Free Speech in School, and Out

Free SpeechThe other day, a friend sent me a link to a USA Today article titled Students, officials locking horns over blogs. According to the article, school administrators are less than thrilled about students "blogging and chatting on social networking websites" such as MySpace and Facebook, and although access to such sites is frequently blocked on school computers, "school districts now are reaching into students' home computers, severely punishing and even expelling students for what they write on those sites from home."

Huh? Reaching into students' home computers? Unless I woke up in some kind of bizarre parallel universe this morning, students don't automatically shed their constitutional rights when they walk through the doors of their schools, much less their own homes. Short of libel, overt threats, criminal activity or inciting a riot—and it seems the latter three, at least, would be more likely to result in law-enforcement intervention—it's difficult to imagine a scenario that would allow school officials to punish a student for comments made in the decidedly public sphere of the Internet. There were a few examples in the article: sexual comments about a teacher, criticism aimed at yet another, and disparaging remarks made by a cheerleader, about cheerleaders. The article's author suggests that such situations are only recently finding their way into the legal arena.

The issue has created a free-speech debate between school administrators who are worried about the disruption of the learning process on one hand; and students, parents and First Amendment advocates who are worried about whether overzealous school boards are overstepping their bounds on the other. The debate is beginning to be explored in courts.

I have a different idea. I don't think there's anything new about this debate at all; it's been going on ever since the first disagreement between students and school officials over what's allowable in the school newspaper. Really, it's been going on as long as there have been people with differing points of view and the desire to express them, but students in particular seem to have a knack for expression that isn't necessarily welcome in the education community. The public-education community, to be specific, since the rules are quite different for private institutions.

What's new is the transport mechanism, but that's all. The communication vehicle of old required paper, and relied on time-consuming manual processes to publish and distribute the views of its contributors. The new vehicle requires only a computer and an Internet connection for virtually instantaneous publication on a global scale. While there's obvious debate concerning the impact of the new media on first-amendment rights, the courts—when the debate reaches that level—consistently rule in favor of free speech, regardless of the medium used to convey that speech, and also largely aside from the relative age of the speaker. In other words, the medium and the message exist separately; one doesn't determine, nor undermine, the validity of the other. To quote from part one of the Student Press Law Center's Student Media Guide to Internet Law, the apparatus is revolutionary, but its function is not.

Even the Supreme Court has indicated that the Internet should be viewed, at least legally, as simply another means to get a message to an intended audience. While the apparatus is certainly quite revolutionary, its function is not; the age-old practice of storytelling is no less valuable just because there is greater access to the underlying information.

With this in mind, the debate begins to take on the familiar appearance of the truth versus the powers that be struggles throughout history. In the context of student versus school, especially, these issues aren't new. There's sufficient legal precedent to predict, with some certainty, the outcome of most of these cases. In fact, most seem to be won by the students—with help from the ACLU or other first-amendment-protection groups—which says something about the misguided policies of the school systems involved. Perhaps most disturbing is the idea that these students seem to know more about constitutional principles than those who are paid to teach them.

There are a number of interesting reasons for the students' court victories, and also for their occasional losses. Beneath all the legal language lie a few basic ideas that are really just common sense in action, but tomorrow is another day, and, we hope, another post on this subject.


What Time Is It, Really?

One World, One TimeMost of my clocks are running on Standard Time again, and those I forgot will be set by and by, as their discrepant behavior becomes apparent. It's easier than it used to be anyhow; self-adjusting clocks and watches are a big help, cell-phones generally align themselves with the time signals sent by their service providers, and of course computers have been keeping track of the change for years. Even some of the inexpensive timepieces now make the switch a painless one- or two-button operation.

The physiological effects, on the other hand, are more challenging. This jump isn't nearly as bad as the one in Spring, although the premature darkness in the evening is a bit jarring. But at least the alarm isn't going off an hour earlier than it ought to be, the way it does after the Daylight Saving Time switch. Still, it takes a while for the circadian rhythms to adjust. It's a hassle.

And now, as if this twice-yearly obstacle didn't create enough headaches already, our lawmakers have evidently decided to fool around with the timing of it. According to an article at titled There's a New Day Ahead for Daylight Saving Time, not only are the dates changing, but they're going to be different every year. This means reprogramming not only ourselves, but all the software that's been given particular dates on which to make the change.

    This year, Daylight Saving Time began on April 2 and ends at 2 a.m. Oct. 29

    In 2007, Daylight Saving Time begins on March 11 and ends Nov. 4

    In 2008, Daylight Saving Time begins on March 9 and ends on Nov. 2

    In 2009, Daylight Saving Time begins on March 8 and ends on Nov. 1

It's crazy, but I know it could be worse. They could make us guess when the time changes are going to happen, and everyone who guesses wrong gets a $50 fine for every day they exist in someone else's time zone. And a spanking. And no supper.

I say it’s time to stop the madness. The thing is, we’ve had a perfectly good time zone all along, one where everyone can exist in perfect happiness and synchronicity no matter where we happen to live. I'm referring, of course, to The Time Zone Formerly Known As Greenwich Mean Time, and now commonly referred to as Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, or ZULU, and occasionally That Invisible Prime Meridian Time Thing.

The obvious solution is to (1) set all our clocks and watches and whatever else keeps track of time to UTC, and (2) get happy. Sure, it might be a little weird having breakfast at 3:00 in the morning or going to bed at noon, depending on where you live. But it would be a temporary thing; you'd get used to it, and after a while it would become normal. The benefits would far outweigh the weirdness: no more actual-arrival-time calculations at the airport, or "I'll call you at 7:00 . . . your time" nonsense. If it's 7:00 in the evening here, it's 7:00 in the evening everywhere. What could be more straightforward?

While we're at it, maybe we should just go ahead and get used to the 24-hour time format as well. Military time, as some call it. No more confusion about morning and night; it's either 6:00 or 18:00—no ambiguity there. On the other hand, maybe that's too much at once; maybe one step at a time is the better way. Baby steps.

A good first step would be to set your blog to UTC, as I did. Feel the new euphoria as the chains of aberrant timekeeping slip away. Ask yourself what time it is, and feel the warmth that comes from knowing for sure. Then, when you think you're ready, move on to your wristwatch. Set it to UTC, and you're well on your way to the sanity of One World, One Time.

So who's with me? Who's ready to join the ranks of all the pilots, radio operators, scientific and technical people, and others who've been happily living in the One True Time Zone for eons, while we common folk have been left to figure out what time it is, and where, and when? I know you feel good because of that extra hour of sleep and Daylight Time is a million years away, but don't be fooled. You will set and reset and set again, and that's if you never travel. The time is now. Stop the madness.


Lost in the Translation

In the early days of the digital revolution, we joked about a future in which everything would be digitized; mundane, everyday objects would have a chip, whether they needed one or not. Computerized washers, dryers, and refrigerators would be everywhere; our homes would be digitally-controlled cocoons of comfort. Automobiles, too. Even our clothing, we laughed, would have cyber-intelligence woven in. As it turns out, of course, these things aren't nearly as funny as they used to be. Ridiculous, maybe, but there's nothing funny about the price tags on some of those digitally-enhanced appliances that perform exactly the same functions as before, only in a more "intelligent" manner. I won't even get started on the wired clothing; the pressure in my skull is telling me to move on.

What we didn't joke about was the application of the new technology to things like language processing, or other calculation-intensive tasks better suited to machine than human. Sifting through endless volumes of text, for example, in search of a particular word or phrase isn't the best use of a person's time, especially not when there's a happy—and rapid—cyber-idiot on the desk just waiting for your next command. Now, most people don't think twice about that kind of sifting and cataloging; a Google search has all the novelty of a trip to the restroom.

Clever as those high-speed search algorithms may be, they still rely on the same progression of high and low voltage levels, clocked through a microprocessor, that were used in the early days. The software that controls the hardware hasn't really changed, either; it's still driving bits through the pipe. The human-machine interface is better now, but the machine is still the happy idiot it always was, only faster. Between the two extremes of binary idiocy and creative human thinking lie our high-level programming languages, which attempt to bridge the gap. Over the years, that realm has seen the appearance of a variety of bridging methodologies—early languages such as LISP and FORTH come to mind—all with the intent of making more natural and intuitive the process of translating human thought processes to primitive binary code.

But even the most advanced symbolic logic and object-oriented programming languages fall short. To paraphrase a portion of David Byrne's The Numbered Universe discussion, we've attempted to use the languages of word and number to describe our world, even those aspects of it that transcend such language.

The digital world may be the climax of the reign of the world viewed as word and number, but it is only touching a part of out world, our lives. I sense that the search engine for gesture, image, sound and expression is a long way off, and may require a kind of "thinking", if we can even call it thinking, that is so vastly different [than] what we’ve been doing for 7 thousand plus years, that it may not be possible at all with the tools we’ve developed. I mean the technology and language and mathematics. I don’t mean we can’t discover the key to this other "language"

It seems the promise of artificial intelligence remains unfulfilled largely because of the difficulties involved in translation. It's tough to reduce the complexities of the human thought processes to a computer language, particularly when those human processes are so poorly understood in the first place. It's fuzzy logic alright, and probably more analog than digital. In fact, this may be the ultimate irony when all is said and done: we may find that we’ve spent many years attempting to convert analog processes to digital for the benefit of our machines, when all the while such a conversion was not only misguided, but unnecessary.

Maybe the key isn't out there so much as it is in here.


The Leveling Effect

Music was transported into the digital realm many years ago, but changes in its distribution have taken considerably longer. When I bought the Talking Heads' More Songs about Buildings and Food album in 1978, I went to a record store; when I bought the CD version of it in the early eighties, I went to the same store again. Now, of course, things are different, and as usual, it's the Internet that's responsible.

The music-consumer's world has changed, but what of the musicians' world? Seems they'd be doing things in much the same way they always have: playing instruments, singing, and writing songs. Musician stuff, in other words. Beyond that, it's all about producers and record companies; you can't make a professional recording without them, right? Well . . . not necessarily, said David Byrne in an interview with Bernard Perusse of the Montreal Gazette.

Before, you had to have a record company just to record a professional-sounding record, pretty much. And now, you don’t.

Now with all this home computer-based recording stuff ... there’s a lot of different ones, and plenty of them are really cheap and they sound ... well, you know, depending on how much care the person takes, they sound just fine, of course.

While I'm sure no one is suggesting that the path to musical fame and fortune is an easy one, isn't this just the sort of change that's causing all the anxiety in the media industry at large right now? Text was digitized a long time ago and video is catching up fast; assuming no disparity in talent and determination, the idea of self-publishing—whether that's words, music, video, or some combination—is becoming more intriguing by the minute.

Naturally, talent and determination don't guarantee success any more than a Web site or blog do . . .

It happens, but it’s pretty rare that something can just be thrown out into the Internet ether – whether it’s in a MySpace page or whatever else – and just succeed because it’s good.

. . . although the Internet does seem to have a natural leveling effect. Just how level remains to be seen, but so far, the signs are encouraging.


And It's A Dream Journal, Too

I love dream journals. Dreams may be convoluted and bizarre, but they posses an unmistakable character that leaves little doubt about their origin. Since this seems to be David Byrne Week around here, it stands to reason that today's topic of interest would have something to do with him, and of course his Web journal. One of the journal categories happens to be dreams, and although there isn't as much going on in this category as there is in some of the others, the material is highly entertaining. I especially like the first entry in the series, dated 29 March 2005.

Paul Simon and I are walking outdoors. In a city — New York, maybe. He has a weird bandage around his head, covering one side of his jaw, like those old cartoons of people with a toothache. When we near groups of people approaching he pulls up his shirt and covers his entire head — only one eye peeking out.

It just gets better—and in true dream-fashion, more bizarre—from there; weird visuals ensue. And then there's the Gumby dream, with its inexplicable yet familiar anxiety component. The dry water sequence is considerably more involved, as is Jerusalem Mobile, although the latter seems more universally familiar with its love lost, desperation results theme. It's the epitome of symbolism.

I reach for my mobile to call this woman, only to find it has been crushed, and as I try to hold its pieces together to find her number it slowly crumbles and nasty chemicals leak onto my hands, Chinese characters appear briefly on the screen…all I want is the last number I dialed, which was hers, but the phone is disintegrating in my hands. I imagine I will lose the love of my life. A feeling of desperation.

The brief appearance of those Chinese characters as the phone turns to goo is magnificent, and of course the whole thing playing out in Jerusalem doesn't hurt.

It's a good thing I discovered Mr. B's Web journal when I did, because the lingering effects of nearly two weeks of Sudafed—it's been the cold from hell—have discombobulated my jimjam. Me am writing not good, but reading we are possible.


Lost in the Not-A-Blog

Wow. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into when I started reading David Byrne's not-a-blog. There's hardly any time left over for my own not-a-journal, but maybe that isn't such a bad thing right now. This is more fun.

David's journal is nicely divided into categories, and although some of them overlap, it's great to have a choice of subject matter to suit the mood. I'm currently poking around in the Science category, where I found some interesting material—from December 2005 in this case—about stress reactions.

I read in the New Scientist that neurologists have discovered a way to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome — wipe the memory. It seems that traumatic events trigger both adrenalin and formation of neural pathways that "save" the memory of that event in case a similar event should occur in the future. The presumed idea is that if a similar ever occurs you’d recognize the signs and then the adrenalin, and other (appropriate) reactions would go into effect. It’s a survival mechanism.

Interesting, but the creepy part is yet to come.

It was discovered that immediately after a traumatic event the neural connections are live and labile. It was also found that certain drugs inhibit the formation of these neural pathways — and therefore the formation of the hot volatile memories — if the drug is taken soon enough. It’s a little hard to imagine the possible scenario in an emergency room or police station where the attendents might ask a victim, "Do you want to remember this?"

That do you want to remember this? scenario is straight out of a sci-fi film. I can visualize the scene, and the way things are going, not just on the screen, either. And then there's creepy part number two, in which the substance falls into the wrong hands, as it invariably must.

Of course, if this option is given to witnesses, the police will be effectively destroying evidence — these people will become useless as witnesses as they won't remember what happened. All we need is for perps to obtain these pills too, and then they can make their victims forget the crime ever happened.

Entertaining, and also thought provoking. What a great combination, no?


When Is A Blog Not A Blog?

It's on the Web, and it's a log in the sense that it's a journal, but it just doesn't seem right to call it a blog. It's been nearly two years since David Byrne launched his online journal, and at this point the differences are evident. It's the journal of a globetrotting anthropologist, and the diary of a philosopher; it also records the observations of an artist, a musician, and a photographer. Some days it's just a guy riding his bike around town, or having lunch somewhere—ordinary events in an extraordinary life.

But a life perhaps more grounded in the larger realities of the human race, and the knowledge that we're all connected in fundamental, inescapable ways. Isolation—or insulation—promotes stagnation; growth requires contact with reality in its various incarnations.

We need something to push against, some resistance and some reminders that we can’t just coast — some tests, surprises, practice, uncertainty and even unpleasantness to make us ask ourselves constantly who we are, what do we want, where are we going and do we really want to go there?

When taking inventory, it helps to ask the right questions. This journal contains enough interesting questions to keep me occupied for a while, and that's just scratching the surface of the celebration. So are epiphanies made.


A Most Excellent Poem

Time isn't on my side today, but there's just enough to pass along a most excellent poem I found on The Writer's Almanac site. If you're an NPR fan, you've probably already heard Garrison Keillor's inimitable voice in the audio version of it; if not, you'll just have to use your own internal voice when you read it. Come to think of it, that might be better anyway.

The poem is Samurai Song, by Robert Pinsky. I'll tack on the first six lines of it, and then you're on your own.

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.



The ghost of blogging futureIn a previous life, I decided ghostwriting would be my new vocation. I don't mean writing books for other people; I wanted smaller, quicker projects such as marketing brochures or newsletters, and technical material. The Web was still a few years away, but the Internet made the idea of long-distance freelancing a compelling possibility. As it turned out, the realities of incompatible software, immature networks, pervasive cyberphobia, and generally negative attitudes toward telecommuting made the whole thing a lot tougher than I had anticipated. I did it, but it sure was a tough gig.

But here we are in 2006, and those compelling possibilities of working with—or for—someone in a distant place have become yawn-inducing matters of fact. The only missing piece now is widespread wireless access for our notebook computers, which have already taken the place of the deskful of paraphernalia we needed not so long ago—taken the place of the entire office, in some cases. Even so, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection already has most of the tools required for a business of some sort; add appropriate software and the skills to make use of it, and there isn’t much standing in the way.

The surging popularity of the blog as communication tool creates new possibilities for those who deal in words. I've been thinking about it a lot lately: blog we must, but it takes time and effort and especially in the business world, a certain facility with language. Blog-ghostwriting comes to mind, and evidently also to the minds of others; today I ran across a site whose proprietor is doing exactly that. How she managed to swipe the Big Idea from my brain and so quickly put it into practice is beyond my comprehension, but Peg Silloway's I Blog For You service may be exactly what the time- or word-challenged blogger has been looking for.

Time - You never have enough for everything you want and need to do. There's no question, writing well takes time, and writing well-focused short articles is challenging. So what if this kind of writing is not your strong suit? Do what you do best and delegate the rest. For your blogging that means...I Blog For You.

It's the truth. Writing a well-focused short article can be a real challenge, unless you're like me. In that case, writing even a poorly focused article is challenging. It's a problem. Anyway, Peg's The WordLens site has a nice look and feel to it, and her two blogs—both are listed on the site—contain some interesting, entertaining, and well-written stories.

As for me, I imagine I'll just continue writing my own stuff until my fingers turn black and drop onto the keyboard. I wish I could ask Peg to do it for me, but as the saying goes, if you have to ask, you probably can't afford it.


Writing Sounds

An odd sound for a violinWhen we write, the words on the page—whether that page is made of paper or pixels—exist in the realm of vision, but that isn't where they do their most important work. To plagiarize a couple lines from an earlier monologue, although the process of writing seems more visual than auditory, every word makes noise. Whether it's within the reader's mind or in a more tangible way—converted to sound waves in the air—the final result always has an echo of its own. Two echoes, in fact: the first in the mind of the writer, and the second when the word is read by someone else.

Words make noise, but the sound isn't necessarily the same for every reader. It's affected by regional dialect and inflection, and for those whose first language didn't happen to be English, perhaps the lingering accent of the native tongue. And then there's the mispronunciation of words, which may occur for a variety of reasons. But regardless of the underlying cause, the familiar sound of your own written words may be lost in the translation when they're processed in the mind of another. This isn't a problem when the primary goal is the communication of facts or ideas. Your carefully metered prose, on the other hand, where the musical flow of sounds is at least as important as the image invoked by specific words, may not survive.

The universal language of music relies on the fact that a violin still sounds like a violin, no matter who's listening to it. Unfortunately, the musical ear responsible for the delightful tone poem or lyrical turn of phrase can't anticipate the conversion of words as sound. If someone doesn't like the sound of your violin, it's possible he's hearing castanets, instead.


Point of Origin

Point of OriginWhat's happening in the present can be interesting, and often vital. But what happened in the past is the foundation of the present; it shows us how we got to the present point, and why. This is the obvious value of history, but sometimes it's just plain fun to leaf through the old photo albums and diaries to see how things looked at the time, and what thoughts were running about in the mind of the diarist. Thanks to the Internet and those who use it, historical perspective is just a Google away.

In 2001, blogs were just beginning to show on the radars of those who note the vectors of Net phenomena. Interpretation concerning velocity and heading of these new objects varied, but most agreed they were worth watching regardless of their ultimate point of impact. One Nicholas G. Carr happened to be tracking the bogies at that time, and left his impressions in a Web-based time capsule in the form of an article he called Plastic Medium.

Having spent a couple of days reading blogs, I can report that the vast majority are puerile in the extreme - the random droolings of adolescent minds. But the individual blogs aren't what make Blogger important; it's the way the blogs connect with one another. Blogs typically are filled with links to other blogs, and in browsing through them you soon realize that they form the communications infrastructure for tightly knit, often extraordinarily intimate Web communities. People share their lives through their blogs. (Yes, this was always the promise of the Web, but Blogger actually delivers on it.)

It's probably worth noting that, at the time, the Blogger application hadn't yet been absorbed by Google; it was still owned and operated by its developer, Pyra Labs. But that—and puerile content—aside, the linking factor was identified as a crucial element in the new application. Mr. Carr also noted that "people, mostly teenagers and college students, use blogs to broadcast to the world moment-by-moment accounts of their lives." Obviously, this hasn't changed, and at the same time, my, how things have changed.

Another interesting point, and one perhaps more poignant in light of the recent YouTube acquisition, is where the new killer apps typically come from.

. . . the most revolutionary applications tend to emerge not from commercial organizations but from passionate amateurs - from people more interested in doing something cool than in making money.

Well, there's that passionate amateurs phrase again. Is it my imagination, or is the term frequently applied in the context of citizen journalism and new media lately?

Unlike traditional media, the Internet provides individuals with unprecedented power to shape what they do, how they do it and whom they do it with.

It isn't my imagination. It's déjà vu!

Adapting to the radical malleability of the Internet will become all the more important as time passes. An entire generation is now learning to manipulate the Net in ways that few adults can even imagine. Call it Generation Blog.

So putting it all together, we have passionate amateurs more interested in doing something cool than making money, and an entire generation learning to manipulate the Net in ways few adults can even imagine. I think I'll call it Generation Progressive. Maybe that random drooling acts as some sort of lubricant?


David, Not Goliath

G is not for GoliathFrom the moment of his birth, David was an adorable little guy. He was always smiling, and even at that age there was something different about him. He didn't seem to require much sleep, preferring instead to gaze at his surroundings with great interest. "Goo," he would say, scrutinizing an object on the other side of the room. "Goo!"

At six months, David had catalogued the location of every object in the house, even those that moved frequently. When his father couldn't find his car keys in the morning, David always knew exactly where they were. And he catalogued facts, too. When his mother couldn't remember the doctor's number and reached for the phone book, David told her the number. Everyone was amazed, and word of his astonishing capabilities spread.

By the time David's first birthday arrived, he was known in some circles as a prodigy. In private, some said he was a savant, because that was the only way they could explain his extraordinary talent for memorizing the details of every event and conversation that took place, along with the location of every object within a five-mile radius. There had been another child—her name was Alta—in a neighboring town who displayed similar talents, but the memory of her feats began to fade as more and more people became aware of the new sensation. Alta was good, but David was better.

As the years passed, David grew tall and strong. He still wore the perpetual smile that had endeared him to so many from the beginning, and he continued to amaze everyone with his mental abilities. In fact, he had gone beyond mere cataloging and into the realm of encyclopedic knowledge by that time; he had become the de facto source of information and knowledge for a significant portion of the world's population. In spite of the fame, he remained friendly, humble, and willing to freely share the vast and ever-expanding knowledge that he seemed to continually accumulate.

David continued to grow beyond any traditional measure; he became taller than anyone else on the planet, and stronger by far. And although his guileless personality remained unchanged, he had accumulated significant wealth by virtue of the network that had only naturally been established during his interaction with the world at large. Businesspeople were intrigued by the idea of leaving their calling cards in strategic locations, namely those locations frequented by persons with a specific interest in a particular subject—a subject relating to the products or services offered by said businesspeople, in fact. So David offered to distribute those business cards, leaving them in places he knew had a high concentration of folks who would be likely to pick them up. If no one took a card, it wouldn't cost the businessperson anything; if a card was picked up, David would get a small amount of money for his efforts. After all, even prodigies have to eat, especially when they're really, really big.

As it happened, the idea caught on in the extreme, and although David wasn't charging very much for his new service, the sheer volume of customers resulted in very large piles of money for him. As you might expect, this situation made certain people very uncomfortable. How, they thought, are we going to sell large, colorful, expensive advertising to businesspeople when this David guy is selling small, colorless advertising for next to nothing? And worst of all, his get far better results. We simply can't compete with this guileless giant! They began to call him names, like Goliath. Some began to make accusations in public. Some hinted that David was trying to monopolize things, and others just said he was turning their business models upside down.

When he heard these things, David would just smile and shake his head. "Don't be evil," he told them. "There's plenty of business for everyone. You can do this, too." But that only made the people angrier. "We already tried that," they said, "but everybody loves the way you do things, and they don't love us no matter how much we tell them they have to." David shrugged. "Maybe you're doing something wrong," he said. "Maybe it's time to try something new." The people just frowned. "You're like Goliath," said one. "You're too big. You're eating all our food. You should be smaller."

David winked, and turned to walk away. "You know," he said over his shoulder, "every once in a while, the good guys do win."


Editing Errata

I've been swept along in the self-editing stream the past couple days, so anything I happen to see on the subject from news items and blog posts is gobbled up first. While catching up on the news feeds this morning, I spotted a 10 ways to become a better blogger article on ZDNet Asia, and down the rabbit hole I went.

Everything was fine for a while. Define your purpose, check; create visual appeal, check; use the proper tools, che . . . oops. Reverse thrusters, and return to the last sentence in that paragraph.

If your blog is hosted on a free public blog site, such as Blogger or Windows Live Spaces, you can write your posts in your e-mail client and send them to a special address you're given when you create your account. For many, this is the easiest way to post, although it doesn't show you the formatting.

For me, posting by e-mail is, in fact, the easiest and best way to do it. One thing I particularly like about this method is the pre-formatting I can do on the post before I send it to the host. This is possible because the post is already in HTML format, and therefore specifically does show me the formatting. If a word on my screen is red or blue, or underlined, or bold, it will be the same after it arrives at the host. If a quoted section is indented and italicized on my end—like the one above—it will be indented and italicized on the blog post, too. Same goes for bulleted lists, horizontal lines, and photos inserted within the text for that matter. To put it another way, WYS is very much WYG, even if you happen to be using the rudimentary mail client included with Windows.

As I mentioned on Wednesday, there are a few caveats when you're e-mailing HTML files to your blog host, but they have more to do with attempting to make certain changes to a page that's already formatted and ready to go. Some things can be changed with impunity even when the post is halfway out the door, but in general, it's best to do the writing with as little formatting as possible, and worry about layout after that part is done.

Ten good points in your article just the same, Ms. Shinder.


Editing Your Perspective

A different perspectiveIn your role as self-editor, the challenge is seeing your own words from a different angle. To regurgitate the final line of yesterday's post, one of the tasks before you is shifting your own perspective just enough to bring into focus the individual trees in your own forest of words.

Time is always a good shifter of perception, so doing something else for a while is a good way to regain perspective. Sleeping on it is best, but even a few minutes away from the writing can be a luxury when time is of the essence. A more practical method—and one that works for me, mostly—is a brief immersion in another's words; reading something having a completely different voice than my own has a realigning effect. If I happen to be writing or editing something having a decidedly logical slant—an article on Electronics, for example—a good antidote would be writing of a more conversational, creative character. In other words, an opposite.

Opposites may attract in the overall scheme of things, but when it comes to altering one's thought process, opposites can also have a nice balancing effect. If your mind has been occupied in the linear realm, feeding it a nonlinear antidote may restore equilibrium more quickly than, say, taking a nap, or otherwise relying on the passage of time. On the other hand, if you've been working with poetry or something similarly creative, immersing yourself in logic for a time may shift the thought process just enough to see your writing from a new vantage point.

At the extreme, programming or mathematical equations make ideal counterweights for the creative-writing crowd, although I haven't run across too many creative types who enjoy that sort of thing. There are exceptions, of course. For those involved in technical or business writing, activities like painting and music—or poetry within the writing sphere—would be likely candidates for the counterbalancing job. In the real world of deadlines and other pressures there may not be the time nor the inclination to resort to such extremes, but the concept of right- versus left-brain pursuits can be used to the self-editor's advantage nonetheless. Until you can get someone else to do it for you, editing and proofing your own writing is probably just going to be one of those unavoidable chores.


Editing Yourself

Waves of self-scrutinyA recurring theme among writers in general is how challenging it is to spot errors in one's own writing. Typos and grammatical glitches practically jump off the page when perpetrated by others, but even after multiple passes through the self-editing loop, clean copy isn't guaranteed. Printing the piece may help; black text on a white sheet of paper often provides the contrast that's missing on a screen layout, especially when the color scheme doesn't lend itself to reading. Certain typefaces make it hard, too, when they're used much beyond logos or advertising. A compelling look and feel is great, but simplicity is more important when reader-comprehension is the ultimate goal.

Years ago, I sent most of my writing to the printer beside my desk, but I so rarely use a desk anymore that this isn't practical. I never much liked the idea of using up trees for my proofreading as it was, so this is a good thing in more ways than one. Now, most everything turns to HTML sooner or later anyway, so pumping up the text size in the browser—or other HTML client—is a good way to spot problems before they're sent out onto the Web. This is the final step in my process, however; there are too many problems that can develop in the code when formatting changes are made during the writing process. Depending on the particular software you're using for publishing Web content, these problems can run the gamut from mildly irritating to aaaaaiiiiiii!!!! I've pulled down more than one blog post within minutes of sending it to the host because of one or more of these unanticipated mess-with-stuff-in-the-HTML-stage effects. And in some cases it had more to do with Sudafed Head, but that's another story entirely.

Anyway, this is why I do the actual writing in plain-text format, or at least something not far removed from plain text. Not only does this provide a buffer against code glitches—because there is no code at that point—but makes it easier to focus on the words, without the distractions of layout or formatting issues. It's more like a plain sheet of paper. At this stage, I can use any font size because there's no formatting; things like relative text size are part of that final HTML world. It's easier for me to spot errors when the letters aren’t the size of gnats, so I keep the font relatively large during this initial phase. This is also where the spell-checking takes place; although it's possible after everything is converted to HTML, I avoid it because of the aforementioned potential for grief.

Of course, the best solution to the proofing and editing quandary is to get someone else to do it for you. When it comes to writing, there's no substitute for a fresh perspective. But this isn't always practical, so the next best thing is to shift your own perspective just enough to bring into focus the individual trees in your own forest of words.



A new logo is born. Or not. Yesterday's announcement of the Google-YouTube union is a little bit exciting. Not just because it involves one of my favorite companies—that's Google, of course—but because it so clearly points out the next step in the evolution of the Internet. While the Net-video takeover may not be good news for those of us who continue to insist on using typed words to communicate, resistance is futile and I know it. The future human race may not have any fingers, but everyone will undoubtedly have really big eyes.

If anyone can figure out how to effectively and efficiently fingerprint video, it will be Google. This will not only allow vast catalogs of video and the ability to instantly locate individual scenes and such, but once Google gets a good grip on the algorithms, it should be possible to search by content as we do now with text. Want every scene in which Clint Eastwood squints only with his left eye? No problem. Leading ladies who wore a black evening gown and uttered the phrase, "I adore you"? Now displaying results one through twenty.

As Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, this is just the beginning of the online video revolution.


Your Online Reputation

Your coworker's car just broke down, and she wants to know if you can recommend a good mechanic. Or maybe the scenario is reversed: you need a job, so you ask your neighbor if he knows of anything within his company. Either way, the situation relies on someone's perception of quality and reliability. If the mechanic makes a mess of your coworker's car, your reputation will suffer for recommending him; if you make a mess of the job your neighbor gets you, his reputation will suffer. It's an old story.

But say you're writing an article for online publication—it doesn't matter if it's a well-known Web site or a lesser-known blog in this case—and you're quoting or paraphrasing others and providing links to those sources. That's standard operating procedure, but what do those links say about you? Assuming you aren't ridiculing someone and including links just so others can participate in the roast, it's possible your sources will be perceived as recommendations of a sort, much as the favorites links on your site are. Absent any overt explanation to the contrary, readers will probably assume the links associated with your article are, if not an endorsement, at least factually reliable.

Evidently, the ethics questions surrounding the mundane act of including external links in a published article is a hot-button issue among online writers. At a recent conference at The Poynter Institute, it seems the ethics-of-links debate came to the forefront of the general online-ethics focus of the symposium. According to Rick Edmonds' analysis of the event, the issue is essentially one of reputation.

If you provide a link to an external source, what are you saying about its reliability, taste and transparency?

On the one hand, participants agreed, links represent a core strength of the Web with potential to make any entry richer and more complete. Traditional commercial concerns about sending customers to external sites no longer make sense as a rationale for staying out of the linking game altogether.

But if accuracy, transparency (about where the information is coming from) and taste are ethical values of an organization -- and part of what the "brand" stands for -- how should those values inform decisions about links? Isn't linking to below-standard material just another way of publishing it?

There are further complicating factors. Links to such recent hot potatoes as the Nicholas Berg beheading or the anti-Islamic Danish cartoons were generally rejected on grounds of taste. But, as James Brady of The Washington Post and other participants asked, isn't it something of a cop-out if you let readers know where they can find the sensitive material online while withholding the clickable link?

Balancing the positive aspects of including links has to be weighed against the possible negatives. If the links you provide lead readers to unexpected unsavory content, hearsay, or otherwise unreliable sources, your reputation—and that of your employer, if you're writing for pay—could be forever tarnished. On the other hand, there are situations in which the need to bring out the facts requires an unblinking eye; the truth isn't always pretty.

The way I see it, this isn't so much a linking issue per se as one of integrity in general. I've always thought that there are essentially two kinds of people in this world: those who care, and those who do not. If you’re the sort of person who sweats the details—whether or not anyone is looking over your shoulder—you aren't going to go completely out of character just because you happen to be publishing something online. If you're uncomfortable with a link, it probably isn't going to make it into your finished product anyway, at least not without some sort of disclaimer.

For someone who cares about quality and reliability for their own sake, it seems online publishing—whether it takes the form of a private blog or a large-scale media product—would be likely to reflect the same integrity as something published in the older, more traditional way. The medium won't undermine the message.


Long Lines in the Blogosphere

Poking around at this morning, I couldn't help but notice they seem a bit overwhelmed by the volume of blogs seeking visibility. If you decide to register your blog at their site, be advised that the waiting lineaccording to their statistics pageis over 73,000 blogs long.

Number of Blogs

65920 blogs listed

73637 blogs waiting to be approved


116087 unique keywords

Average 7.91 keywords per blog

Each keyword is used on average by 4.49 blogs


Blogwise lists blogs from 200 countries

87% of countries worldwide have at least one blogger listed here

Blog Features

Blog Feature

Number Using

% Take-up










Updated daily


Blogwise © 2006 DuckDriver Ltd. - About - Contact Us

I suppose if there's a positive aspect to a backlog of this magnitude, it's that they'll have to hire more people to deal with it, which could be a nice thing for job seekers in that area.


Wish I'd Said That

Juggling those wordsOr written it, in this case. Those clever turns on well-known phrases always grab my attention, especially when they're somehow related to whatever it is that's running through my brain at the time. Like blogs, for example. This from The Editors Weblog, culled from (what else?) another article on the rise of citizen journalism.

Cry havoc and let slip the blogs of war.

Another one that's been ensnared in my mind ever since I read it in Nicholas Lemann's Amateur Hour article in The New Yorker a while back, attributed to David Weinberger.

On the Web, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.

Wish I'd juggled those. Guess I'll just have to try harder from now on.


It's All Experimental

A little drop of blog syrup for your e-cakes, mister?Like the Web that spawned them, blogs are part of a grand experiment in communication. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see the social and economic results of this experiment a few years from now. Maybe they won't be called blogs anymore; maybe the concept will be absorbed into the larger homogeneous framework of the Web. I hope so, because the word is really beginning to chafe. I haven't done an actual survey, but I'm thinking the majority of writers—and by that I mean anyone who uses words in their written form—who use a blog would be thrilled to see that abhorrent blogger moniker fade away.

On the other hand, maybe the concept won't be assimilated at all. Maybe the whole idea, in its present incarnation anyway, is just one more misguided attempt to turn a minor occurrence into a major event. After all, it's just writing, even if the entire world is the intended audience in this case. There still has to be something to say; there has to be a reason to pump out thousands of words every month. And after that, there has to be a reason for people to read all those words, and not everyone is so inclined. Especially when those words are suffering.

On yet another hand, maybe it is, in fact, a movement. Maybe everyone really has been waiting for this moment, and in a few years' time, even your great-aunt Maybelline and her houseful of cats will be cranking out an e-journal for dissemination to the world at large. Wasn't there a time, not so very long ago, you said she wouldn’t ever own a computer, and then when she got the computer you said she'd never get the hang of the e-mail software? Someone probably said the same about your great-great-grandfather, just before he started publishing that newspaper in his barn—the one that wound up with a circulation of 30,000 a few years later.

It's all experimental at some point. Our entire lives are experiments, looking back at them from the vantage point of relative codgerhood. I'm sure Gutenberg had his moments of doubt and pain, but he probably took an aspirin and kept on going anyway. Maybe that's the thing to do here, too. More coffee, and more aspirin to kill the pain in the fingers, and who knows, maybe one of these days the experiment will be a success. And if not, well . . . it was just an experiment, wasn't it.


Radio Independent

The low end of the bandI've always been a radio head. I love radio in all its incarnations, from two-way communications to local FM broadcast. But the writing is on the wall: radio as I know it is going away, and there's nothing I can do about it. In some cases this is probably a good thing. The AM broadcast bands—both local and shortwave—are mostly noise, and the FM band isn't much better. Not just the sort of noise that digital technology eliminates; it's the human-generated kind that's most irritating. Basically, commercial radio is a joke, and it deserves to die. In his The Death of Radio article a week ago, John Dvorak put it bluntly.

Perhaps I should get to the point here: Commercial radio sucks. Seriously. It genuinely stinks. It has been deteriorating since the 1980s and now is just dreadful.

It's true. But John left out one disturbing point, which is that the FM broadcast band also has a non-commercial side, which will undoubtedly disappear beneath the waves as well. The college stations, and other non-commercial entities that typically inhabit the lower frequencies of the band, are free of the kind of incessant babbling and generic pop tunes that characterize their commercial counterparts. There's jazz, and classical, and especially in the case of the college stations, new—and often important—music you aren't likely to hear anywhere else. They aren't in subjection to the commercial interests that drive the other stations' content. Yeah, they do have their yearly fund drives, but that's about as close as they get to crass commercialism.

Where I live, there's one station in particular that, to my way of thinking, is about as good as it gets. It's a college station, and an NPR affiliate, and its programming runs the gamut from new music to jazz and worldwide news to local stories. There's even a three-hour "oldies" program on weekends, and not the kind of stuff you hear on the commercial "oldies" stations, either; this is truly obscure stuff, more like the roots of Rock & Roll. There's Blues. There's Celtic. If my various tuners are ever set to another station, it's purely by accident.

If you happen to live in a college town, in a place with one or more universities, maybe you're lucky, too. Maybe you have a station like this, and possibly several. Like many, my favorite station streams their content on the Web, so in that sense it's available worldwide now. In fact, the Net has made it possible to listen to some of the very best programming on the planet, regardless of where we happen to live. Satellite radio offers more of the same. So what's the problem, really? The superiority of digital versus analog, and worldwide programming options. I should be happy, so why am I feeling so blue?

For one thing, it's a real problem finding a satellite radio I can slip in my pocket when I'm out walking, or riding a bike, or whatever. Then there's the subscription fee, although that's a bit moot because . . . well, because I still don't have that pocketable satellite radio. And even if I did, where's my favorite local station? It may be 82 and sunny in Los Angeles, but here they've just issued a tornado warning, and I don't know about it. Maybe there's an interesting local event this evening, but I won't know about it because I'm listening to a Chicago station. The thing is, I really like my local station for a variety of reasons, and I don't want to lose it. I can tune in from my living room, my car, my bedroom, and most of all my pocket. It's a community thing; it keeps me grounded. And did I mention it's free?

Mr. Dvorak brought up another point, too. It isn't peculiar to radio; it affects communication in general, along with practically everything else that can be digitized. The point is centralized control, which is just one more thing to add to my list of reasons for loving those little non-commercial stations.

Personally, I find these trends disturbing, since everything is gravitating toward Internet IP distribution, and as far as I'm concerned, this can eventually be more easily controlled by centralized governments than can broadcasting. Not good.

Disturbing is what they are, in more ways than one. And since he's been around since the early days of computing, any trends in the field would be more obvious than they might to someone who's been immersed in the bitstream from birth. Especially when it comes to communication, autonomy is vital. I hope there's a way to keep those little non-commercial FM stations doing what they do best. I hope they're able to retain their independence in a commercially dependent world.