps might have benefited from another five or ten minutes worth of thought); an early journal effort called the Pages of Goo that got him into trouble almost from the first entry; a chronicle of his time in Kalamazoo called, originally enough, Kalamazoo Days; and of course The Book of Rob, unique in his output in that someone actually read it.

Like every other man, woman and child in America, Rob loves bacon.

Mmmmmm . . . bacon! Anyhow, there's so very little I can say that would do this thing justice in any meaningful way, so I'll leave you to explore his world on your own. Not that it's all lighthearted fun and madness; the story behind Schuyler, his beloved monster, his mute little cyborg, his pretty ninja, is both heartbreaking and profoundly encouraging. Together, they have many adventures.



Big nostrilsSometimes it isn't so much what you say as how you say it. Other times it's exactly the other way around, which is why I'm known as The King of Faux Pas. I have a bad habit of blurting out things that might be considered humorous under certain circumstances, but inappropriate and hurtful when the subject is of a serious, personal nature. Ridiculing someone's damaged septum falls under the latter category.

When I walked into the café, the manager was busy with her usual duties. But she found the time, as always, to offer a greeting and a smile, which makes all the difference between just another customer and a welcome guest. This is one of the primary reasons for the restaurant's success; I don't know how much the owner pays her, but it isn't enough. Anyway, I settled in at my usual table and began reading my paper, as I always do. I was lucky this day because all the waitresses had their hands full, so the manager came over to my table herself. This is always fun. I love her lighthearted personality, and she always has something interesting to say. This time, however, Liz wasn't quite as lighthearted as usual, and I noticed a lot of sniffling.

"Sounds like you have a cold," I say.

"I don't know what this is, exactly," she replies, looking a bit glum. "I went to the doctor the other day, and she says I have a perforated septum. It was news to me."

I have to think about that one for a moment. It doesn't sound like a good thing, but I'm no expert when it comes to nose stuff.

I decide to engage. "Like a hole, you mean? How did that happen?"

"The doctor thinks it's been that way for a long time. She tried to tell me it's from drugs."

I laugh. Liz isn't the sort of person who uses drugs, and everyone knows it. But I decide to run with it anyway.

"Well," I say, "that would explain it. All those years of snorting the white stuff have taken their toll."

"Yeah," she says. It's clear this is no laughing matter to her. "I told her over and over, I've never used drugs! She just kept telling me I had. It was crazy."

"Maybe you just don't remember?" I offer, with a look of skeptical concern. I know I'm deadpanning my way into trouble as usual, but I can't stop.

She manages a small laugh. "Right. That's probably it," she replies.

"So . . . how long has it been this way?" I ask, attempting to steer toward rationality.

"Probably since I was little. I had a bad sledding accident and I broke my nose. My dad just stuck his fingers in there and . . . " She makes a skrunking sound.

Disgusting, I think to myself, envisioning the situation. My daughter's nose was black and blue for a week after a sledding accident of her own, I remember. Probably broken, too, but at that age the cartilage is so soft that the event is considerably less than catastrophic. In both cases, the result is nothing but positive: a nice, petite, and wholly attractive nose. At least from the outside.

"So what now?" I ask. "Your nostrils can see each other, and that's that?"

Liz sits down, looking even more glum than before. "No," she says, "eventually it collapses."

I can feel the faux pas coming on, but there's nothing I can do to stop it. I try to choke back the mirth that's welling up from the weird visuals playing in my mind. Her nose just collapses. How bizarre.

"Like foomph? One minute it's there, and the next minute it's just . . . what . . . like a little pancake?" I hate myself, but I have to say it anyway.

"I guess," says Liz, trying to see the humor in it. "They say I'll need reconstructive surgery, but I hate surgery. I don't want surgery!"

Oh crud. Here we go. With superhuman effort I manage to keep the tea from spewing out of my nose and mouth, but now I'm choking from the combination of liquid and unbridled mirth.

"No!" I gurgle, "you can use this! One big nostril! Change your name to Nostrildamus and set up shop as an oracle! You'll be famous!"

The look on her face isn't unfamiliar to me; I've seen it over and over through the years. It's a combination of confusion, pity, and disgust. If the look had a voice, it would be telling me how pathetic I am, and how sick. It would be wondering why I'm walking around, free. If the look had a gun, it would shoot me.

Liz pulls a pen from a pocket. She's ready to take my order now, and I know it may be the last meal I ever eat. In this life anyway.


A System of Singularities

The systemIf you've spent any time in help forums or discussion groups searching for answers to software problems or hardware malfunctions—or maybe just insight before you plunk down your money for a new widget of some sort—you've probably noticed a nearly universal oddity. For every person whose experience with Product X has been nothing short of hellish, it seems there's someone with exactly the opposite experience. Assuming both are working products—i.e. one of them isn't simply defective—there has to be more than mere coincidence to account for this disparity.

One thing I've noticed is the distinction between User A, who seems inclined to read instructions, FAQs, and other documentation, and User B, who generally does none of those things. For this reason, User B is also more likely to immediately ask for help, even though the solution is probably in that aforementioned FAQ, or has otherwise been previously illuminated. This scenario eventually results in a loss of patience by those in the User A group, and may also have a chilling effect on the good will of forum administrators, or designated assistants. Sadly, this state of affairs also seems to induce paranoia in certain Users B; some begin to suspect a general conspiracy, which only perpetuates their cycle of unsolved problems.

Naturally, not every problem is caused by an unwillingness to self-educate; some are the result of genuine failure of one kind or another. However, the real reasons for these failures aren't always communicated to those who are expected to fix the mess. For example, where the mess involves a Web site—or perhaps more to the point, a blog—that's been hacked and modified with third-party enhancements, the actual reason for its failure may have nothing to do with the original design, much less those tasked with maintaining its day-to-day operation. I'm continually amazed at the explosive reactions of people who've just experienced a significant problem with their site, and immediately launch a salvo of rage-missiles at the site host, even when the reason for the destruction has nothing to do with the host, and everything to do with imprudent—and sometimes incompetent—modifications to the site, or blog, or whatever happens to have melted down on that particular day.

If patience is a virtue in general, it's an absolute necessity in the world of computers. In the context of software, the odds of a perfectly functioning system—by this I mean one able to endure every possible circumstance—are exceedingly slim. Even the robust UNIX systems that keep the Net running 24/7 can't cope with every situation, although they're far better at it than certain unnamable alternatives. But eventually there will be a problem that affects your own site, and with any luck there will be a concerted effort to correct the problem as soon as is humanly possible. In the meantime, patience is a virtue; firing off a dozen messages to the support team won't help any more than repeated phone calls to the utilities department will restore your electricity after a storm. About a week ago, a popular site-statistics provider experienced a glitch of some sort, resulting in a temporary lapse of service to some of its subscribers. One guy freaked out and reinitialized the service from the ground up, completely wiping his accumulated site statistics in the process, not to mention passwords and associated user information. Had he only waited another hour or so, the service would have returned and he would have lost nothing. When it comes to computers, patience is the remedy for many ills. Sometimes it's the only remedy.

Still, I think there must be other, more mysterious reasons for the disparity between user experiences. It has to be more than mere serendipity, but what, exactly, to place in the equation instead? A combination of things, I suppose, which seems to satisfy the equation in most other cases as well; it's always a system, not a singularity. There are identifiable reasons, I'm sure, for the general lack of problems with computers, or other technological tools; there are equally identifiable reasons for the general lack of success with those things. Time is one element; it takes time to learn anything. On the other hand, we all have the same 24 hours in a day. Desire is an element, too; it's far easier to absorb information when it's interesting. On the other hand, simple necessity often dictates what we learn. Education fits the equation; the foundation of knowledge has to be sufficient to allow construction above. On the other hand, some people instantly grasp new concepts with no obvious exposure to commonly accepted prerequisites.

Or maybe it's something else entirely.



Objects in photo are smaller than they appearOne of the more ubiquitous examples of our advancing technology is the digital camera. The tiny light-gathering chips and associated circuitry have become so inexpensive that it's no longer a question of how much the consumer is willing to pay for a camera that's imbedded in some other electronic device, like a cell phone. Now, the question has more to do with the consumer's willingness to even consider a phone that is, for all practical purposes, stone blind.

The ability to capture images of our surroundings—of our lives, really—isn't a latent fascination, of course. It's just that the bulky film cameras used by our forefathers and foremothers to capture birthday parties and family vacations have morphed into sleek, pocketable digital cameras and camcorders, and their even sleeker phone-cam counterparts. Not that tiny cameras with tiny lenses represent the state of the art when it comes to image quality, but the tradeoff seems worthwhile because it eliminates the familiar you never have a camera when you need one whine. After all, it's pretty easy to stow a small, slim camera in a pocket, and the probability of Citizen X without his or her cell phone is statistically moot.

Unfortunately, the tinycam tradeoff isn't without its dark side. While resolution continues to improve, the fact remains that there's only so much you can do with a square inch of available real estate on a cell phone, or the similarly cramped dimensions of a pocket camera, especially when the overriding imperative is a competitive retail price. The combination of inexpensive optics—particularly when the focal length is fixed somewhere between wide-angle and fisheye—and miniature focal plane means that spectacular vista you snapped on your recent road trip may seem considerably less dramatic when viewed on the computer screen, or printed on paper. Worse, those candid portraits of yourself taken while holding the tinycam at arm's length may trigger bouts of melancholy over the bargelike dimensions of your own nose, as captured by that distortion-inducing wide lens.

Adolescence is tough already. Add the often unflattering effects of substandard optics combined with a lack of understanding about lens-induced perspective distortion, and those spontaneous glamour shots become catalysts of self-loathing, and the sudden desire for cosmetic surgery. When I received the following e-mail from my teenage daughter, I didn't even have to look at the attached photo to know there was impulsive close-up photography involved, with the zoom set wide.

Ok, this doesn't even look like me! AGH! Lol plus my eyes are all X-files.

She was right. It didn't look much like her, but that was because . . . well, you already know why. And yeah, the eyes were interesting, as they so often are when the pupils are wide open in a dimly lit room. Lol indeed. It's too late for this year's gift-giving, but I think the inexpensive cameras ought to carry warning labels about photographed objects being smaller, and far less distorted, than they appear. Or words to that effect.


Section 230 in Action

230 rules, mostlyRecent discussions on this blog regarding protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act make it nearly obligatory to mention the California court case that, happily, adds weight to the argument that simply transporting another's words doesn't automatically create liability. In January of 2004, a California appeals court refused to dismiss a defamation suit that involved republishing someone else's words on the Internet—posting another's e-mail to a newsgroup in this case—effectively removing exactly the sort of protection that Section 230 provides. A week ago today, the California Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court, thereby supporting and strengthening existing precedent concerning legal immunity for transmitting—but not creating—defamatory content.

Quoting a November 20 news release on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's site, the action upholds what other courts, including the Supreme Court, have already established.

Today's ruling affirms that blogs, websites, listservs, and ISPs like Yahoo!, as well as individuals like defendant Ilena Rosenthal, are protected under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which explicitly states that "[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

For anyone in the business of blogging, this reaffirmation is particularly welcome. But it may be worthwhile to mention, again, that Section 230 protection extends beyond situations involving defamation, as the EFF's Bloggers' FAQ - Section 230 Protections makes clear.

Is Section 230 limited to defamation?

No. It has been used to protect intermediaries against claims of negligent misrepresentation, interference with business expectancy, breach of contract, intentional nuisance, violations of federal civil rights, and emotional distress. It protected against a state cause of action for violating a statute that forbids dealers in autographed sports items from misrepresenting those items as authentically autographed. It extends to unfair competition laws. It protected a library from being held liable for misuse of public funds, nuisance, and premises liability for providing computers allowing access to pornography.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also maintains—among many other things—an archive of some key Section 230 cases, which is well worth exploring as an aid to anticipating future rulings.

Also worth repeating, possibly, is the distinction between words you create, and words you change. It seems obvious that altering the intent of someone else's words is the equivalent of a lie, but if the EFF sees fit to address the issue in their Bloggers' FAQ - Section 230 Protections, there's probably a good reason for it.

The courts have not clarified the line between acceptable editing and the point at which you become the "information content provider." To the extent that your edits or comment change the meaning of the information, and the new meaning is defamatory, you may lose the protection of Section 230.

In any event, last week's court ruling can only help the cause of free speech on the Internet. As EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl put it, "By reversing the Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court has brought California back in line with other jurisdictions and reaffirmed the critical rule that the soapbox is not liable for what the speaker has said."


Web Curators

A microgallery, sort ofA couple days ago, I ran across an article that caused me to think about certain aspects of the Web in ways I hadn't before. In fact, it was posted on Suw Charman's Strange Attractor blog, and she mentions therein the falling barriers to creativity due to technology and its ready availability to the masses. That part isn't news, exactly, but a bit further along things became more intriguing.

I was at a 'future of...' session the other week, and one of the trends I suggested was important was 'the ubiquity of everything'. My fellow brainstormers didn't seem to agree with the word 'everything', but I think we are moving towards a world where the only things that are rare are certain physical resources, and attention.

Some sort of global attention-deficit disorder, perhaps? As it turns out, what Ms. Charman has in mind is the sheer volume of stuff available on demand, more than anyone can reasonably handle: movies, blogs, podcasts, Internet radio, games, Web applications, and of course there are still the books. Then, as more and more people become intrigued—and even excited, to use her word—with this new creative, participatory outlet, we wind up with a feedback loop. Amplification leads to more amplification until the volume exceeds the system's ability to generate anything but distortion, and then it all goes nonlinear and collapses into a state of spurious oscillation. Then the universe, as we know it, ends.

Ha ha—just kidding. The universe doesn't really end. What really happens, according to Suw's model, is an increasing necessity for filtering and aggregation, only not in the way it's been traditionally done. In other words, we don't need gatekeepers; we need curators.

We do, however, still need help. There's just too much stuff around for us to know what's out there, to keep up with what's good, what works for us, what is worth investigation. What we need are curators. And we need them badly.

We need people who can gather together the things that are of interest to us, things that fit with our tastes or challenge us in interesting ways, things that enrich our lives and help us enjoy our time rather than waste it on searching.

It's an interesting concept, really. It's difficult for me to think of the Net as a museum, or even a gallery, but that's only because the exhibits are in such a tremendous state of flux; some are definitely gathering e-dust, but new exhibits are arriving by the nanosecond.

Aside from the more obvious conceptual differences, there are a couple things that set the traditional curator and the new Web curator apart. For one, curators usually don't contribute their own work to the exhibits, at least not on a regular basis. And the speed and volume of new creations vying for attention—and exhibit space—requires constant attention, which demands a proportional expenditure of energy, and time. So who, exactly, will perform this new job? Actually, you will. Or already are, maybe.

Curators already exist. Some are people: Bloggers who sift through tonnes of stuff in order to highlight what they like, and who, if you have the same taste as them, can be invaluable to discovering new things to like. Some are aggregators: Site that gather lots of little bits of stuff and present them in aggregation and help us find the bits that the majority find to be good. Some are algorithms: recommendation systems and search.

In this context, the distinction is between the traditional "media gatekeepers"—those unwanted "arbiters of taste," as Suw describes them—and The People Formerly Known as the Audience, which includes you and me. As curators of our own little chunks of the Web, we decide what's worthwhile; we decide what deserves exhibit space in our galleries. And as contributors, we become curators of our own work as well.

But curation of the web has barely started. Much of what you could call curation that exists today is flawed: too many noisy opinions and not enough capacity to understand what I as an individual want; recommendation algorithms that produce seemingly random results; and the problem of 'popularity begetting popularity'.

The problem of noise in the system is likely to worsen with increased participation, but as curators we don't have to contribute to it. For anyone with a blog, there's a certain pressure to keep the thing going at all costs; the old publish or perish influence remains in effect on the Net. Better to spend a few extra minutes—or hours, if that's what it takes—considering the relative merits of the new exhibit, instead of merely filling space on the gallery walls. As for that popularity feedback-loop . . . well, some things just take a bit longer to work out.



Do not see meHere in the States we're gearing up for tomorrow's holiday, which is variously known as Turkey Day, Gobble Fest, Football & Yams, or simply Thanksgiving to the traditionalists. It's our most important holiday in some ways, because (1) we get to pig out with impunity, (2) it's a lot cheaper than the holidays coming up next month, and (3) we can begin to phase into Holiday Mode without actually mortgaging our homes, which we'll be doing shortly (see #2 above).

Most of our schools have been closed this week, which gives the kids a break from homework, or in some cases the opportunity to catch up on all the homework they forgot to do before and which is now the only way to avoid flunking out entirely. For the teachers—particularly those in middle-school exile—it's a week without drama and also offers the opportunity to check into rehab, or simply stay at home and self-medicate. For parents it's a week during which to reexamine the idea of holiday camp, which is exactly like the one during the warmer months, with the same benefits of peace and tranquility.

For many, tomorrow's holiday also marks the beginning of our traditional Festival of Watts, which is where we climb ladders in an effort to attach as many colored bulbs to our houses as possible. In this way, we (1) anger our neighbors, and (2) ensure lavish gifts for the families of our local utilities executives. It's also a time for contemplation, mostly by those languishing in hospital wards after falling from said ladders while discovering the cruel truth of Ohm's Law, which states that electrical current always takes the path of least resistance, notably through wet boots and gloves.

Probably the most important aspect of this holiday, however, is the opportunity it affords to get together with our families. The long lines we endure at airports—or the endless driving to other states—seem well worth it when we're greeted by the open arms of our loved ones. Sometimes the love lasts only as long as everyone is able to sustain the façade, which may be anywhere from three days to three minutes, depending on the relative level of dysfunction, and rage. Grandma Oon may be a sweet old lady to most people, but that's only because they've never seen her blow the Thanksgiving turkey to bits with a shotgun after your drunken uncle cracked wise about her culinary skills.

But at the bottom of it all lies the real reason for Thanksgiving, which is, of course, thankfulness. A plate of food isn't an option for everyone, and some people don't have a place on which to hang lights at all. For many, the concept of family is something they read about in a book—something reserved for the fortunate others. And school isn't always a safe place to gather knowledge; sometimes it's a place of fear and misunderstanding. Those of us still capable of seeing a bit of humor in tomorrow's holiday are fortunate, because there sure are a lot of people who cannot.


Slow Motion

SlomoDuring moments of extreme danger, it's said, the world goes into slow motion. This is the sort of thing that could be easily dismissed as legend, or perhaps an attempt to dramatize for the sake of a better story. But it happened to me once, so I know it's true. I think it's the mind's amazing way of giving us more time to think our way out of a bad situation when seconds are all we have to work with. Accidentally riding a motorcycle off a cliff is a good example of that kind of situation.

I'd been riding dirt bikes in the same area for years, so it wasn't like I didn't know there was a cliff. There were trails that skirted the edge of it, and everyone knew it was there; it was just something you avoided, like a barbwire fence or a tree. I'm not exactly sure what was different about that particular day, but when I flew down the hill toward the cliff—same as a hundred times before—I wasn't able to slow the bike in time to make the normal course adjustment to the right, away from the cliff. Maybe the rear tire had less tread than I thought, or maybe I was moving faster than I usually did, but on this day I didn't make that slight turn to the right, and rode straight out into thin air.

My buddy was right behind me, and he says I just disappeared over the edge. But from my vantage point, things happened differently. Just as I was going over the handlebar, time slowed to a crawl. I noticed the change in the color of the dirt at the bottom of the ravine, and the way the sun was reflected from the little stream that ran through the middle of it. The landing zone seemed okay; there were no cactus, or jagged pieces of metal. I seemed to be rotating, slowly, as I fell through space; I began twisting my body so I could see the motorcycle following me in. I thought it would be wise, probably, to move my head to the side just a bit, thereby avoiding the front tire at the moment of impact. I was marveling at the blueness of the sky when . . .

Wham! I land on my back and right shoulder, and my head is already moving itself away from the path of the motorcycle's front tire. A split second later, it meets the dirt a few inches from my face. I lie there, stunned, contemplating the damage. My friend's eyes appear at the edge of the precipice, uncharacteristically concerned. It isn't the first time he's seen me wipe out, but this one is just plain weird.

No broken bones, no permanent tissue damage, and the head still works—more or less. But how remarkable the mind's dedication to simple survival, even if that requires altering the perception of time.


State of the Blog

omegaword.comFirst of all, my sincere apologies for all the update pings that went out during the weekend. The new template handles certain HTML elements differently than the two previous ones I had used, resulting in line-spacing problems in the first paragraph of 18 posts all the way back to June; some had to be reloaded and some were fixed in place, but there was a whole lot of tinkering going on. During the first iteration of Saturday's repair exercise, I shut down the feeds and notification pings—and at one point brought the blog down entirely—specifically to prevent this sort of thing. Unfortunately, the exercise dragged on much longer than I had anticipated, and at some point I lost track of what I had shut down and what had been brought back on line. Anyway, the buggered posts have been fixed, and it shan't happen again.

In other news, the new tags capability has resulted in some interesting changes to what's picked up, and by whom. Those of you who've been using them for eons won't be surprised, but it seems the simple addition of a carefully worded tag can result in a post's appearance in rather unexpected places—in the bowels of a specialized research database, for example. It's amazing what some of the aggregators will pick up based on a single word used as a tag. In sharp contrast to the semantics-based, contextual sifting of content by engines such as Google's, this is more like vacuuming up every object that displays a particular label, regardless of what might really be inside. Used as intended, tags are a simple, effective way to categorize, collect, and display specific content. But the potential for abuse is enormous as well, and the spammers, of course, realized that right away.

It took Technorati a bit longer to figure it out, and now that they aren't erroneously counting spam-blogs as legitimate creations—at least not as much—the numbers have leveled out somewhat. David Sifry puts the current total at over 57 million, with about 100,000 new blogs every day. Some 55% are considered active, which in this case means they've been updated at least once in the last three months.

Meanwhile, in my own little corner of the blogosphere, this one has rocketed from August's 1,669,958th place in Technorati's rankings to the current position of 816,700. Needless to say, I no longer feel the overwhelming urge to vomit. Now I just want to curl up in a little ball and cry. Despite Mr. Sifry's advisory to the contrary, I remain convinced that the low authority category means just that: blogs in this group are unlikely to influence public opinion in any meaningful way.

For those of you who are new to Technorati's ranking systems, we establish a blog's authority (or influence) by tracking the number of distinct blogs that link to it over the past 6 months. In this chart, we've looked at folks with at least 3 links or more and grouped them into four separate categories. In total, we're looking at about 1.5 million blogs of the 57 million total. Even though I labeled the first group as the "Low Authority" group, given that these people are in the top 2% of all of the blogs that exist, the concept of "low" is purely in relation to the other groups above.

I was sure I'd be in first place by now. So much for world domination.

No doubt you've noticed the addition of the favorites list, which the new Blogger version makes far easier to implement. No need for insertions in the HTML anymore; it's a simple dialogue-box operation now. I think I'm done tweaking for a while.



The Blue TriangleThe Clinic

The ringing in my ears, the disgusting cough, the way people in restaurants move to other tables. All are hints of a sinus infection too long neglected, so I decide it's time for a visit to my friendly neighborhood clinic. After the customary weight, ear-temperature and blood pressure checks, I'm left alone in the examining room to ponder a three-dimensional plastic representation of the human digestive system. I'm halfway between the spleen and the large intestine when the PA bursts in, cheerful as always, and begins leafing through my chart. She wonders, aloud, how I'm doing; I tell her I've been better, and at the same time, worse. Unfazed, she listens to my breathing sounds with the stethoscope she happens to have hanging around her neck. Satisfied that air is moving in and out, she shines a light in my nose, then returns to my chart to document her findings.

She prescribes an antibiotic, and also mentions the name of a new decongestant I can easily—and more inexpensively—obtain at the local supermarket. I recognize the name; I've seen it on display in a number of stores. Thanking the PA for her time and attention, I leave with a new sense of joy over my impending return to good health.

The Pharmacy

Pushing my cart through the pharmacy aisle at the supermarket, I notice several prominent displays near the decongestant products. A new medical remedy always receives more than the ordinary level of attention, I think, especially this time of year when so many are suffering the indignities of colds, coughs, and related plagues. Contemplating the decongestants, my eye falls on the recommended product. Not exactly cheap. Immediately to its left the generic equivalent beckons; the difference in price is impossible to ignore. Having left my reading glasses in the car, I can make out only one word on the package by virtue of its extra-large print: Mucus. Stifling a cough, I toss the box into my cart and move off in search of toothpaste.

As I pass the pharmacy window, a woman in a white coat is watching me intently. She isn't smiling, and her head is moving slowly from side to side. She seems to be mouthing a word, silently, as if someone might overhear. I think the word is mucus, but then she begins to make wet, gurgling sounds, like an amplified fish tank. I quicken my pace, heading for the checkout. Strangers everywhere, I think, and now they're behind the pharmacy counter, too.

The Horror

Back in the car, I start the engine and wait for warm air from the heater. I think about the checkout clerk, and the way he laughed when he rang up the box of decongestants. With my glasses on I can read the box now, but it's only one word over and over where the dosage instructions should be, and everywhere else, too. Same word as the one printed extra large on the front. I look at the receipt; it only says mucus tabs, followed by the price. Whatever. I open the box, and pop the lid off the white plastic container. Big blue tablets. They look more like candy, I think, reaching for my water bottle. May as well start decongesting now. I swallow one, then another, and back out of the parking space. In the mirror, three people in white lab coats are watching me, but when I look over my shoulder three birds fly away. I exit the parking lot and head for home.

Driving toward the setting sun, I notice a bluish tint that seems to be coloring everything inside the car, although through the windows objects appear as they always do. At a red light, I take off my sunglasses and rub my eyes, but this doesn't affect the phenomenon at all. I put the sunglasses on again and wait for the light to change. But the green light never appears; instead, it changes from red to blue. I begin to cough, lightly at first, then uncontrollably. Behind me, horns blare as drivers lose patience. My coughing blends with the horns until there's only one sound, a cacophony of tones perfectly mixed and synchronized with the amplified wet gurgling of a fish tank.

The windshield is covered with an unnamable sludge, and I attempt to activate the wipers although my entire body is convulsing from the uninterrupted coughing. Somehow I find the switch, but the sludge is on the inside; it's mucus, which I've been expelling in revolting volume through my mouth and nose. I'm suddenly nauseous and roll down the window, but a crowd has gathered and small children are peering at me—one is only inches away from my face. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and offers it to me; I gratefully accept. He begins to sing a song, but the sound is coming from the radio in the car. It's Lou Reed's New Sensations, and I comment on the lad's fine rendition of it.

The Cure

I open my door and get out of the car, but I'm not in traffic anymore; instead, I seem to be all alone on a desolate plain. No hills or trees or grass, or features of any kind for that matter. No people, or houses. I notice a dirty cloud on the horizon, like a sandstorm, which appears to be growing rapidly as if moving toward me at a high rate of speed. The ground begins to tremble. I realize I'm in the path of a herd of stampeding buffalo and begin looking for a place of safety, but there's no such place. I decide the best way to handle the situation is by holding up one hand and saying "Stop!" in a very loud voice. I do this, and the cloud—which by now has arrived—immediately dissipates, along with the thundering hooves. Directly in front of me is a large rabbit with an even larger drum bearing the Energizer logo. He asks me if I need a ride. I reply that I thought he was a buffalo herd, and begin to apologize for making him stop. In a quavering falsetto, he interrupts me with a string of Latin words, which I don't understand. He begins to beat his drum, slowly at first, but then so rapidly that the drumsticks become a blur and the drumbeats a steady tone. The rabbit disappears in a cloud of dust, but this time there are no thundering hooves; there's only an unwavering musical note that gradually fades to silence as the cloud moves toward the horizon, and then is gone.

I start at the sound of my name. The nurse is wondering whether I'd like to come in, or just stay in the waiting room and sleep. She smiles. I rub my eyes as I stand, and move toward the doorway on unsteady legs. I tell her it's the mucus tablets; they make me sleepy. She nods. "Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease," she quips. After the customary weight, ear-temperature and blood pressure checks, I'm left alone in the examining room to ponder a three-dimensional plastic representation of the human digestive system. I'm halfway between the spleen and the large intestine when the PA bursts in, cheerful as always, and begins leafing through my chart. She wonders, aloud, how I'm doing; I tell her I've been better, and at the same time, worse. Unfazed, she listens to my breathing sounds with the stethoscope she happens to have hanging around her neck. Satisfied that air is moving in and out, she shines a light in my nose, then returns to my chart to document her findings. Outside the office window, three birds form a blue triangle in the sky.