Fun With Caffeine

A mug of laughsSometimes life is boring. One way I reduce my boredom is by going to espresso shops and tormenting the employees. This works best when it's a shop I've never been to before, because they're less likely to immediately call the cops when I walk through the door. There are a lot of ways to have fun with espresso shop employees because they're always jacked up on caffeine, so it doesn't take much to push them over the edge.

Preparation is important. A red face is a good visual prop for this sort of thing, as are distended veins in the neck and forehead. This is why I precaffeinate myself with a handful of caffeine tablets beforehand. This not only raises my blood pressure to a dangerous level, but makes those all-important spastic head movements almost automatic. Just before I go in, I also hold my breath for a minute or so, which gets those veins ready for action. The other important thing is language. A calm, well-modulated voice is counterproductive in this situation; a high-pitched, almost hysterical tone is far more likely to produce the desired effect. Plain English is a big mistake, too. This is where a fake German accent really comes in handy.

Employee: "Hi! Welcome to Megabucks! What can I get started for you today?"

Me: "I'll have a mocha, please. Grande."

Employee: "One grande mocha. Did you want whip on that?"

Me: (head vibrating spasmodically) "Yah, mit vip! Vee kent hef coffee mitout vip!"

Employee: "Sir?"

Me: (face reddening) "Vip!"

Employee: "That's with whip, then?"

Me: (stamping foot) "Vel os course mit vip! Vee hef vip mit das coffee allvays!"

Employee: (not smiling) "Sir, I don't think this is . . ."

Me: (very agitated, almost screaming) "Vip! Vip! Vip! Vip!"

Employee: (reaching for phone) "Sir, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

Obviously, there are two possible ways to deal with the situation at this point. The first way is to continue the tirade, which almost always results in police intervention. The second is to laugh, admit you were only having some fun, and back away slowly with your hands in the air. Neither has a particularly positive effect on most employees, so it's best to choose espresso shops you don't intend to visit again, ever.


Keeping the Rabble Out of Citizen Journalism

Firewall JournalismPretend you run a medium-size newspaper in a medium-size town. Say you've decided it's time to jump on the citizen journalism bandwagon, but because of the nature of this particular town, there's a small kink to iron out first. Although this is a medium-size town—and growing at an alarming rate—your paper has no real competition; it's the only daily paper in town, and represents the sizable conservative population in the area. There used to be another paper, but you bought them out so many years ago that virtually no one even remembers it anymore. There's a small, free, independent weekly that leans in the other direction, but although it's done rather well over the years—especially considering the aforementioned conservative demographic—it's an apples/oranges comparison because . . . well, because your paper makes a lot more money. It's an established daily, and it ain't free.

The kink is that pesky wrong-side-of-the-tracks crowd. They're the people who neither subscribe to your paper nor its editorial policy; they get their news from other sources, and consider your paper little more than a yellow sheet. Actually, it was widely considered a yellow sheet way back when the other paper—the one you bought and shut down—was still in existence; it isn't just a matter of a few leftist hippies in the community saying so now. Anyway, the more progressive folks haven't exactly taken over the town, but they continue to make headway. They tend to be ensconced in certain neighborhoods, and frighteningly, those areas seem to be growing.

The big problem is what could happen if those . . . um, other people . . . were to be given a voice on the new citizen journalism portion of your Web site. They could really muck things up! They'd be contradicting and even ridiculing the desirable demographic; there would be anarchy, and chaos. And once word got out there'd be others from all over; the whole freaking planet—or at least the non-ultraconservative side of it—could, in theory, log in with negative comments. Sure, we'd have editors, but sooner or later people would figure it out; eventually, they'd realize that only certain kinds of citizens are journaling on our site, and only certain kinds of comment make it into publication.

How to keep the rabble out, while still maintaining the appearance of new-media progress, and equity? Eureka! You create neighborhood news sites, where specific sections of your town are represented in your online citizen journalism community. Which sections? Those that are demographically desirable, of course. In any town, there are good neighborhoods and bad; the distinction is largely a matter of which zip codes you find most familiar, and comfortable. By selectively creating only those online neighborhoods known to be sympathetic to—if not aligned with—your own ideology, the risk of invasion by undesirables is reduced to the point of insignificance.

Think this online gated-community scenario can't happen in the context of citizen journalism? Based on what I found floating around on the Net this morning, I think it already has.



Getting Together

Getting togetherOnce upon a time, long-distance collaboration with others wasn't so easy. You'd have to find each other to begin with, and assuming that part was successful, there were technical barriers to overcome. You'd need compatible software, and of course some way to connect the respective computers. It was challenging, and expensive to do right. While the larger organizations could finance and implement the required hardware and software, smaller operations were often unable to participate in any meaningful way. And for the motivated but underfunded individual, the idea of running with the big dogs was just short of ludicrous.

Man, have things ever changed. Now the challenge lies more in keeping too much of the world from insinuating itself into your consciousness; for better or for worse, nearly everyone has some sort of Web presence now, not to mention the often-abused ability to mass-mail the news of that presence straight to your inbox. On the more positive side, this also makes it easy, and cheap, to advertise desirable products and services, or collaborate with desirable people regardless of physical proximity. The falling cost of hardware combined with the increasing speed of data transfer have created remarkable opportunities for small organizations—and individuals—to explore ideas that would have been impractical, if not impossible, in the not so distant past.

Digital audio and video products are now within the reach of many, while ubiquitous broadband connections provide the high-speed transport required for their implementation as wide-area communication tools. The essentials—computers and rudimentary software—have been affordable for some time, so the framework is generally in place already. The missing ingredients of motivation and content are supplied by those with the desire and the aptitude to contribute something of value; it's no longer a question of cost, or contact. Mass media's content is increasingly dictated by those who consume it, but also by the new ways in which it's presented. Every enhancement in software capability brings the consumer one step closer to the role of publisher, broadcaster, or journalist. When it becomes impossible to identify significant differences between the fruits of the professional and those of the professional amateur, it won't be due to a lack of education or talent on the part of media professionals; it will have more to do with new tools in the hands of those who've been waiting for a level playing field.

One of [the] outstanding facts of the net era is that the costs for like-minded people to find each other and work together are falling rapidly.

Jay Rosen


Another Phrase for the Ick List

aaaiiiiiii!!!!!I haven't blasted any bogus phrases in a while, but I heard one of my all-time favorites on the radio the other day, so I may as well blast it now. This one tends to be used more in speech than writing, but either way it should be at the top of your ick list.

I promise to uphold the law as best as I can.

I intend to try, as best as I'm able.

I remember hearing the as best as phrase years ago, coming out of the mouth of an otherwise intelligent—and even eloquent—speaker. I don't understand it any better now than I did then; this is one messed up phrase. The words as best by themselves are fine, and there's nothing wrong with best as, either; it's the addition of that extra as word that really buggers everything up.

Really, the intended word is well, so the phrase ought to be as well as I can, or as well as I'm able. For some reason, best is being used in place of well, but if we absolutely have to keep best in the sentence, it shouldn't be surrounded on all sides with the word as.

I promise to uphold the law as best I can.

I intend to try, as best I'm able.

The sentences are better now, but may still seem a bit awkward to the modern ear. As is so often the case, there are other ways of expressing the idea without resorting to a particular phrase, thereby avoiding the problem altogether.

I promise to uphold the law to the extent of my ability.

I intend to try, to the limit of my ability.

With sentences like these, substituting as best with words that perhaps do a better job of describing the actual intent not only improves clarity, but avoids controversy over modern usage. On the other hand, sometimes it's best to just tear a sentence down and start over from scratch, instead of trying to salvage an inherently awkward construction. There are other ways of saying I'll do my best.


Autumn's Equilibrium


When you live in a place with four seasons, leaves are like traffic signals. In Spring, we get the green signal that encourages us to take off our clothes, and generally do things that seem imprudent in Winter's cold embrace. As the shades of green gather momentum during the Summer, we forget there was ever any other way to live. We become carefree inhabitants of a world of sandals, open windows, and warm evenings. Life is easy, and if things were ever any other way, we don't want to remember.

But one day there's a subtle difference. We try to ignore it at first, but it won't go away. A few leaves have gone to amber, and then more, until there's an entire tree bearing the insinuation of change. For some of us, this means it's time to draw the blinds over the window that frames the offending tree, focusing instead on the green masses that remain. It's time, also, to begin wearing socks under our sandals and sweatshirts or fleece over our t-shirts in the evenings. In this way, we refuse to acknowledge the inevitable; this is how we prolong the delusion of Summer.

Eventually, of course, even the most delusional among us are forced to admit that things are changing, and there's nothing we can do about it; the light will turn red, and we will be broadsided by the 80,000 pound semi of Winter. The amber signal has a purpose, and we ignore it at our peril. The more reasonable tack is to accept the change—frolic in it, even—and embrace the season that restores our equilibrium. It's tough to focus on the task at hand when all you really want is to be outdoors, preferably on vacation; but as the leaves turn to gold and the mercury begins to drop, the idea of being indoors becomes more attractive, and even positive. It's easier to get things done when our attention isn't being continually subverted by the greens of Summer. Now that Autumn is officially here, maybe things can get back to normal.


All About Dreaming

Doctor Blue . . . Doctor Blue . . .Will I dream? This simple question has been asked as many times as there are grains of sand in the sky. Computers often ask this question just before they're put into a quiescent state. Little children wonder, too: Will I dream? Of course you will dream, silly computer! And you too, silly little child. There is no dream valve we can turn on and off just because we feel like it. Dreams happen because our minds run backward during the night, which charges the tiny electrolytic capacitors that power our thoughts during the day. When we sleep, little Biscuit People come and plug us in, because if they didn't we would run out of power halfway through breakfast and fall asleep face down in our eggs. Then Dr. Blue would have to come and blow in our nostrils.

Sometimes we can't remember our dreams, but this doesn't mean we don't have any. When we forget our dreams it's because our belly buttons have come untied during the night, so our dreams go puffing out into the room. When we wake up in the morning, our dreams are hiding under the bed. After we leave to go to work they come out and tickle our pets, which is why their paws are always jerking around as they sleep.

When we wake up tired, it's because we've been dreaming about history. Some periods are more tiring than others, like the Stone Age. No one was very good at punctuating sentences during the Stone Age, so the teachers were always pulling out their hair and throwing it at the students. This is why the Neanderthal children you see in pictures are so hairy.

When we dream, the people on Willie Nelson's tour bus are dreaming, too. This is why our dreams are bizarre. Sometimes Willie walks in his sleep, and comes over to your house and puts your hand in a bowl of warm water. That's why your bed is wet every morning.


Progressive Inertia

What was that?Maybe it isn't just my imagination after all. I thought I'd noticed Arianna Huffington steadily climbing the popularity ladder while Michelle Malkin lost ground on Technorati's upper-echelon list—Instapundit, too, seemed to be low on the scale—but I didn't want to automatically assign social-barometer status to the apparent trend. After reading the Left builds power base in the blogosphere article on The Guardian's site, however, I'm beginning to think that what I had semiconsciously noted is no transient aberration.

As its title and army of bloggers growing in strength and confidence subtitle suggest, the article has to do with the rise of left-leaning blogs. Evidently, there was a small meeting of bloggers last week in Harlem, and former president Bill Clinton was at the center of it.

To be bathed in the famously energising glow of the former president's attention is an unfamiliar sensation. Ever since blogs took off in America three or four years ago, the running has been made by writers and editors from the right such as Andrew Sullivan, Michelle Malkin and Glenn Reynolds, the law professor behind InstaPundit. Liberal sites were confined to the role of second cousins.

If Technorati's list is any indication, those second cousins may be taking over the family. Today The Huffington Post is in fifth place; as I recall, it occupied slot number seven about a week ago. By comparison, Malkin's blog is in 13th position, and Reynolds trails in 17th place. Naturally, all are enviable positions in the blogospheric scheme of things, but when you're so near the zenith, every rung on the popularity ladder represents a significant change in readership.

More to the point, the blogs in question embody ideological differences that translate—especially now—to political trends in our corner of the world. If Joe's Blog is about the latest tech toys and its readership increases twofold, you've learned something about market trends. But when the same happens to our political blogs, the lesson may be of historical significance. From now on, when I think I see movement in the corner of my eye, I'll pay closer attention.


With Minutia in Mind

A few minutes ago, I found myself looking out the window at the changing colors, and thinking about some guy in New York who was nearly brained by a bottle thrown from a cream-colored Cadillac Escalade . . . wait a minute, I was thinking about what? I don't live in New York, I don’t even know the guy, and yet there I am with the images of some bald guy on a bicycle and a cream-colored car running through my brain.

Negative on the telepathic exchange. It's just the odd effect of reading other people's blogs, and absorbing the minutia of their lives. In this case it was a fragment from one of Seth Godin's blog posts, but the realization that millions of people are broadcasting pieces of their existence to the planet was amusing for a moment. But amusing in a significant way, because this has simply never been possible before, at least not in any practical sense.

How odd. And how spectacular.


Fear and Loathing in the Ivory Tower

Out of the ivory towersGutenberg's press had unexpected effects on the order of the day, and the same is true of the notorious blog. Not content with generating anxiety in the media industry, it seems the blog phenomenon is also responsible for fear and loathing among CEOs of corporations that have nothing to do with publishing. An article at—CEO bloggers communicate to the masses—contained an unexpected revelation.

Consultants say blogging suits natural-born writers -- but it's tough for other executives.

"Ultimately, a good blog is good writing. Most CEOs are not good writers," said Debbie Weil, a Washington-based consultant and author of "The Corporate Blogging Book."

It never occurred to me that the person at the helm of Megacorp might be anything but a competent communicator. If those writing-challenged CEOs are compelled to reach out to the masses—just because it's what other CEOs are doing—the results could be truly unfortunate. I mean, all this time you've been laboring under the delusion that your investments are in the capable hands of Mr. Smith, Vice President and CEO of Megacorp, and now it turns out the guy can't construct a coherent sentence. As you, and countless others, race to move your wealth into more literate hands, the skies are filled with the silk-suited forms of CEOs leaping from their penthouse windows.

Back in the real world, of course, CEOs have assistants. They have people who can churn out elegant blog-prose in their sleep; they don't have to be good writers themselves. "Take a letter, Miss Brown," may soon be replaced with its modern "take a post" equivalent. But for those CEOs who can really turn a phrase, blogging could be more than just an evolutionary phase in communication; it could be a revolutionary answer to the plague of executive isolationism. After all, isn't freedom what the blog is all about?


The Heart of the Story

Generally, a blog is a two-part operation: the blogger posts something, and then others comment on that post. In some cases there's more than one contributing blogger, but conceptually the process tends to be a one-to-many broadcast followed by a many-to-one response. While it's easy to think of this loop as a collection of readers' opinions on what's already been posted—and in some cases the horror of the blog's descent into chaos and madness—it can be more than that.

For example, suppose you pay your trash-collection company an additional amount for recycling; instead of hauling your plastic, paper, and maybe even glass to the landfill, they collect your recyclable items separately and charge you a bit more for this added service. Suppose, also, that one day you hear from a neighbor that someone recently spotted one of this company's recycling trucks at the landfill, dumping its load of recyclables into the trash heap with everything else. A few days later, you hear the same from a different but equally reliable source. The local news outlets don't have the resources, and maybe not even the interest, to pursue the story; you've already called them, and they seem ambivalent. The trash-collection company is denying everything. How to get the story out to the world, or at least your corner of it?

In a situation like this, a blog could be the answer, and the concept of blog-comments could take on new meaning. If the primary blogger were to write something about this problem, maybe even in the larger context of waste-management companies in the recycling business, at least some of the resulting comments could be more than just reader opinion; some of those comments might include similar stories, maybe even involving the very same company. Commenters would become contributors; their stories would be woven into the whole; it would no longer be a case of simple "reader feedback." With any luck, the story might even have a happy ending.

The so-called hyperlocal citizen journalism concept is already in use; it isn't a new idea. Neither are blog comments, of course. But if the blogs I see every day are any indication, comments are an underused opportunity to contribute to the heart of a story, instead of merely adding layers of opinion to it.


My Woodpecker

I've heard it said that some people have a little person who sits on one shoulder or the other, whispering good advice when the going gets tough. This being is generally referred to as a conscience, although the name seems to vary. But regardless of what this little character is called, its purpose is always the same: in times of doubt and confusion, or perhaps a momentary lapse of reason, this individual can be counted on to provide gentle but sound guidance. If you have such an entity on your shoulder, I envy you, because I do not. I have a woodpecker.

I don't remember exactly when my woodpecker first arrived, but it was during my adolescent years. Those years are tough for many of us; it's a time of madness, and hormone-driven folly. Certain things should never be available to someone in this condition, such as a BB gun. One day I decided that a good target for my BB gun would be one of the large windows at the elementary school up the street. But as I approached the school, my woodpecker began pecking the side of my head with its pointed beak. Fortunately, the BB gun was a rifle, not a pistol, so the option of shooting the woodpecker wasn't available to me. I cocked the rifle, which initiated a full-out attack against the left side of my face. As I aimed and fired, the drilling became unbearable, so I wasn't able to fully complete my mission. As it was, I did enough damage to the window that my BB gun was confiscated, and my mother regarded me with anger and suspicion for a long time. But looking back at it now, I'm thankful the woodpecker attacked me when it did, because I didn't wind up in juvenile hall.

Since that time, my woodpecker has been always on my shoulder, guiding me through the hard times with brutal attacks to my head. The larger wounds are scars now, mostly; I'm not as impetuous as I once was, and require only the occasional bloodied ear or perforated cheek to bring me to my senses before I cross the line. My woodpecker spends most of his time sleeping; he isn’t as young as he used to be, and he needs his rest. He's a kinder, gentler woodpecker, and I'm older, too. But every so often I get the urge to post something defamatory about someone I particularly dislike, or maybe a sarcastic tirade guaranteed to alienate reasonable people. When my woodpecker senses this, he opens one eye. These days, that's usually enough to keep me in line.


Everything Is Plagiarized

May as well use these for everything you write . . .Are there really any original ideas out there, or are we all just regurgitating recycled material absorbed through constant contact with the collective? Educated with the words of others since childhood, and connected now to millions of online voices—themselves immersed in the global bitstream—is anything we impart truly our own? Admittedly, it's an unwitting plagiarism, and altogether ordinary. We begin to imitate language before its meaning is even clear; babbling babyhood is a primer for our gibbering adult lives.

Even with an unabridged dictionary at hand, how many combinations are possible? How many permutations? A lot, but not infinity, and it's nice if the resulting sentences are at least dimly lucid. Sooner or later you slam into the unavoidable conclusion: there are only so many useful words to work with, and only so many ways to hook them up. Some of those ways seem more creative, more original than others. But are they, really? I mean, hasn't it all been done before?

I think so, and it eats at me. The college student whose career as an author was recently aborted amid charges of plagiarism maintained she had "internalized" another's writing, and had unconsciously regurgitated it in her own book. I didn't follow the story much beyond that point and I don't know the shamed young author, but such an event doesn't strike me as utterly impossible. Unlikely, maybe, but when I think about the sheer volume of material available on the Internet alone—and assuming an inordinate amount of reading time—the idea of recycled words and phrases isn't farfetched. And for someone who loves to read, especially if it's an inclination fostered during childhood, the accumulated language stored in that person's mind would naturally return to the page—sufficiently altered from the original, we hope, to avoid any doubt about its relative originality.

Fortunately, we have people who are good at spotting plagiarism, usually by virtue of their own scholarly consumption; to those who have spent the better part of their lives absorbing literature, newly stolen phrases glare. And despite the opportunities for abuse, the vast resources available on the Internet also make it easier to locate and compare sources of plagiarized material. While I certainly believe it’s possible for two people—or three, or four—to have the same idea at the same time, it's a bit odd when that idea is manifested in exactly the same words by more than one person.

Personally, I get a kick out of turning a blank page into a collection of words. It's not so different from the canvas-to-painting metamorphosis, or making something from a hunk of wet clay on the potter's wheel. It's therapeutic, and it's fun. Sometimes it's even cathartic. But it still eats at me because I know that somewhere, probably in a cave, there's an old guy with a beard and a rusty typewriter who's already come up with every word—and in exactly the same sequence—that I'm using right now. Sure, he isn't publishing those words on the Web so I'll get there first, and I'll win. But it's a hollow victory.


Blogging Liabilities

One of the issues currently orbiting the blogosphere is the extent of legal liability for material published in a blog. While it's easy to understand concepts such as libel—some blogger writing about your ties to a terrorist organization, for example—and the lawsuits that result from such written defamation, other topics aren't as clear. Say someone adds a comment to your blog that libels someone else, or is otherwise troublesome in a legal sense. Are you liable for what someone else has written, or has perhaps even obtained from yet another party?

The blog model is relatively new and precedent is limited for that reason, so the courts are still sorting out bloggers' relative level of liability for material published on their sites. Questions having to do with electronic versus printed material have been answered to some extent; the Web, and the Internet in general, have been around long enough at this point to serve as a test bed for cases that involve electronic publishing. Since blogs are simply an extension of that technology, it seems most legal definitions that apply to the Web would be appropriate in the blogging context as well. This logic appears to be supported in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Bloggers' FAQ on Section 230 Protections. Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code was passed as part of the Communication Decency Act of 1996; it's a law that protects Web hosts from legal trouble when material from someone else appears on your site, or in this case, your blog.

Section 230 says that "No 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." This federal law preempts any state laws to the contrary: "[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section." The courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to limit the reach of Section 230 to "traditional" Internet service providers, instead treating many diverse entities as "interactive computer service providers."

That's nice, you may say, but what does any of this have to do with my blog? Quite a bit, actually. As it turns out, the simple act of blogging throws you into that user category, but if others leave comments on your blog or you otherwise make use of material provided by someone else, you're a provider as well. In other words, you become the legal equivalent of a Web host.

Bloggers can be both a provider and a user of interactive computer services. Bloggers are users when they create and edit blogs through a service provider, and they are providers to the extent that they allow third parties to add comments or other material to their blogs.

The key phrase is third parties. As long as the material in question doesn't originate from you, and assuming you don't alter it, you can't be expected to accept responsibility for it. But—and this is a very significant but—if you're actively engaged in locating and publishing the material yourself, the whole thing suddenly becomes a question mark.

Your readers' comments, entries written by guest bloggers, tips sent by email, and information provided to you through an RSS feed would all likely be considered information provided by another content provider. This would mean that you would not be held liable for defamatory statements contained in it. However, if you selected the third-party information yourself, no court has ruled whether this information would be considered "provided" to you.

So if you are actively going out and gathering data on your own, then republishing it on your blog, we cannot guarantee that Section 230 would shield you from liability. But we believe that Section 230 should cover information a blogger has selected from other blogs or elsewhere on the Internet, since the originator provided the information for publication to the world. However, no court has ruled on this.

The act of editing is the second question mark, but more in the context of absence of court ruling than common sense. This one revolves around changing the meaning of the original material, which strikes me as having the same effect as writing it yourself in the first place.

Courts have held that Section 230 prevents you from being held liable even if you exercise the usual prerogative of publishers to edit the material you publish. You may also delete entire posts. However, you may still be held responsible for information you provide in commentary or through editing.

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.

It isn't difficult to see the problem where defamation is involved; that's always going to get you in trouble, blog or no blog. But it seems there remain a few grey areas when it comes to volition and intent forming the boundary of culpability. Copyright issues aside, it isn't yet clear what effect simply quoting—or even editing—material from a third party may have in every conceivable situation.


Descending Into Madness

AnarchyIf there's one thing the high-readership blogs have in common, it's a high volume of comments. After all, this publisher-reader relationship is one of the things that make blogs so attractive in the first place, and a primary reason for the heightened interest by media concerns large and small. But there's a dark side, of course. As the proprietors of many popular blogs have discovered, those comments aren't necessarily constructive, well reasoned, or even civil. As the blog descends into chaos and madness, its commanders are left with some hard decisions: start moderating, editing, and possibly deleting comments before they see the light of day, require registration, or pull the plug on the comments entirely.

It's a quandary. The moderating and editing solutions carry their own risks; some perceive this as censorship, and technically it is. Disabling comments altogether is even worse, because it does away with one of the key benefits of a blog; it's a devolution back to the old one-way broadcast model. User registration, or similar methods of identifying commenters before they're allowed entry doesn't seem to be a popular solution; anonymity is an important part of the process for many, and for some, the only way they're willing to participate at all. Since personal privacy is so widely considered to be in jeopardy, it shouldn't be surprising if people seem reluctant to hand over its remaining shreds just for the opportunity to sound off on a blog.

But you can't allow your blog to be hijacked by flame wars, libel, and spam, so comment moderation seems to me the least of the available evils. In a low-volume environment, it doesn't take much time and effort to screen comments. It becomes a rather significant problem if you have hundreds or even thousands of comments to wade through every day; in that case, it's a full-time job. While there are privately run blogs that receive more than the average number of comments, most of the small-potatoes operations could deal with comment moderation on their own; they wouldn't have to bring in someone to do the job. But for a large commercial operation such as a newspaper or magazine, it would become a necessity sooner or later; as the business morphs into a new media operation, someone has to deal with all those e-letters to the editor, and the e-pile of comments on the blogs.

Maybe this is another good reason to keep editors—and copy editors—in the blog loop. In addition to their more obvious value in keeping articles and other blog postings free of error and oversight, good editors and proofreaders are generally capable of scanning pages of text at an alarming rate. This rapid-reading talent is ideal where the sheer volume of reader feedback threatens to bring a blog to its knees. It doesn't take them all day to bring order to the chaos, and sanity to the madness of blog-comment anarchy.


Editing the New Media

Writing handIf Doug Fisher's opinions on turbulent times are any indication—and I'm sure they are—upheaval in the news business is just getting started. As a Journalism professor and former broadcaster, newspaper reporter and wire-service editor, I figure he knows more than a little about the business. Although his recent Sobering thoughts for copy editors discussion was aimed more at those whose job it is to fix and improve commercial news copy, I thought his comments on self-editing bloggers were interesting.

But it's plain, and getting plainer all the time, that this [digital] revolution is allowing reporters and writers to speak directly and instantaneously to readers and online users. There is less need for the middle man (and woman), though I'd guess that many a sub-editor who has laboured over a reporter's tortured prose, sloppy fact-checking and poor spelling will disagree. In truth, though, all journalists in future will need to have all those skills. Hundreds of thousands of bloggers post perfectly readable copy hour by hour without the need for anyone to write a snappy headline or insert a semi-colon. They are the future, and both their input and output, seen in purely commercial terms, is cheap.

There are a lot of very impressive blogs out there, but I'm sure we've all seen the more unfortunate results of blogging, too; there's no shortage of tortured prose, sloppy—or absent—fact-checking and poor spelling in the blogosphere. But if Doug's comment concerning future journalists' required skills is applied to bloggers as well—which seems fair if they're the future of journalism—then it seems everyone is doing their own editing in the brave new-media world. That's a big change, but how is this possible?

Maybe it isn't, really. Even the biggest, most popular blogs require editing; in fact, they probably need it more, just because of the sheer volume of words. The Huffington Post, for example, is in that category. It's big and it's popular, but it sure could use a full-time editor. Not that it's poorly written by any stretch of the imagination; it just seems to be overwhelmed by the volume of posts, and comments. This, it seems, is exactly the sort of opportunity a progressive copy editor would be looking for. A March 2006 Editors Weblog article explores the Is the role of editors more or less important in the digital age? question, and to the former president of CBS News at least, the answer is yes.

Former president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, recently touched upon this topic in a speech at the Poynter Institute. "My view," he opined, "is that this complicated world is an even bigger market for editors and journalists who can make sense of it all."

I'd hate to think bloggers are engaged, even unwittingly, in the dastardly act of putting copy editors out of work; I've been on the wrong end of the staff-reduction exercise myself, and it's no fun. Working in the tech industry has been a high-risk proposition for many years, but that always struck me as predictable considering the high level of computer involvement from the start. The mass-media business, on the other hand, seemed a much safer haven—within the foreseeable future at least—from any hostile computer-enhanced takeover. The publishing cycle always required a great deal of human involvement, especially in the initial phase; computers make things quicker and easier, but still can't write anything worthwhile on their own. Now it seems the threat isn't from the machines themselves, but from the largely unanticipated opportunity they provide to communicate directly with the global readership.

But maybe there's no need for carnage. Maybe the answer lies in simply refocusing on the requirements of journalism—and writing in general—with the final goal in mind, which is effective communication. It doesn't matter if the operation takes place in one large building or several smaller ones, or through a distributed network of people working from their home offices across different time zones; the goal remains the same, regardless of the medium, or where and how the editing is done. As the volume of writing increases—and it seems certain that it will—the proprietors of at least some of today's modest, self-edited blogs will become overwhelmed by the workload; they'll be forced to weigh the benefits of high-quality content versus the damaging effects of mediocre—or worse—posts, comments, and associated material. For the large-scale media outlets already in existence, it's the same story; the scale is different, but the final goal is the same. In either case, it seems there's an ongoing need for editors—and copy editors—to sort things out, correct what needs correcting, and in general, make sure the final product is fit for human consumption. New media or old, the need for quality control hasn't changed, and until computers are capable of autonomously doing the job, we're still going to need people who know the difference between a good sentence and one that needs work. Even if there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers who are good with snappy headlines and semicolons, that still leaves millions who are probably not.


Hunting for Blogfood

Hunting for BlogfoodThis blogging thing is harder than I expected. Some days are easier than others, but coming up with something useful to send to the server five or six days a week can be challenging. There's no shortage of blogfood out there, but not all is suitable for human consumption. In fact, some is just plain rancid; a lot of the political stuff falls in this category. But I imagine even a personal-journal blog would be tough to feed, sometimes, especially if one's life is marked by ordinary events. I'm glad—and you should be, too—that isn't the kind of blog I attempted. You think it's boring now? Believe me, it could be a lot worse. If my pigheaded refusal to admit that nothing much is happening were applied to a daily blog-diary . . . well, true horror lies right there.

At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at this work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest. But if he only lives twenty-one days, he will find out that only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty's sake, and invincible determination, may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal and not sustain a shameful defeat.

Mark Twain — The Innocents Abroad

Some say stubbornness is a personality flaw, but I prefer to think of it as an asset; if not for my unparalleled obstinacy, my blog would contain nothing. While this might be considered good fortune for those who suffer my satirical diatribes, and the occasional sober advisory, it would waste a perfectly good opportunity to use valuable bandwidth for its own sake. It's devotion to duty for duty's sake, or to put it in more relevant terms, the invincible determination required to pump a daily monolog into the already oversaturated blogosphere. If there are blogs that harbor only the occasional post—or blogs that have faded to black entirely—it's due to a simple lack of inflexibility on the part of their authors. They have succumbed to the idea that a lack of interesting content is reason to avoid the blog altogether.


Draft Dodging, Rules of Engagement, and Dueling Sock Puppets

No, not that draft. The other one, in which heretofore respectable journalists are dragged, kicking and screaming, into their new roles as [insert gagging and vomiting sounds] bloggers. Duct-taped into their chairs, they're forced to perform unnatural acts with their keyboards—i.e. blogging—while readers weigh in, constantly and without mercy, on their every journalistic word. This, of course, is in addition to their regular duties, thus increasing their workweek from 80 hours to 180. If all our journalists wind up in Canada, this is why.

The San Jose Mercury News' Bruce Newman says he's heading for the border, and I believe him. It's a secret plan, so his employer doesn't know, but you can tell he's serious just by reading his September 4 entry. He's a very angry man.

For something that is supposedly exploding all over the Internet, like a broken sewer main, blogging has got to have the butt-ugliest name ever devised by a group of people who then willingly inflicted it on themselves. You know, the blogosphere. Anyway, that's my excuse, the reason why I'm a little late to the party. The blog party. Ugh.

Best of luck in the Great White North, Bruce. I'll try to send a few cases of kippered herring, just to keep you going while you're removing all that duct-tape goo from your face. You're right about that name, though: it'ugly.

Meanwhile, Couric & Co. are bringing the gyros up to speed for their own blogfest, and I'm looking forward to it. If Ms. Couric ever decides to run for president, she'll have my vote. No, really. I mean, is there one nanoshred of guile in that face? I think not. If she were in the White House, even the most hard-boiled dictator would be quickly overcome by that 1,000,000 candlepower smile. Enemies? We wouldn't have any! But if anyone did get a funny idea about taking advantage of that friendly face . . . well, it can also get real serious, real quick.

But back in the world of blogs and vomit, it's prudent to lay down the rules of engagement before you lower the drawbridge, which Couric and Company have very handily done. No doubt about the rules in this establishment, bud.

There's legal language nearby. Here's the plain English: no libel, slander, lying, fabricating, no swearing at all, no words that teenagers use a lot that some people think aren't swearing but we do, no insulting groups or individuals, no ethnic slurs and/or epithets, no religious bigotry, no threats of any kind, no bathroom humor, no comparing anyone to Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot. We expect lively debate, but comments should be polite and civil. No shoving or shouting. Please.

Yes, what is not allowable is subjective. But it's our blog. We're providing the field, the football and the goal posts. We can move them at will, or take them away.

Heh. I especially like the part about moving the ball, or the goalposts, or hell, the whole field if that's what it takes. This is one of the great things about a blog, isn’t it? Hand the controls over to the public, but keep the kill switch in your pocket.

Last week's news, of course, is that New Republic editor having his blog shut down for resorting to the old dueling-sock-puppets trick. But in Tuesday's Taipei Times blurb on the fiasco, I noticed a point I had previously overlooked.

Ezra Klein, a blogger who had tangled with him, wrote in his blog on Friday, "The temptation to create a new persona and rally support for yourself in comments can be almost overwhelming."

I can't believe I haven't been overwhelmed by this until now. How many sleepless nights have I spent agonizing over the lack of comments on my blog? But no more! Using the now-obvious concept of dueling sock puppets, there's no particular reason I can't have as many comments as I want. Ain't it grand?


Where Were We in '73?

Where were you in '62? isn't quite the poignant question it may be to those a bit older than I. It's a perfectly good question; I just don't have a good answer. If we add ten years to that number, the memory banks begin to boot—reluctantly, because those were strange times, and distant now, too. So whoever had the bright idea to market that damnable t-shirt I saw the other day at Wal-Mart should be hauled before the magistrate.

Don't get me wrong. I love Pink Floyd, but seeing that black t-shirt in there, with its The Dark Side of the Moon prism on it was weird enough already; you didn't really have to add that date to it, did you? I know it's a commemorative thing; I know the album was released in 1973. I remember it. It was made of that vinyl stuff, and I bought it, and I played it over and over. Later, I bought the CD, too. But this shirt hanging on the Wal-Mart rack is so wrong in so many ways. Pink Floyd, prism, 1973 . . . um . . . generic concert t-shirt, maybe? Check out my inimitable retro fashion sense, maybe? Or maybe it's more like, I was there, man, as you can clearly see by my t-shirt, and the radical look in my eye.

During the past few years, I had more or less come to grips with the idea that I'm stuck in the Jacob's Ladder film plot. I'd almost gotten used to seeing lava lamps, bellbottoms, and tie-dye all over again. It was jarring, but it seemed to be waning; I was beginning to feel a bit better. Now I'm not so sure. In the throes of caffeine withdrawal, I'm able to avert my eyes from the Bob Dylan albums in the impulse displays at Megabucks, and Cherry Garcia is tasty, now that I'm past my initial discomfort at the idea.

In 1973 Viet Nam was winding down, but it wasn't really over. We had the Yom Kippur War, and Watergate. All painful reminders, in 2006, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Wounded Knee and the Arab Oil Embargo were part of '73. Jim Croce, Gram Parsons, and "Pigpen" McKernan were among the musicians who died that year. We also lost Pablo Picasso and J. R. R. Tolkien.

The first time I heard an orchestral arrangement of an old Beatles tune in an elevator was many years ago, so that's normal now. But that t-shirt reignited not only the angst of unrestrained commercialism, but an unpleasant feeling of displaced time. Dr. Frankenstein's misguided reanimation it's not, but some things are better left in the fog. Like 1973, for example.

But of course, The Dark Side of the Moon finished The Pink Floyd off once and for all. To be that successful is the aim of every group. And once you've cracked it, it's all over. In hindsight, I think The Pink Floyd was finished as long ago as that.

Roger Waters in June 1987, with Chris Salewicz 


Craig's Compass

In a recent interview, Craig Newmark was asked what the media industry should be thinking about in terms of doing good. "First," he replied, "don’t be evil. For example, if you’re promoting a cause your moral compass thinks is wrong, don’t do it." This credo has always worked well for craigslist, and Google, and of course countless organizations and individuals since the earliest days of civilization; it certainly isn't limited to the media industry. Needless to say, the concept isn't so eagerly embraced by everyone, but maybe there's hope.

I do see on the Net that more and more good people are organizing, dealing with bad guys, whether they’re scammers or disinformation specialists.

If what Craig has been noticing is right—and there's no reason to believe otherwise—the Internet's intrinsic utility for aggregating and disseminating information couldn't be put to better use. The Net, and the Web in particular, have so often been held up as examples of freedom of expression gone wrong—spam, pornography, scams of various kinds—that it's gratifying to think there might be a counterpoint to the negatives, using the very same medium no less.

According to the site's information section, craigslist is about

  • giving each other a break, getting the word out about everyday, real-world stuff.

  • restoring the human voice to the Internet, in a humane, non-commercial environment.

  • keeping things simple, common-sense, down-to-earth, honest, very real.

  • providing an alternative to impersonal, big-media sites

  • being inclusive, giving a voice to the disenfranchised, democratizing ...

  • being a collection of communities with similar spirit, not a single monolithic entity.

which, now that I think about it, makes a pretty good formula for exactly the sort of activity Craig has been seeing on the Net. But then, that's probably no coincidence.


Blinking Toward Déjà Vu Again

Like, déjà vu all over again, man . . .Q: What do Stephen King and Dave Barry have in common?

A: They sometimes let Roger McGuinn play in their band.  

As we know, one of the great things about the Web is the ease with which you can jump from this to that, without even breaking a sweat. We call this linking. If the links happen to be within a blog, it could be called blog-linking, or blinking for short. That's what I call it anyway, because, like, who's going to stop me? Anyway, a post on Dave Barry's blog the other day initiated one of those blinking journeys, and in this case, déjà vu all over again.

Dave's blog tends to be more a compendium of links to offbeat stuff than actual Dave-writing, but in this particular post I spotted a name I recognized, and it wasn't Paris Hilton.  


September 02, 2006
Here's a nice account by Camilla McGuinn, writing on Roger's blog.
Posted by Dave on September 2, 2006 at 08:58 AM | Permalink

Actually, I hadn't been wondering about it, but only because of ignorance on my part. Then, having been properly alerted, I began to wonder in earnest. I had run across Roger McGuinn—I mean in a virtual sense, on the Internet—during the early years, circa 1998. We both happened to be interested in a new wireless implementation at that time, which led us to a Usenet group that had to do with that implementation. I remember thinking how cool it was that the Byrds' founder would be a member of this discussion group. For some reason, he wasn't the first person I would have expected to encounter on the Net, least of all in a non-music forum. In reality, he had already been active in other forums long before that—e.g. in 1995—and although I wouldn't sign an affidavit to the effect, there are indications of CompuServe involvement that predate even the Usenet sightings.

Not that this has anything to do with the Rock Bottom Remainders or helping kids get in touch with their inner writing-selves; it's just that the warm déjà vu of seeing Roger McGuinn's name pop up on a forerunner of today's blogs, in the late nineties, has now been rekindled via Dave Barry's blog in late 2006. It's interesting how things come around, and more interesting still, where they make contact.

The sun was shining and the cars were speeding as we traveled south on interstate 5 to join the Rock Bottom Remainders in Los Angeles for a fund raiser concert to benefit 826LA, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping students explore their creative writing skills.

The "Rock Bottom Remainders" probably are some of the most affluent band members in the world; of course that's not too hard to do since the majority of musicians live hand to mouth. Their prosperity isn't because of the group's guitar techniques, platinum discs, or wonderful voices; it's their talent for making the public hunger for words that transport their readers to a different dimension, intrigue them with a mystery, give insights into a cultural life style or make a person laugh out loud. These folks are writers.
Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Mitch Albom, Amy Tan, Greg Iles, Scott Turow and Kathy Goldmark make up the core of the band with Stephen King joining in whenever his schedule allows. Every city stage where the band performs is graced with guest authors who, like all the others, had always wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star.

Mystery solved. Whether this is a musical band of writers or a writerly band of musicians, it's a novel concept (pun noted, and kicked to the curb) to me. But hey, if they're able to further the cause of creative writing—especially among our youth—it doesn't really matter how they go about it. In this case the end justifies the means, even if it does require handing Stephen King an axe.  


Labor Day's Pregnant Silence

TGIF, and what's so good about it? Well, here in the United States, it's Labor Day weekend. This means Friday is much larger than it is ordinarily; while it may be far from silent, it's undeniably pregnant. Monday may be silent, because that's the final day of the long weekend; everyone is depressed at the thought of having to return to their labors the following day. And also pooped from living large during the previous days. I don't mean pooped in the sense that we defecate more than we normally do, although with all the outdoor grilling going on during the weekend, this would not be unthinkable. I mean we're worn out, because we try to cram about a month's worth of recreational activity into what we perceive as the last real weekend of those lazy, hazy, and often crazy days of summer.

So what, you may be asking, does any of this have to do with semicolons? The question is absurd. Had you been following Craig Conley's blog, you would already know the answer.

I dreamed of a planet with two moons. The lower moon slowly waned away. Then I dreamed I had corrective surgery to remove my comma half. I was a period! I indicated the full pause with which the utterance of a sentence closes. Mine was a pregnant silence.

Now, my naïve friend, you see more clearly than before. The reference to motherhood; the duality of pregnancy. The Cesarean. The culminating event; one becomes two. Grateful exhaustion. Labor Day weekend, with its dirty diapers.

Not everyone is so easily able to encapsulate the process, but then, not everyone is Craig. He is, and maybe you are, too, but I'm definitely not. Anyway, it's Friday, the moon is on the wax, and I've miles to go before I sleep, perchance to dream, and the traffic is crazy.