Blog We Must

Most of a blog's benefits are obvious—things like instant global communication, cheap publicity, and potential notoriety—but one is probably overlooked more than it ought to be. This may be because it's so simple, so self-evident, that it's practically invisible. The old writers write maxim is as true today as it ever was, and what better way to practice your writing than by cranking out a daily blog?

There are other ways, of course. You can write in a spiral notebook, or on your living room walls if your muse dictates. But a blog is different, and better, because there's a good chance your writing won't remain in a vacuum forever; sooner or later, others will read your words. Maybe lots of others, if you're lucky. This alone is reason enough to be a bit more careful with your writing than you otherwise might, but it's also a good reason to force yourself to sit down every day, and just do it. It's a lot like work, even if you do love to write for its own sake. But unless you have the luxury of a personal transcriptionist, there's no help for it.

Taking the memory train to one of my favorite old print magazines yesterday, it was probably inevitable that I wound up at the Web site of Jerry Pournelle. He was a regular columnist at BYTE, and also wrote books in his spare time—i.e. when he wasn't fooling with those infernal machines at Chaos Manor. From what I could gather during the few minutes I spent on his site, things haven't changed much.

Anyway, I ran across an old article of his that seemed appropriate in the context of today's post. Originally published in the December 1996 BYTE as part of his regular column, How To Get My Job is a response to the age-old how do I become a writer? question.

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don't learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

Although it's aimed more at those with unpublished book manuscripts, his advice is applicable to bloggers, too. The first part is true regardless of the medium: write, write, repeat. The second is equally appropriate: finish your blog post, even if you don't feel like it—even a single paragraph has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And although it's certainly possible to carry your unfinished blog posts around with you in ways too obvious to illuminate, a hurried, not-quite-finished post can be inflicted on more than just your friends. Sometimes there just isn't enough time to do the post right, but maybe that's a good reason—and I say this to myself as well—to wait until there is.

So there it is. The secret to becoming a writer may be as simple as (dare I say it?) live to blog; blog to live. Or words to that effect.

 

New Ideas, and Old

IdeasThere are a lot of news blurbs about companies—notably those in the publishing business—reinventing themselves to better fit the times; a few are even offering the opportunity to sign up for Citizen Journalism classes and such. It may not be a brave new world exactly, but the new media makes it look that way, some days. For example, Kansas University is inviting you to apply to their Citizen Journalism Academy. 

The World Company and the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas University are seeking applications for the Citizen Journalism Academy. The class will learn from educators and journalists about the processes and standards that help translate community activities and events into "news."

And it probably goes without saying that the teen magazines really have to work to keep their readers happy. It's a tough gig.

"You can't just be a magazine editor sitting in your office. You can no longer dictate. It is a two-way street," said Atoosa Rubenstein. Since joining Seventeen as editor-in-chief in July 2003, she has been spearheading a revival of the once-tired 62-year-old publication, which still leads in circulation among teen rivals. Rubenstein had helped to launch CosmoGIRL! as editor-in-chief back in 1999.

Meanwhile, back in the newsroom, traditional dailies are scrambling to remain current, and relevant. The Chicago Tribune seems to be figuring things out.

Most publications don't print anonymous letters to the editor, after all. Why, he asked, and I paraphrase, would they give Web real estate to nameless, faceless rhetorical bomb throwers (in some cases) who remain completely unaccountable for the views they express? Doesn't this simply degrade the quality of public discourse?

It's a fair question. I didn't enable comments on this blog for nearly two years in part because I shared some of Rhodes' reservations. And I rolled out the feature gradually.

But I've come to find the comments area here to be an entertaining and vigorous place that fairly represents a cross-section of views out there and often educates and challenges me in a fruitful way.

I don't miss all the paper that used to arrive in my mailbox, or on my doorstep, although there's one exception. Many years ago I had a subscription to BYTE, a monthly magazine packed with everything a closet computer geek could want. It's on the Web now—sadly, it isn't the same publication in many ways—but I still haven't got the guts to take my laptop into the bathroom the way I used to do with BYTE. That's what I really miss. Tom Halfhill was the magazine's senior editor until 1998, and from reading his FAQ on the death of BYTE, it’s clear he isn't all that thrilled, either, although for reasons strikingly different from my own.

But seriously, I miss that magazine. Considering the content and the fact it launched in 1975, it's a bit ironic that the new media version of it should be so lacking.

 

Babes in Netland

For something that's really a transport medium, the Internet gets a lot of attention as an independent entity of some sort. For a pipeline, its e-heart of darkness—and its sunny side, too—seems remarkably human at times. No doubt the personification of this digital pipe is merely a reflection of its content; someone, not something, is making the decisions that determine whether the Internet contributes to knowledge and reason, or furthers their decay.

When my daughter was four, she sometimes sat on my lap while I typed on the computer's keyboard. Naturally, this observation phase didn't last; she wanted to do her own typing. The result—by the time she entered the halls of academia the following year—was a rather respectable typing speed. Later, when Windows became more common on personal computers, she would spend time playing with the little Paint program, experimenting with increasingly complex shapes and patterns. Yet a bit further along, she began to learn the ins and outs of PowerPoint. This nonrecreational computing was due, mostly, to the fact that Dad's machine didn't have any games on it; it was used for Very Important Things, and Dad was never really big on games anyway.

Somewhere within the elementary-school years, she wound up with a computer that had been gathering dust in a friend's basement; it wasn't the latest or greatest, but it was her own. This meant not only 100% availability, but the freedom to install software that didn't fit well in Dad's Very Important Things environment. Math Blaster was added, and games such as Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? began to receive greater attention. Of course, regular schoolwork figured into the learning process, too. It presented not only the opportunity to put her accumulated knowledge to good use on classroom assignments, but opened the door to the all-important process of research. As you might expect, this is where the Internet began to rear its multifaceted head.

Fast-forward to her final year of high school. Like television, cell phones, and computers, the Internet has long since been folded into the hum of ordinary day-to-day life, and the sticky strands of the Web are attached in innumerable places, for purposes as diverse as the minds in which they're incubated. Like so many her age, my daughter spends an inordinate amount of time connected to the Internet; there are Web sites to explore, MySpace pages to maintain, and instant messages to send. There's music, and video of course. Her digital photos require time; they don't organize themselves.

But there's still schoolwork, too, and she takes it seriously, as she always has. She's the one who ultimately decides what's worth her time, and what isn't, and how things are prioritized; no one is looking over her shoulder 24/7. If she gets an A—and there have been a lot of those—it's because she earned it; if the grade is disappointing, she knows how that happened, too. It doesn't seem all that long since she sat on my lap and pressed those first keys, but then, an accurate sense of time has never been one of my hallmarks. I'd like to think those early years had more than just a cursory effect on the present; I'd like to think that the dearth of computer games and TV during her formative years resulted in more important knowledge, and the reasoning skills to put that knowledge to practical use. I know an overly restrictive diet is more likely to result in malnutrition than enlightenment; there has to be a balance. But the stacks of books on her bedroom floor, when she was little, seem to have provided a good substitute for endless hours of television, and all that messing around with things like PowerPoint doesn't appear to have damaged her mind to any significant degree. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but at this point, it seems she's still able to surf the Web, and send text messages to her friends. But yeah, I know. It ain't over yet.

 

Two Sides of the Internet

PolarityIs the Internet revolutionary, or devolutionary? Is it the mind-expanding equivalent of a library on steroids, or is it robbing us of the ability to think, just because so much is so readily available, and instantly retrievable? And why are we using it as a global repository—a place to keep our memories, our facts, and our friends—when the whole thing could just stop working tomorrow?

"We are in the midst of a social change," writes Steve Yelvington, "so vast it is beyond our comprehension. And we are deeply addicted." Apparently, the Yelvington family recently lost their Internet access due to lightning, which didn't thrill the kids. It also contributed to a bit of soul-searching on Steve's part, exacerbated, I suppose, by an article he read in a British newspaper. In this particular blog post at least, he doesn't seem entirely thrilled with some aspects of the Net.

The Internet has become central to our consciousness. We no longer have to know facts, just how to Google or Wikipedia them. Our friends and relatives and photographs and memories are all there. The Internet has become an extension of our minds, and we take it for granted, until it suddenly disappears.

Taking into account the feelings of pessimism that result from having one's modem and router toasted by lightning, and subtracting the understandable pain a father feels at seeing his kids in the throes of Net withdrawal, I'm sure his ordinary level of loathing is lower than it might appear from his words here. Still, he has a good point: we do take the thing for granted, and if it suddenly disappears, we're all in serious trouble. I don’t mean the loss of online games, chat rooms, and social networks; it's the power grid, the financial networks, and in general, the global communications that really worry me. Robust as it is, the Internet—or at least our access to it—can most definitely disappear in an instant.

But worst-case contingency communication aside, what are the options? Unless you're a sworn Luddite, the idea of completely opting out of the Internet doesn’t seem realistic. I know a few people who live without Internet access, but they're very, very old, generally ambivalent, or simply have no desire to be that connected, thank you. Much as I love books and the simple pleasure of pen on paper, the idea of abandoning the global library or reverting to reams of paper doesn't thrill me. And there's been such a push to force the consumer into accepting the idea of visiting whatever.com—instead of using the phone or looking at a piece of paper—that there are now tangible benefits to doing it that way; you can refuse to play, but there's no advantage in it. You don't have to be an addict to understand that it's too late, in a practical sense, to turn back.

I disagree with Steve's statement about Google and Wikipedia doing away with the need for knowing facts. They're both wonderful tools, but their purpose is no different from that of any reference source of the past. Sure, they're a lot faster, availability is high, and the depth made possible by all those connections on the Net is staggering. But just try using either one during a test, and the need for fact-retention will become immediately apparent. I'm sure Steve used the word facts deliberately—he wasn't referring to knowledge, or understanding—and the Internet is indeed a poor substitute for the human mind, but as an extension it seems extraordinarily useful, and valid. If too much reliance on this new mind extension is cause for apprehension, a similar unease should be extended to virtually every facet of Western civilization. What if we suddenly lose our automobiles? Our phones, wireless or otherwise? We take our refrigerators—and the grocery stores that feed them—for granted, too.

We're deeply addicted to many things, but most are the result of social change; better stuff becomes available, and people want it. Many years ago, I asked a colleague—who happened to be an amateur astronomer, among other things—why he needed that fourteen-inch telescope when a few inches of aperture made such a large difference in price. With characteristic candor and simplicity he replied, "Because it's better." I think the same answer could be applied to the Internet versus brick-and-mortar libraries, or for that matter—and to borrow a point from the newspaper article to which Steve refers—Gutenberg's invention. If progress is defined as the adoption of better solutions as they become available, the Internet, like movable type, is more important than any misgivings about its future demise. It's worth the risk.

So is the Internet revolutionary, or devolutionary? Is it the mind-expanding equivalent of a library on steroids, or is it robbing us of the ability to think? Yes, yes, yes, and also yes. It's all of those things; it just depends on who you are, and what you want. It's revolutionary if you want to learn, communicate, or sell your product to the world, among other things. It will also waste your time, make you big as a house, and contribute to cardiovascular disease. For students and researchers, information retrieval is not only quicker than poring over endless volumes in a traditional library, but broader; the challenge now is narrowing the vast array of choices, instead of locating them in the first place. If a person's mind is bereft of useful knowledge, including facts, it may have more to do with how that person uses available time. It may also be a simple lack of motivation or interest. But someone, not something, is making the decisions that determine whether the Internet contributes to knowledge and reason, or furthers their decay. 

 

The $10 Simplification

Good enough

Much as I dislike those cheap, bargain items I referred to in my previous post, I have to admit I take a certain fiendish delight in accidentally finding something I need at a ridiculously low price. In this case I needed an outdoor thermometer, but because of the way the house I live in is oriented, every side gets the sun at some point during the day; this makes a basic window thermometer impractical. There's also no acceptable way to run a cabled temperature probe to the outdoors, leaving a wireless sensor as the only realistic solution.

Knowing the outside temperature is useful, but not mandatory, and there are other ways to get some sense of weather conditions. If the birds are panting, it's hot, and people wearing jackets means it's a cool day. So an outdoor thermometer was one of those back-burner things; I figured I'd eventually spot something I could use, and in the meantime, I'd just get my temperatures from the various weather sources on the Web, or listen to the radio.

A couple days ago, my ambivalence finally paid off. While staggering through the local Megamart, I happened to spot one of those bright red price tags they put on stuff that isn't selling well, or is taking up shelf space needed for the new & improved version, or whatever. Hey! A wireless thermometer! For ten bucks, confidence was not high; on the other hand, Megamart is known for its liberal return policy, so I grabbed it anyway.

The thing is, it works really well. That 433 MHz frequency the remote uses to burp its temperature readings back to the main unit does a good job of penetrating most structural materials, and accuracy is more than acceptable. As you can see from the photo, there's a difference of only four-tenths of a degree from the reference thermometer. There's also a relative barometric-pressure display, although it's just one of those "range of readings using icons" things; there's no actual numeric value for pressure. On the other hand, a good weather station will set you back considerably more than $10. So will a high-quality wireless thermometer for that matter.

There's nothing to complain about, really. At least not until those infernal AAA batteries they decided to use in the remote unit go dead, but then, I might be pleasantly surprised about that, too. Anyway, this is one of those products that doesn't belong in the best category, but when you consider the price, probably qualifies as good enough. 

 

Simplify

Thoreau was right. Maybe it's just part of the aging process, but I'm burned out on stuff that's feature-rich and benefit-poor. Not that it's ever been about bells and whistles for their own sake, but I used to get a kick out of exploring a gadget's features—the more the merrier. But something has changed. Not in a bad way, because I get a warm feeling every time I walk past the new gadgets in the mall, or click through them on the Web. It's a positive change; I can feel the stress melting away.

The thing is, I'm tired of constant improvements to stuff that didn't need improving, stuff that already did what it needed to do. I just want something that works, not something that works me. I don't mean bargain items, but products that are good enough, at a price that reflects this principle. Not shoddy, or cheap. There's elegance in simplicity, if it's properly executed.

So, just about everything that can be improved, is being improved. If you define "improved" to mean more features, more buttons, more choices, more power, more cost.

The washing machine I used this morning had more than 125 different combinations of ways to do the wash... don't get me started about the dryer. Clearly, an arms race is a good way to encourage people to upgrade.

I wonder, though, if "good enough" might be the next big idea. Audio players, cars, dryers, accounting... not the best ever made, not the most complicated and certainly not the most energy-consuming. Just good enough.

For some people, a clean towel is a clean towel.

Those are Seth Godin's words, which really struck a chord with me today for some reason. I'm not exactly sure why, but I have the feeling he's right about that next big idea. The New Minimalism, maybe?

 

All the News That's Fit to Fark

http://www.fark.com/This morning, a friend sent me a link to the excerpt of an article from Business 2.0 magazine. The thrust—and the title—of the excerpt is Blogging for big bucks; the authors mention some of the known players in the campaign to fulfill blogs' destiny as revenue-generating ventures.

Boing Boing, a four-person operation that bills itself as a directory of wonderful things, is on track to gross an estimated $1 million in ad revenue this year. The digital-media news site PaidContent.org, headquartered in the second bedroom of a Santa Monica apartment, is set to post even more than that.

Boing Boing is obviously a household word in the blogosphere, but in the next paragraph, the focus shifts to a blog that, for some reason, is virtually invisible on the radar of tracking sites like Technorati.

And Fark.com, a site packed with sophomoric humor run by a lone guy in Lexington, Ky., is on pace to become a multimillion-dollar property. In short, some of the most popular blogs, long the bane of the mainstream media, are themselves becoming mainstream.

FARK is a new one to me, so I went over there to have a look. As it turns out, the sophomoric humor label doesn't seem appropriate for this site. With more than the usual number of links to strange and unusual news items, and a tag line that—as you can see from FARK's logo above—disavows any connection to real news, it might be tempting to assign it to that category. But that wouldn't do it justice.

What I like about FARK is the variety, and the choice. There's certainly no shortage of news-aggregating sites on the Web, and a significant number are blogs, but this one is different. While there are news blurbs culled from the usual sources, they're divided into categories such as Not News, Sports, Entertainment, Tech, Politics, Press, Video, and Voting. Within each category, the blurbs are further subdivided with descriptive labels like Obvious, Amusing, Follow Up, Stupid, Weird, Ironic, and Sad, among others. The news items aren't from obscure sources, either; they're familiar names like CNN, ABC, BBC, Fox, Reuters, and a host of big-city newspapers, e.g. the Chicago Sun-TimesSo you have serious news, flippant news, and everything between, all in one place. I like!

In typical blog fashion, the reader has the opportunity to comment, and also submit links to news items for inclusion on the site. Apparently, revenue comes from classified ads that appear on the right side of the main page, as well as sponsors. If, as the authors of the article point out, this blog is headed for the multimillion dollar bracketit means Drew has done more than a couple things right. Personally, I like it for its own sake; it fits my idea of what a blog ought to be. But if it can make a living in the process, so much the better. 

Oh, and thanks for that link, Jan!

 

Back to the Future of Communication

Rewind to the ninetiesFor me, a big part of the fun of the Web is watching it grow. I don’t mean the relative size in terms of connections; I get a kick out of the new uses for it, and the people who drive those new uses. When I think about the early days of personal computing, I remember a lot of excitement, along with some frustration. I couldn't fathom the desire to use a fax machine—or worse yet, the postal service—when electronic mail was available, nor the refusal to use the Internet for worldwide communication. To me, it seemed a lot like rejecting the telephone simply because the telegraph is already familiar. I wasn’t alone in my frustration, of course. Reading Steve Outing's Online-News: Have We Come Far Enough? column at Editor & Publisher brought back some memories from the early nineties, when being online wasn't the familiar concept it is today. Although the context of his article is—big surprise—journalism and publishing, the problems that arise from conformist thinking aren't limited to those fields. It seems Steve was running a discussion list at that time, where forward-looking professionals in the field could exchange ideas.

I left the print journalism world for good at the end of 1993 and switched my career to online media. One of the first things I did back then was start an Internet e-mail discussion list for the then still small group of media people who were starting to work -- or were at least interested in -- this new thing called the Internet and the then-prevalent proprietary online services. The list was (and still is) called Online-News, and it grew to be the primary place for online news junkies to talk to each other, bounce ideas off colleagues, and gripe about how most other people in their organizations failed to understand the importance of the online world.

Clearly, failure to understand the importance of the online world isn't limited to the spheres of publishing and journalism, although it certainly continues to be a key issue in those fields. But there's something extraordinarily odd about the idea that a profession so defined by communication—especially written communication—wouldn't benefit from a transport medium like the Internet, combined with the social and economic advantages of the Web. And yet, so many who control traditional media concerns have only recently begun to listen to the voices of reason. Or maybe they're the voices of their accountants, now that revenues are sliding.

My own frustration in the early nineties wasn't due to media bosses, but it had similar roots. In 1992, I wrote an article for Home Office Computing magazine, and for the first time, I wasn't forced to use primitive methods to do it. The whole thing took place within my computer; there was no paper involved, and therefore no fax machines or mailed documents. The article went back and forth a few times between my editor's computer and mine, but e-mail made the process rapid, and painless. While this method may seem obvious, it had everything to do with that magazine's focus on the benefits of technology; it certainly wasn't obvious to everyone at the time. In fact, although that assignment was a breath of fresh air, it wasn't the last time I, like many involved in written communication, would have to deal with the myopic vision of others. Progressive thinking wasn't—and evidently still isn't—a hallmark of the industry in general.

 

Blog Snobbery

There's no shortage of reading material out there on the related subjects of new media and new journalism; I'm still trying to wade through it all. At Jay Rosen's Pressthink blog, I was reading through the comments concerning his The People Formerly Known as the Audience post when one in particular reached out and grabbed me.

But how many people can afford to blog on such a lovely page as this? I wouldn't have read anything you said if this was posted at Blogger.com, or Myspace.com for that matter. Does that make me a snob?

And a voice online will cost you time and money: $15/year for a domain, $70/year for a host, some kind of education, at the very least knowledge of HTML, preferably CSS, and PHP. And still you might not be heard without SEO knowledge.

Posted by: PJ at Knowing Art at June 27, 2006 07:59 PM | Permalink

This couldn't be more misguided. The time investment part is true, but the rest is by no means certain. I don't know how many of the 50 million blogs currently in existence are hosted on paid sites, but now I have a good reason to find out. I'm guessing most are not, which would eliminate that $85 per year cost right off the bat. But even if you decide to go that route and create your own Web site with its corresponding domain, there's no need to know anything about scripting languages, or cascading style sheets for that matter. A rudimentary knowledge of HTML never hurts, but it isn't necessary, either. Blogging just couldn't get much easier, which is, no doubt, a key factor in its popularity.

There are ugly blogs—and ugly Web sites for that matter—out there, but it doesn't have to be that way. Garish color schemes and unfortunate font choices can overcome even the best content. On the other hand, while I'm sure there's a direct relationship between professional site design and the loveliness quotient of the finished product, the greatest design in the world doesn't amount to a hill of beans if there's no content. Anyone with access to a networked computer can have a voice online, even those with no place to call home. It isn't about money, or how much eye candy you can cram onto a page. Yeah, it does take time, and it isn't always easy to come up with something new every day. It takes time and effort, whether the result is words, photographs, graphics, or some combination of the three. This may account for all those dead blogs on the Web.

But the idea that money, education, and blog-bling are requisites for an online voice misses the real point of communication entirely. There's a reason so many are using MySpace, or Blogger, and it isn't just that they're free, or easy to use. They offer a free, easy way for anyone to take part in the global dialogue, right now. Does that make them anti-snobs? I'd like to think so.

 

Mister Language Perp

Flipping through another grammar-related site, I was enraged by the advice of someone who claims to be a language expert, but is clearly not. In fact, I'd say he's just plain evil. Who but an evil person would dispense this sort of advice to innocent people looking for answers to their grammar questions?

Q. When the Marvelettes sing, "Deliver de letter, de sooner de better," are they using correct grammar?

A. No. The correct grammar would be, "Deliver de letter, irregardless."

This flippant answer only increases the questioner's level of murk. The answer should point out the misuse of the singular form, and suggest a correction, like this.

Deliver dem letters, irregardless.

This so-called language expert also fails to mention the origin of the word dem, which is, of course, Latin. Typically, the word is used with carp to create the familiar phrase carp dem, which means grab those fish!

Here's another disgusting example of this guy's heart of darkness.

Q. Please explain the correct grammatical usage of the phrase ''should of.''

A. Grammatically, ''should of'' is a predatory admonition; as such, it is always used as part of a herpetological phrase.

EXAMPLE: ''Maurice never should of took no snake to no funeral.''

Again, the answer is calculated to introduce confusion, and doubt. As any real grammarian would know, herpetological phrases are used to separate vulgates, such as cruddy weather we're having and I can't stand this crud. The phrase should of is never used in this way; it's used where an ellipsis would be inappropriate. That certainly isn't the case here.

Maurice never . . . took no snake to no funeral.

In another example of calculated evil, this fake language advisor deliberately attempts to confuse some poor soul whose only mistake was asking the wrong person for advice.

Q. I, am never sure, when, to use, commas.

A. You should use a comma whenever you have a need to pause in a sentence.

EXAMPLE: "So me and Tiffany were at the mall and she ate like four of those big fudge squares which is why her butt is the size of a Volkswagen Jetta I don’t know WHAT Jason sees in, wait a minute I’m getting another call."

To indicate a longer pause, use more commas:

EXAMPLE: "Then the earth,,,,,,,,,, cooled off."

This is bogus. Since there's only one planet of this name, you would capitalize the word.

Then the Earth,,,,,,,,,, cooled off.

Incredible. But I've decided not to let this go by. I've decided to expose this guy for the charlatan he is, so everyone will know, and stop asking him for grammar advice. Although he attempts to disguise his true identity by using the name Dave, and maintains a fake blog at some fake newspaper in Florida, he isn't fooling anyone but himself. So here's what you ought to do, "Dave." Renounce your evil ways, and admit you aren't really a grammarian; admit you don't really know a predatory admonition from a herpetological phrase. I think you'll feel better.

 

What I Don't Know About Journalism

Nothing to say

What do I know about journalism? Not much, and right now that may be a good thing. Continuing my journey through the old media/new media debate, it becomes clear that many journalists are being forced into the fray by newly aware bosses; the times—and The Times—they are a changin'. Since I'm not a journalist, I have the luxury of looking at the situation through the eyes of the casual observer. I don't mean to imply ambivalence; I'm an information consumer like everyone else, and I'm affected by these changes. I have a stake in the outcome. But there's no edict in my inbox telling me how my professional life is about to change. No one has handed me a fiat saying my articles will now be referred to as blog posts, and by the way, the readers will be in touch, constantly and incessantly, and you, dear journalist, will respond in kind. That is, if you value your job.

No, I'm just a consumer, so my only responsibility is to sit back and consume. And I will like the new media, because it's interactive, and content-rich. I will like the new media because it isn't the old media, and that's where my analysis of the situation will end, because after all, I'm just a consumer. I am a blip among blips. I am the target audience, and based on the latest intelligence from the front, squarely in the crosshairs of the marketing corps. As long as it has the look and feel of new media, I'll keep swimming in the revenue stream.

Um . . . not necessarily. The thing is, I've seen what happens when you take a wrench to something just because you happen to have a toolbox lying around. Some things are already as good as they're ever going to get; you can weld a third axle to your car, but that doesn't make it suitable for pulling a semi-trailer. In a similar vein, you can weld a blog to your local news channel, or newspaper, but the result isn't necessarily an improvement. Where I live, the local media have done exactly that, and the results are appalling. None of them were exactly paragons of journalism in the first place, but they were about as good as one could expect, given the locale. Now they're worse, and in some cases, merely absurd. Before, they were at least functional: they reported the news. Add the look and feel of new media, and now you have the same news, but with the dubious benefit of blogs from an already overworked staff who are suddenly expected to run daily posts up the flagpole for public discussion, quid pro quo. If they were allowed to libel their employers with impunity, you might have an interesting new concept here. Alas, they are not, so it's the same mediocrity as before, only dressed up a bit for the sake of appearances.

Of course, this isn't the situation where quality content was the rule long before the ye shall blog proclamation came down. New media can enhance what's already good, but poor content is only further exposed. Public-access cable programs haven't robbed NBC of all its viewers any more than YouTube will; they're different animals, and there's a place for both. From my non-journalist vantage point, the idea that Journalism will be taken over by amateur bloggers seems absurd, and the concept of bloggers made irrelevant by journalists is equally incomprehensible. There are obvious similarities between journalism and blogging, but one is a profession, while the other is a vehicle. Take the blog away from the journalist and you haven't altered the occupation at all; remove the blogger's blog, and you've created a vacuum.

What do I know about journalism? Not much, but I know what I like. I like to be informed, but I want the whole story, and not just someone's version of it. I form my own opinions, but I base those opinions on as many facts as I have available to me. I don't care whether those facts are presented in new-media format or basic text; facts are facts and lies are lies, no matter how they're dressed. Sometimes you can't get all the facts, and that's okay, as long as you say that. It's useful, at times, to be able to strike up a conversation with a journalist, or an editor, about a story or article they've just published; this is one of the great things about a blog. But that isn't always necessary, or even desirable; sometimes I just want to read the story, and then go on to something else. Content is more important, by far, than where the story appears; sometimes the bloggers do a better job than the professional journalists, and sometimes it's the other way around. I like both, and I don't want to see one go away at the expense of the other. I don't want to leave story ideas—i.e. "tips"—on your newspaper or television channel's site; this doesn't make me feel special, useful, or important. I don't think posting obtuse comments on your staff's blog is the same as contributing, much less collaborating; sometimes it works out, but there's nothing remotely interesting about off-topic comments and flame wars. This is true whether the blog is autonomous, or attached to the site of a media giant.

In any case, there are fundamental differences between journalism and blogging, and more than enough room for both. But if you're running a newspaper or a local TV station, it may be worthwhile to consider the differences before you launch a staff blog on your Web site. New media for its own sake won't improve the content, although it may shine a brighter light on what's been missing all along. 

 

Broadcast vs. Intercast

I can't help it. The old media/new media debate fascinates me, and I can't stop reading about it. I'm only scratching the surface so far, but there's a lot of stuff to wade through, which means sitting a lot, which means blood clots, which means . . . I don't know what that means, but I don't think it's good.

Anyway, all this reading about the journalism wars and what's better about These Days raises questions, such as What's so different, really? Print or laptop screen, it's still a collection of words. But some aspects really do seem to have changed.

The old

  • In print, what's done is done. Your options include things like retractions, apologies, and "clarifications." To paraphrase Carl Sandburg, your words can't hear you calling.

  • It takes a long time to go from notes to typing to editing to print to distribution.

  • It's a one-way communication; it's a broadcast, even if it's on paper.

  • Slick presentations cost a lot of money; a significant portion goes to professional resources to go from typewritten text to glossy publication. Or a non-glossy one, for that matter.

  • Photography for the publication takes time, and possibly also money if you need a professional photographer.

  • Research takes time and effort. And possibly that money thing again.

The new

  • You can edit your stuff, or remove it completely. You can go in and change one or two words, and it's possible—even likely—that no one will ever notice. Hate your entire post? Just nuke it. If you're quick, and lucky, Google won't even have gotten around to indexing the post yet.

  • Type it on your laptop, then hit send.

  • It's an intercast; two-way exchange is easy; so is a thousand-way exchange.

  • Slick presentations began with the "desktop publishing" idea many years ago; now they inhabit the Web, and in fact define it. It doesn't take much to have a slick-looking blog, either.

  • Digital photography is cheap, easy, and rapid.

  • Research takes time and effort, but not nearly as much. Google searches are free.

The list could go on, and perhaps it will, but not today. Blood clots are demanding, and right now, they're demanding I take them for a walk. Who am I to argue?  

 

No Ridiculing or Pontificating

Abusing the English language seems to be almost a profession for some, while in the opposite corner, grammarians poke at the abusers. Both are tough gigs in their own right: butchering the language gets you ridicule, and deriding the butchers may result in the dreaded Grammar Nazi label, regardless of your actual level of snark. Can't we all just get along? Of course not, but maybe we can all have some fun without anyone losing an aye in the process.

This, I think, is the spirit of The Eggcorn Database, a collection of lexical errors that arise more from the writer's misunderstanding than a fundamental ignorance of grammar. Are they bloopers, then? Maybe in the sense that a lot of these eggcorns wouldn't be flagged by the spell-check, but they seem more interesting than the everyday spelling mistake. In fact, a lot of them are just plain cute, like something your five-year-old might come up with. And it isn't mere ridicule of, say, the inappropriate substitution of their for there; at this site, you can take another tact and walk down the isle in your water turban.

So is this another collection of common errors, ridiculous bloopers or, worse, finger-wagging at the decline of the English tongue? Well, no. While compilations of the first type can be very useful (and I recommend Paul Brians' site Common Errors in English), ridiculing and pontificating, while an entertaining pastime, has long struck me as childish and, indeed, lacking any intrinsic interest.

The link to Paul Brians' site is appropriate, because it has a lot in common with The Eggcorn Database. I hadn't visited it since an earlier post about common writing errors, but I had some fun there today, too. Fun with an educational component, that is. There's always something I can learn from the professor.

 

The IQ of Lint

Encrypted gibberishEver heard someone say that computers are smart? The real implication is some kind of software running on the computer, but the idea is there's rudimentary intelligence at work in these machines. I've had the idea a few times over the years myself—back in the early days of personal computers, mostly—but the more time goes by, the more I realize how artificially unintelligent my computer really is. Sure, it's so useful that I'd have a tough time living without it at this point, but it's still an idiot. Maybe I am, too.

Say you create a folder, using Windows XP, to hold some kind of personal information. If you want to, XP—the so-called professional version anyway—allows you to specify that folder as encrypted, and whatever you put in that folder after that is automatically scrambled for you. It's an easy, transparent operation. There's no password to enter every time you need to use one of those files; it's all based on your Windows log-in. Life is good, until, of course, something in that monstrosity known as Windows goes terribly wrong. And as we all know, that part is inevitable; it's a matter of when, not ifEventually, something doesn't initialize properly during the boot sequence, resulting in psychotic behavior from one or more applications or processes, if not complete meltdown. It's an old story, and probably too familiar among Windows users.

Knowing this, the last thing you want to do is put too much trust in this system. If you really need to secure your stuff, you don't rely on some built-in piece of Windows to do it. If the OS fails, your information is inaccessible, and besides, you don't sleep well with all those nagging doubts about whether your files were really encrypted in the first place. If it's something that matters, you use a third-party application to back up and secure your data, preferably one that doesn’t live on the same machine. With this in mind, the comedic dimension of today's events can't be overstated.

Three days ago, in a moment of madness, I decided to try out the built-in Windows folder encryption for the first time. The little voice that comments on right and wrong suddenly became a big, loud voice. It called me a moron. At first, I just encrypted a few folders of low importance, stuff that I could stand to lose if things didn’t work out. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, I decided to encrypt my Quicken folder. No, not just part of it; I actually chose to encrypt The Whole Freaking Directory. The voice became a hysterical scream, so I muffled it with a roll of duct tape while I watched the progress bars in the encryption-status window. Afterward, I tried it out a few times to make sure I could still get into my Quicken files. No problem. I went back to doing other things, but I had a bad feeling inside.

Today began in the usual way: heave myself out of bed, drink coffee, blink my eyes, more coffee, boot the computer. Everything was normal, but then I started Quicken. The first-time user dialogue welcomed me, and asked if I wanted to create a new file. I sat there, staring in disbelief, but the little voice—evidently having extricated itself from the duct tape—began to laugh. No to the new file, exit Quicken, then restart it again. Same thing again. Thinking (I mean delusional hoping, because I knew what had really happened) there had been a glitch in the file path, I opened the file menu. This is where everything really melted down, because the entire Quicken directory was, of course, still encrypted, probably due to a failure in the Windows initialization sequence. So Quicken just locked up; it was staring at a heap of unintelligible mumbledy-goo, and couldn’t figure out why it was all so strange. Anything with an IQ above that of a squirrel would have taken one look at all that encrypted gibberish, and immediately backed away with its hands in the air. But since this was taking place within a computer, the obvious solution was to stand there, trying to make sense of something that would never, ever become any clearer. The way I see it, this means my computer, taken as a whole, has an IQ roughly equivalent to that of lint.

Yeah, I can laugh now, because I was fortunate enough to be able to simply remove that infernal encryption status from my folders. That is, after I finally regained control of my system. I didn't have to search for my backup disks, or worse, reinstall an entire application. Or an entire operating system. I've given the Little Voice a nice raise, and I slapped myself, too. I'd like to think I'm smarter than my computer; I'd like to believe I'm more intelligent than lint. But after this, can I ever really be sure?

 

In the Land of the Fraction People

One in threeAs we know, statistics can shed light on a situation, but can also be used to obscure the truth. Sometimes statistical expressions aren't used in either way; sometimes the reason has more to do with keeping things simple. Newspapers do this quite a bit, perhaps in an effort to maintain a certain readability level. The other day, I saw a good example of the problems one can encounter while attempting to convert certain mathematical quantities to English. The scenario also says something about how individual minds interpret the same information in different ways; once again, the perception is the reality.

Pam Nelson is the proprietor of a grammar-oriented blog at The News & Observer; she frequently uses examples from the workplace to illustrate specific writing points. It seems there had been a discussion among copy editors concerning the proper grammatical rendering of a fraction within a sentence when it's expressed as one in something. The disagreement revolved around the inherent plurality of more than one item within a set. Some of the editors didn't see the logic in referring to one as many; they saw the mathematical quantity as a whole. But Pam saw things more from the vantage point of grammatical construction: the numerator plainly refers to a single item. In its original form, the sentence that launched the discussion is another one of those that's easy to breeze through without really noticing any problems one way or another.

One in three of these deaths are due to a fall; one in four deaths are from poisoning, and one in five are from burns.

As you can see, the one in construction is what's causing the logic problem. The one in three phrase might also be written as one out of three, or one third, or even three tenths, although you probably wouldn't want that last one in this kind of context; it's mathematically identical, but sounds statistically miniscule. The other two fractions could be similarly reworded. After Pam rearranged things, the sentence reflected the singular spirit of the fractions' numerators.

One in three of these deaths is due to a fall; one in four deaths is from poisoning, and one in five is from burns.

Personally, I'd probably have chosen a different expression instead of changing are to is, but then, I don't edit newspaper copy. I like expressions such as a third and one fourth for applications like this, but that's just my preference. To me, the more interesting question has to do with why some people immediately see the implied fractions as collections of things—i.e. more than one—while others disassemble them and focus on things like numerators in the context of English grammar. Maybe it's a left-brain versus right-brain thing.

 

Pets from Hell

Poking around among the grammar blogs yesterday, I ran across several that invited readers to submit their pet peeves. I was horrified, because if there's one thing you never want to keep as a pet, it's a Peeve. I had one myself, once, and it was a big mistake.

This animal is an example of cross-breeding gone terribly wrong. Possessing some of the positive traits normally associated with librarians, but similar in temperament to members of the Badger family, a Peeve isn't the sort of pet you can take out for a stroll on a warm August night. I tried that with mine a few times, but its behavior was so unsuited to even the simplest social situations that I abandoned the idea entirely. One evening, while walking my Peeve on its leash, it spotted a small sign in front of a sidewalk cafĂ©, advertising the daily "Chefs special." Enraged at the lack of an apostrophe, the Peeve lunged at the sign, knocking several diners off their chairs in the process, and proceeded to rip the offending billboard to shreds with its teeth. By the time the tactical squad arrived, several bystanders—they had done nothing but attempt to calm the beast during its rampage—were missing the fingers they had used to point out the Peeve's overreaction.

Needless to say, I'll never again attempt to keep a Peeve. They're interesting to watch in the wild, or maybe during the occasional trip to the zoo, but I don't think they'll ever really be suitable for domestication. It may also be worthwhile to mention, in passing, that certain Peeve species are particularly sensitive to local dialect and inflection. This may result in unanticipated difficulty when the creatures are relocated; they don't adapt well, and may actually become more hostile in the process.

 

I Think I'm Gonna Throw Up

I couldn't be more thrilled. After reading David Sifry's State of the Blogosphere report yesterday, curiosity led me to search Technorati's listings to see where my blog lies among the more than 50 million they're tracking. And there it was, in 1669958th place! The feeling I get from seeing a number like that is hard to put into words, but basically, it makes me want to throw up. Sure, it could be worse; I could be in 1669959th place instead. But still, that's the sort of number I usually associate with distances in space, or maybe the number of lottery dollars I didn't win yesterday. It's an outside-my-normal-frame-of-reference number. In this case, however, the number is very real, and it affects me in a very personal way. I'm sad. Really, really sad.

Okay, I'm over it now. So what is the current state of the blogosphere, anyway? Well, it's about 100 times more massive than it was three years ago, doubling in size every 200 days. It's spawning two blogs per second now, which I believe is twice the rate reported last time, and 18.6 posts per second. In other words, it's out of control, man. And as you might expect, the spammers are still going nuts over it, too.

About 70% of the pings Technorati receives are from known spam sources, but we drop them before we have to send out a spider to go and index the splog.

Inky binky. I wonder what would happen if all those spings were reflected back to their respective sources. Infinite feedback loop, or something else?

 

Contingency Communication

CQ DXThe ability to communicate with the rest of the planet is now so common that it's generally taken for granted. We just push a few buttons on our cell-phones, or our computers, and that's that. Cellular networks have a lot to do with it, but mostly it's the Internet that allows us to connect on this global scale. And it doesn’t matter if you're sending a message—or calling someone—across the street or around the world; it's as easy to do one as the other. This easy connectivity is great, but it all relies on three things: power, access to the network, and the network's health. Take away just one and the others don't even matter anymore; your ability to communicate with the outside world is gone. I've often thought that complete reliance on only one or two communications paths is a formula for eventual misery, especially when both paths have so many common nodes, and revisiting the Katrina blog I mentioned in a recent post brought that line of reasoning back to the forefront. But short of buying your own cellular company and somehow replicating the Internet, we're basically stuck with crossing our fingers, right?

Not entirely. There's another global communications network that predates the Internet, and Arpanet, and nearly everything but smoke signals for that matter. It is, and has always been, a wireless network, and so doesn't rely on local, physical connections for access. It's the network of transmitters, receivers, antennas—and of course computers—that got its start at the turn of the previous century when Marconi's colleague sent the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission. This achievement triggered a surge of interest in the new wireless communication medium, and many of those early experimenters would go on to create the extraordinary hobby known as Amateur Radio. This may be an unfortunate label, because there's nothing remotely amateurish about it; many of the discoveries and subsequent advances in the communications field have been due to those hobbyists. The restraints that generally define the term hobby have kept commercial interests out of the mix; Amateur Radio continues to attract those with a genuine interest in the scientific and social aspects of long-distance wireless communication.

That's nice, you say, but what does any of this have to do with my e-mail, or my nice high-speed Internet connection—which is working just fine, thank you very much. Absolutely nothing, as long as it's working. But if you were unfortunate enough to be stuck in New Orleans during the Katrina fiasco, or have otherwise experienced the failure of your local communications and/or electrical infrastructure, you already know something about the ultimate reliability of commercial Internet and phone services. Your cellular and Internet providers may have diesel-powered backup generators, but they'll run only as long as there's fuel, and someone to feed them. If you have deep pockets, you may be able to set up some kind of satellite-based system, and get your power from wind turbines if you're away from civilization, but for most of us, those aren't viable options. A CB radio in your vehicle may or may not be useful for basic communication, depending on what's happening in surrounding areas, and the overall condition of the 27 MHz band at the time. The little UHF Family Radio Service walkie-talkies are severely limited in range, and the slightly more powerful General Mobile Radio Service versions won't be much help, either; doubling the range of a transmitter requires quadrupling the power output, so unless you're on a mountaintop, you'll be lucky to get more than a couple miles out of those without a repeater. And like cell-sites, repeaters require power to function; they also require other humans with repeater-capable radios, which happen to be tuned to your frequency, on the other end. The consumer-variety VHF radios may get you slightly better range, but like the UHF versions, hinge on the presence of someone relatively nearby, and whose current circumstances are better than your own.

In sharp contrast, Amateur Radio suffers from none of these limitations. Although local repeater-based activity is popular in the Amateur community, it isn't the only option. If you've ever listened to a shortwave broadcast, you know it's possible to transmit around the world without any kind of relay, or repeater; the planet's ionosphere reflects the radio waves back to the surface much farther from where they originated. Since Amateur Radio systems can also use shortwave frequencies, they don't require anything but the ionosphere—and electricity of course—to operate. Reliable communication, especially during natural disasters or other catastrophic events, has always been one of the hallmarks of Amateur Radio; the power-availability factor has never been an issue, even when nothing else is working. In fact, the only communications systems that did work in New Orleans during Katrina were Amateur Radio systems. Although computer-based communication is as much a part of the Amateur world as it is for others, there are so many Amateur Radio operators throughout the world that, even if the entire Internet—and every cellular network—were to crash at the same time, it would still be possible to get in touch with someone. Probably lots of someones; they're a very helpful and accommodating bunch.

Shortwave frequencies aren't the only possibility. The first Amateur Radio satellite was launched in 1961, followed by dozens more over the years. And as is the case in the commercial world, microwave frequencies have seen increasing use by Amateurs as well; the familiar IEEE 802.11b protocol that lives in so many residential and commercial wireless routers—and their clients—is of interest to the Amateur Radio community, too. While Amateur Radio may not be a viable substitute for the ubiquitous high-speed networks and pocket global digital communicators we take for granted on a daily basis, it certainly isn't irrelevant. When you think about communication alternatives, there really isn't anything else like it on the planet. The bad news is you need a license to operate Amateur equipment, and that license requires technical knowledge. On the other hand, although it's true that astronauts have always been well-represented in the Amateur Radio community, it ain't rocket science. But even if you don't have the inclination to get a license of your own, it may not be a bad idea to make friends with the Amateur in your neighborhood. You never know when you might need to send that crucial message.

 

P.S. After all this, you're probably wondering what sort of Amateur station I'm running. Sadly, the answer is none. Although I've been intrigued by the idea for many years, there have always been reasons—I mean excuses—for not getting that license. But right now, I'm having a tough time thinking of a single one. Maybe it's time to just do it. Okay, now what did I do with that Amateur Radio Relay League link . . .

 

Primitive Communication

Primitive CommunicationI've always been intrigued by communication for its own sake; if something imparts information, I probably like it. I got my first desktop computer in 1985, and had already been through a couple "pocket computers" by that time. It took a fairly large pocket to accommodate those early models—a Sharp 1500, and then an HP-71B—but that's what they were called at the time. Before that, programmable calculators were at the pinnacle of portable computing, and I had a few of those, too. By about 1990, I had one of the first Toshiba notebook computers. There was no such thing as a color LCD at the time and disk capacity was a whopping 60 megabytes, but I was in portable-computer heaven. I could run the preeminent word processor of the day—WordPerfect—on that machine, and using the equally preeminent communication software—ProComm—I had everything I needed. Best of all, I could easily take everything with me. Although that's the normal state of affairs now, those were coveted advantages in those days.

For the average consumer in the early nineties, useful wireless communication still belonged to the future. Analog cell-phones were available, but they didn’t have text capability, and cost was a limiting factor; per-minute airtime rates were high, and the phones themselves were expensive. Computers had no wireless abilities at all. But pagers were beginning to morph from numeric to text-capable devices; they weren't Blackberries by a long shot, but they had autonomous e-mail addresses, which made it possible to receive text messages from computers. Although the Web didn't yet exist, large networks such as CompuServe allowed information retrieval from the Internet, as well as a variety of private databases. Since the ProComm software provided the ability to automate—assuming you didn’t mind writing your own scripts—everything from network log-on to the selective retrieval and forwarding of information, I had all the tools I needed to stay attached to the information stream, even while driving or otherwise away from any wired connection. Cell-sites were still far and few between but the paging networks were well established, so in many ways a text pager in the pocket was a better solution; you didn't need an assistant or colleague to relay information over the phone, and like computers, pagers require little sleep.

One of my favorite applications for that primitive communication technology came into being—as is so often the case—through immediate necessity. My daughter was returning from a trip, but the exact time of her plane's arrival was something of a mystery; there had been delays and schedule changes for a number of reasons. I had access to real-time flight information via CompuServe, but since my drive to the airport would take nearly an hour and there were other things to do in the meantime, I couldn't sit at the computer waiting for an ETA. But I had built a formidable collection of scripts by that time so it didn't take much to modify an existing one for the task at hand, and before long I was driving away with my pager, which was receiving continuous updates on my daughter's flight status. When her plane's tires touched the tarmac, I was just pulling in at the airport.

Today, information—and communication—is rarely more than a few keystrokes away, and it's available on demand, virtually anywhere. But sometimes when I see high-school students tapping out messages on their tiny phones, or surfing the Web at the coffee house, I have to smile. This, too, will be primitive.

 

Non-technical Writing

Misused words and phrases are everywhere, and sometimes it doesn't really make any difference because I'm there for the entertainment, or maybe some kind of information that doesn't hinge on accurate expression. But when I'm looking for expert opinion or advice, especially in technical matters, there's nothing like buggered-up terminology to scare me away. Reading an article on flat-panel displays recently, I ran into a phrase that abruptly reduced my confidence in the author's knowledge of the subject.

Plasma displays are superior to LCD displays, but cost far more.

Am I overreacting? Some would call this a minor oversight that doesn't necessarily diminish the writer's competence. Maybe, but I've dodged a lot of unnecessary stress over the years by moving on to the next expert in situations like this, and I've avoided wasting a lot of money, too. The way I see it, if this guy doesn’t understand—or doesn't care—that LCD already stands for liquid crystal display and tacks on that redundant displays word, I'm not going to hang around to find out what else he doesn't know.

Obviously, it doesn't matter how well a sentence is constructed if the writer is ignorant of the subject, but I've always noted a definite connection between expertise and its expression. In this case, the error has more to do with a grasp of technology than with the mechanics of language; it’s often the other way around when an engineer is doing the writing. I suppose that's where technical writers come in, but alas, they don't always have the engineer's technical understanding. It's a problem.

 

Capitalizing Ubiquitous Words

InternetMaybe it's the weather, but the last couple weeks have been troublesome. Bizarre word combinations destroyed otherwise usable sentences, FTP and e-mail problems rendered me—and some blog commenters—transiently incommunicado, and yesterday two-week-old posts began to appear on the blog, uninvited and very unwelcome. Then last night, I got into a small argument over capitalization; specifically, whether or not Internet deserves to be capitalized, and in a related vein, the Web word. The antagonist thought both words are so ubiquitous that holding down the shift key for either one is nothing but a waste of time and energy. Only someone who has been in a coma for the past 15 years, he said, would fail to grasp the One True Meaning of those words.

Yeah, maybe if they appear in very informal communication—and if you know exactly who's going to be reading your stuff—those words can live without capitalization, but even then it's probably a bad habit. There's only one Internet, but that's why the word is capitalized in the first place. It's an actual name, like William, or Maple, or California; if you're going to forget the shift key, you may as well stop capitalizing those, too. Even the short form of Internet—i.e. Net—should be given proper recognition with a leading capital. Really, there ought to be an apostrophe in there to indicate the missing letters at the front, but rendering the word as 'Net is about as popular as calling your Chevy a Chevrolet. It's just going too far. But since there are many networks out there—from the little wireless net in your home to the big corporate intranet in your workplace—it makes sense to differentiate with a simple capital letter. Not just any network can be the Internet, at least not in the grammatical sense.

It's a similar situation with the Web, although there's arguably less chance of ambiguity in that case. Fortunately, you don't see or hear the phrase World Wide Web much anymore, and even the poor radio and TV announcers tasked with pronouncing www for every site are getting a break as more people understand the concept of a URL. Some of those guys were beginning to sound a lot like Porky Pig. Anyway, it's probably a good idea to keep that capital letter on Web, too, just because the word describes one web in particular. Although it's likely your readers will understand which web you're referring to by the context, it's always a good idea to avoid ambiguity; it's a positive habit, and may actually save you the trouble of backtracking—or worse, backpedaling—somewhere down the line.

It's a tangled web, but intriguing just the same.

If the context is the Worldwide Web, a sentence like that should never be allowed to exist on its own; without some sort of explanation surrounding it, the uncapitalized web has an entirely different meaning. On the other hand, capitalizing the word would immediately tell the reader exactly what you mean.

By the way, Internet and Web aren't synonymous, and are therefore not interchangeable. The Internet existed long before the Web came along; the Web was built upon the Internet. The distinction isn't merely semantic, because the Internet can exist without the Web, but not the other way around; the Web is a function—or a subset, if you prefer—of the Internet. The Web was conceived as a system to enable the transport and display of HTML-based material, but unlike the Web, the Internet doesn't rely on HTML to function. In fact, many of the old protocols and standards that defined the Internet in the old days are still in use today—POP3 still delivers the mail, FTP still transfers files, and neither Internet Relay Chat nor Usenet are dead. It's a brave new e-world, but in some ways, still a lot like the e-world of old.