Net Culture

Pony Up

[20 Dec 02] In a fine display of restraint, most of my end-of-year navel-gazing thoughts have been withheld from public view for a change. Instead, you'll find a spot of meta-Rory at this Blogroots thread (or see here), where I've been playing devil's advocate on behalf of Andrew Sullivan, sort of. The man clearly needs no such advocates, though, given that his fund-raising has netted him a staggering seventy-nine thousand dollars, or US$23.67 a head from 3,339 readers.

On another matter entirely, I was thinking of changing focus here somewhat next year, and writing exclusively and exhaustively about the coming war in Iraq—possibly rebranding the site as 'Speedypundit', whacking a pic of the twin towers up in the banner there, and really sticking it to those clueless idiotarians over at Metafilter. Whaddaya reckon? Do you think I'll, I mean we'll, crack a hundred grand? C'mon, I'm doing it for you.

(Speaking of devils, the yeti does it again.)


The Burning Yule Blog

[18 Dec 02]

A week before Christmas, and all through the house
The tap of a keyboard and click of a mouse
Echoes throughout the cold yuletide night
The only glow being a monitor's light
Casting its shadows out into the fog
As its lonely owner is typing his blog
Thinking to himself, what happened this year?
Why didn't I conquer the whole blogosphere?
Here I have been, writing post after post
And who even read them? Did any? Did most?
Did anything that I wrote make people think?
Or did they just leave on the first handy link?
I wouldn't have minded a small bit of flak
If it had meant getting one measly trackback
But no, they're too busy counting the toll
Of winning attention from their own blogroll
Too busy to notice genius in their midst
It's all so unfair, it's making me pissed!
I'm not taking this abuse without a fight
I'll go into battle! C'mon, man! Let's write!
All of those entries whose comments are zero
Sweep them aside like a conquering hero
By writing like I've never written before
Where most would write one post, I will write four!
Blogging ev'ry single webpage I've read
Bashing out punditry until I'm dead
I'll topple the government with my opinion
Bring down the boss and his lowliest minion!
Pound them to dust with my deadliest banter!
Blog this, blog that, and—oh shit, here's Santa.


[10 Dec 02] Canberra, Australia: The High Court has ruled that a UK resident is free to sue the Speedysnail website for libel, even though the site is hosted in the Australian Capital Territory. The plaintiff, Mr Rory Ewins, is said to be "delighted". "That site has been making me look bad for years," he said. "The design is too basic, the whole weblog thing is passé, and nobody ever likes the poems. It pretends it's this authoritative guide to what I've been thinking and doing, when in fact it hardly ever says anything about my job, leaves out most of the links that I find, and never even mentions my friends. And then it tells that gossipy Google everything and the whole bloody world knows about it. If they do a search. For my name." Ewins is seeking one billion pounds in damages and some shameless publicity.


Gonna Live Micro-Forever

[ 5 Dec 02] Tom Coates makes an excellent point about the feedback loop between the Web and magnificent obsessions, pointing out that the emergence of online 'micro-fame' is encouraging some people to go that little bit further than they otherwise might. But I suspect there is a lemma.

[We interrupt this entry to note that our use of this term, which means "a proposition assumed or demonstrated which is subsidiary to some other (math., etc.)" [OED], is the first tangible outcome of a considerable investment of time, anxiety and adrenaline in Calculus and Linear Algebra 1, and barring any future opportunity to mention Laplace, Lagrange or Cauchy may well be the last. Those in a celebratory frame of mind might like to take the rest of the day off.]

...suspect there is a proposition assumed or demonstrated which is subsidiary to this. While the prospect of 'micro-fame' may encourage the shameless in their geek-lust for glory, it could also discourage others who harbour an obsession or two of their own but have no wish to become 'micro-famous' for it, since that would reduce the potential impact of any unspecified future fame-garnering activities. Who would want to be known as "Lord or Lady X, Nobel Laureate, Minister for Science and Development, renowned patron of the arts, and obsessive cataloguer of different kinds of bees"? Indeed, the obsessive may even curtail his or her activity for fear that Google will find out one way or another, and swear never to speak of it again.

Why do I mention this? Oh, no reason. No reason connected to certain collections which one may or may not have locked in a red suitcase in a storage shed on the other side of the world, and might hope to one day house in an attractive glass-fronted cabinet in pride of place in his or her mansion. Ha! Ha! Nobody would be that obsessive.


MetaFilter Dreaming

[ 1 Dec 02] Another tale of the blue.



[29 Oct 02] November was exam time for me from 14 to 22, and once it was all over it took years to stop feeling guilty about not spending the best weather of the year hunched over a desk. Of course, a lot has changed since then—including the weather, which on the opposite side of the world ain't so great—but the essence of Novemberiness still lingers in my subconscious. Studddyyyyy. Faaaiiiiilll.

Which is one reason why I won't be joining Ed, Graham and a cast of thousands in NaNoWriMo, enjoyable though it sounds. If there's fifty thousand words to be written, I'll be writing them for something else; and if anyone's doing any testing, it's gonna be me.

Fortunately, I happen to have 90,000 words that I prepared earlier. [Unveils casserole dish. Blinks at soufflé, which has gone flat.] Okay, so it needs work. A rewrite. Bechamel sauce. Something.

Perhaps a WriMo isn't such a bad idea. But not a NaNoWriMo—a MadoWriMo.


Reading MetaFilter

[15 Oct 02]

Reading MetaFilter


[ 9 Oct 02] Eldred v. Ashcroft gets its day in court today. A piece by Steven Levy in Wired makes good background reading on the case, and Matt Haughey talks about why there's more than a famous mouse at stake.



[ 4 Oct 02] Mark Pilgrim reports on recent changes to Google's PageRank system that have hit weblogs hard, and seem to have weakened other search results in the process. Guess I'll never be the number three (number one non-dead non-female) Rory again.


I'm Gonna Live Forever

[21 Sep 02] It's not like this is one of those blogs where the author has a Sally Field moment every time it's mentioned or linked elsewhere. It's not even like I talk about other blogs that much here—even those regular reads where I prance about merrily in their comments boxes like a man possessed (by a strange compulsion to prance). But when you open up one of the biggest newspapers in the Second-Biggest English-Speaking Nation one fine Saturday and see an oblique reference to your very own labour of love, well, that's gotta be worth a mention.

True, the reference is very oblique. And strictly speaking, it's actually about one-ninth of an oblique reference. The real focus of the Guardian's attention is the fine work of Matthew Baldwin at Defective Yeti, whose evite to the war on Iraq recently won the Great Weblog Lottery, and who kindly shared the wealth. Bibi van der Zee wrote:

Yeti was as astonished as anyone else at the spoof's popularity (it only took him 20 minutes to write the whole thing) and he has taken the opportunity to guide visitors to a few other little-known websites—but who can be bothered? If half a million people haven't read it first, frankly we don't want to know.

Since yours truly was one of those Matthew linked, that means that I can add the following to my select list of Speedysnail press clippings:

"Other little-known website"—Guardian

which is right up there with another favourite review:

"Just another example of the mindless clutter already on the Internet"john

Thanks, Bibi. And thanks, Matthew—and sorry to see that your site has temporarily been hosed by winning even bigger in the Great Weblog Lottery. (Whoever wins this is in bigggg trouble.)



[18 Sep 02] The trouble with taking time off from blogging is that it leads to moments when the urge to update the site, check the visitor stats, read what fellow bloggers have been saying, and compulsively scour MetaFilter for juicy topics du jour completely disappears. Freed from this burden, the blogger discovers sights, sounds and smells unknown to him these past months. But something is wrong. Disturbing images flash through his mind of wired plastic pods filled with foetal-curled comrades. The blogger falters, unsure whether to eat the blue pill or the red. Black-suited Evheads close in to plug the rebel back into the blogosphere. He snatches the blue pill, gulps it down, waits for sweet release into the clean air of reality... and realises that it wasn't web-safe, and #4D59F7 shows up red on Agent Ev's monitor. Life once again becomes an electronic illusion. His hiatus is over.


Night of the Living Web

[16 Aug 02] A List Apart currently features Mark Bernstein's Ten Tips on Writing the Living Web. Let's see how many I've broken!

Bad personal sites bore us by telling us about trivial events and casual encounters about which we have no reason to care.

Hmm. See yesterday.

If you don't write for a few days, you are unfaithful to the readers who come to visit.

Uh-oh. See Friday through Tuesday.

When one topic, however important, overshadows everything else in your site, stop. Change the subject; go somewhere new, if only for a moment.

Oops. See last month. Or this one, come to that.

Try, if you can, to resist the temptation to drop things entirely, to simply stop.

See weblogs one, two, three, four, five and six.

Creating a fascinating (but imaginary) friend could balance your own character on your site.



Click Here At Your Peril

[ 8 Aug 02] Don't Link To Us [via the 'Filter] highlights the particular form of madness shared by certain companies who believe that the World Wide Web is too web-like, the Internet is too networked, and hyperlinks are too linky. We've seen isolated cases before (KPMG! KPMG!), but it seems that these beliefs are disturbingly widespread. As an Aussie, I was particularly embarrassed to see Australia Post's policy, which even specifies which words to use when linking to its five 'allowed' pages; sadly, these don't include wibble, antelope, forsooth, pants, and ectoplasm.

I'd love to see some of these guys in the classroom:

Teacher: Now, children, if you'll all just turn to page 132 of your text...

Lawyer: Excuse me, but that's in breach of our Linking Policy. Kids, you're only allowed to look at the front cover. You can only open the book provided nobody else has told you to. And they're not allowed to tell you its title, either!

Speedysnail Policy: Correspondence with the author about any of the above links, or any other link on this site, must be written on hand-made Antaimoro paper from the Malagasy town of Ambalavao and delivered in person between 13:30 and 13:32 GMT on any Friday. Failure to abide by this condition automatically invalidates any claim or request, and will incur a processing fee of £100 sterling. The author reserves the right to waive this condition in whole or part.


It's a Liquid Thing

[ 9 Jul 02] Reluctant though I am to encourage anyone to actually read the stuff, I'm hard-pressed to remember a more jaw-droppingly insane piece of spam than this; even though, like everyone, I see all too much of it. Korean spam really does seem a class apart.


Tip of the Day

[19 Jun 02] Finished Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point last night, that perennial bloggers' favourite (right up there with Dave Eggers), but I'll spare you most of the wondering aloud about how it applies to blogging or myself (I am not a Connector, I am a free man!). The section about context and character seemed particularly relevant to the issue of personal sites, though, in light of last week's debates on identity. Gladwell writes that:

Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment. [p.163]

In other words, the person you are at home is different from the person you are at work. Straightforward enough. But it's impossible to know who's in your audience on the web, and thus impossible to 'control the environment' surrounding any particular comments you make on it. So, (a) it's harder to maintain consistency of character online, and (b) it's easier to take online comments out of context, because they're only ever a link or a Google search away from anywhere else. Which in turn can make people wary of what they say, or encourage them to wear multiple hats (pseudonyms) in different places around the web. Perhaps that's a better way to think of pseudonyms: as an attempt to control context rather than to maintain absolute anonymity or avoid responsibility for one's comments.

Meanwhile, I can report that The Tipping Point hasn't tipped at Edinburgh University Library. Before my Return By stamp of 29 AUG 2002, the last and only stamp in the book is 03 DEC 2000.


Secret Agent Man

[13 Jun 02] Ed responds to my ponderous entry of below. And what he says is true. It makes me realise that I was conflating too many issues in that post, as I tend to do when the subject is a big one. I'll try and untangle them a bit more.

First, the question of shutting up for fear of losing your job: it wasn't my main point (although my snappy punchline does make it look like it, I admit), but to the extent that I addressed the issue I was being more hypothetical than autobiographical. I'm fortunate enough to have one of the few kinds of jobs where being dooced is as close to a non-issue as it gets. Actually, that's not strictly true: writing bluntly about her co-workers was the problem in that case, and would potentially be a problem in any workplace. But as for discussing bigger issues, academics are expected to have opinions, and my opinions are hardly extreme by university standards. I've written about them here, and will again; I'm as proud of my posts about 9/11, for example, as I am of anything on this site.

True, the whole issue of employers using Google for background checks is disturbing, and as a contract employee I'm aware that it may be an issue someday; but Ed's right—who'd want to work for the thought police? Again, that's not where I was trying to go with it all.

As well as Stavros's post (and those that he linked to), I was really riffing off my whole attitude towards Metafilter, and asking myself why I don't post there more; why, indeed, I came within an inch of logging off for good after another long-time member left last month. And now, as fate would have it, a related issue has come up at MetaTalk, which drew this response from me yesterday:

I wrote this in an email to a fellow MeFite last night:

I suppose I also feel guilty for not doing enough myself to lift the tone; I've lurked way too much, given that I read it all regularly. But knowing that any opinion, no matter how cautiously and considerately expressed, will meet its opposite (in every respect) simply because there are so many people and opinions represented there—well, it makes it hard to get motivated to play the voice of reason. Let alone the playful voice of unreason.

You either feel motivated or you don't. Let's not forget how much work it is to go in with all dignified, intelligent, and respectful guns blazing on a subject of any difficulty. The last time I could be bothered, I ended up writing four thousand words in a giant single thread that went on for a week. Props to everyone who stuck it out in that particular case, but it's pretty draining stuff—and that was just one thread. It's hard to find the motivation to do that every time you'd like to; the temptations of eating, sleeping, catching a good movie, are all so much greater. It's easier to drop in a snarky one-liner and flit away; and when the difficult subject keeps coming up again and again, as difficult subjects have a habit of doing, the temptation to edit the four thousand words down to four letters is strong.

Or, you lurk. Or, you leave.

This is getting closer to it (and the fact that I quote it in its entirety is significant, as I'll explain later). The days are just too short to do justice to every complex subject you'd like to in the real time that blogspeed dictates. (He says, as he types this entry in his rapidly diminishing lunch-hour.) I could just about manage it a year ago, when I was unemployed and had the house to myself all day; now the opportunities to write at length are stolen from time that's in demand elsewhere.

So, when I do have the opportunity to write, I have to choose more carefully: where; on what; why? Apart from the slightest of throwaway lines, any blog post had better be worth it, or it's a waste of the precious hours of my rapidly receding youth. And the standards of 'worth' are mine, not anybody else's. I am not writing this just to entertain or inform others, although it pleases me when that happens, and the virtual friendships that have resulted are a welcome side-effect. I'm writing this for me: so that in twenty years I can look back and see what I thought and said about the world and my world; so that I continue to leave a trail of words behind me; so that I can know that I was and am a writer, no matter what my formal job title. Before this blog, there were books and articles and letters; before that, there were essays and diaries; before that, exercise books full of juvenile scribblings. This site is the last mile on a road that leads back to 'ToDay at SchooL their was a WomBAt', Rory Ewins, Miss Groom's Grade One, Huonville Infant School 1974 (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Google), and if I'm the only one who gives a damn about that road, so be it.

I'm off that old road now, driving down this (informationsuper) highway, because what's the point of driving alone in the back alleys all your life? Writers need the discipline of writing for a public, no matter how small. But given that the overwhelming point of this site is its me-ness, it makes adopting a pseudonym here a non-issue: there would be no point in presenting the essence of me but trying to hide who 'me' is. Not when it's part of a lifelong journey of being a writer.

Things are different, though, when it comes to Metafilter. Metafilter is no-one's personal blog, nor should it to be. But those who want to engage in its difficult debates properly—which, as I said, requires more than dropping in a one-liner here and there—have to give a great deal: they have to speak their minds on a particular subject—as much of their minds as they can speak—to give a fully nuanced picture of their views. And that's more than most of us have time to do, and more than most of us want to read outside of a personal blog—look at any of the most profligate posters there, and at the criticisms levelled at them. The rest of us are left with throwaway one-liners and carefully-rationed fuller argument within specific threads. In that case, it almost doesn't matter whether you're anonymous or not.

But—and here's why I quoted that MetaTalk post in full; and it relates to Bill's comment on my last post—it would matter to me. Like Bill, I dislike having bits of my writing spread all over the place; I mirror all of my offsite reviews here, and even most of my lengthier MeFi comments. I don't mind them being 'out there', but I want there to be one place where they're all in together. And this is it.

So I, personally, couldn't maintain my online anonymity anywhere that mattered. I might stay anonymous for a one-off post here and there, but as soon as it mattered I'd feel compelled to pull it back here, to mirror it here, to link to it here—and in doing so, I'd break my own anonymity. In that case, a pseudonym would be nothing but an obstacle to forming a cohesive online identity.

So I guess the question I was really exploring was, 'Is it really possible for a writer to remain anonymous indefinitely?', where by 'writer' I mean someone who is writing for more than just the moment. Sure, you can adopt a pseudonym to drop a one-off snark into a comments box somewhere, but that's just being indulgent. And yes, sometimes an anonymous alter-ego can be useful and even necessary in dealing with a temporary need to be circumspect. But it's not very useful in building a long-term identity as a writer; and, in view of the all-seeing eye of Google, it looks more and more as if what many of us are doing here is establishing our long-term identities as writers.

Given all that, I'm happy enough to be me.

There's one area I haven't addressed in relation to Ed's comments, and that's the intensely personal. I've been plenty personal on this site in the past, and if the thought of anyone reading those comments seriously worried me I'd purge every archive page and hunt down every last cache. On the contrary, I scrupulously maintain just about every single URL I've ever made here, and as long as I'm around there won't be a broken link at Speedysnail. The only 'personal' post I ever pulled I actually put back a while later.

But there are places I haven't gone. Not places inside me, but places that belong to those around me. I don't write much about my wife here, even though she's my best friend and has been for nine years. Not because I'd write anything that would make her look bad—to me, there is no such thing—but because her specific stories are hers to tell, not mine. Similarly for other friends and family. For now, at least, if their stories turn up in my writing it'll be in fiction—disguised, distilled, blended—or in a book-length manuscript that I can show them before it's published.

My own past, too, is here in only the most occasional of anecdotes and barest of facts—not because I don't want to share it, but because I don't want to use it all up. I want to feed off those stories for a lifetime. And I don't want to give just the edited highlights, because that gives the impression that everything was highs.

That said, I've been meaning to post more memories here, but again, it's a matter of finding the time to do them justice.

So. Lunchtime is over, and so is this response, even if it digressed a bit. (I digress? Very well then, I digress. I am large, I contain multitudes. Which reminds me...)


Your Secret Identity Is...

[12 Jun 02] After panicking yesterday that something I'd written here had given offence to someone I'd never want to offend, I suspect that I worry too much—and that this ties in with the subject of online identity and pseudonyms that Stavros has been discussing.

I've regretted at times not building my online identity around a pseudonym—particularly at Metafilter. How much easier it would be to speak my mind without fear of repercussions if no one knew whose mind it was. How many times have I typed a strident opinion into that blue form only to leave it unposted, for fear that it would come back to haunt me? Too many.

Not that I could do much about it if someone was determined to dooce me. Not when Google has this site pegged at number two for my first name (my own fault, for building hundreds of pages with that name at the bottom of them). I worry that this is causing me to clam up more and more, to refrain from blurting out sarky posts like the ones below that are such fun to write but look a bit petty after a while, no matter what your politics. And I worry that I'm clamming up about my own personal life, because how personal do you actually want to be when typing your name into a search engine is like Being John Malkovich?

It's strange to be thinking this when I've already had a book about politics published, and already written the semi-autobiographical first novel and nailed it to the door. But longer-form works, especially in pages on a library shelf, don't hold the same potential for snap judgements as blog posts. Read one page of a book and the heft of the rest reminds you that you may not be getting the whole story; read a stand-alone post or page on a website, and it can seem like it tells you all you need to know about the author. The only way to avoid that, it seems, is to write exceedingly cautiously.

But even the most cautious efforts to conceal and encode are undermined by the merciless compound eyes of spiders, as they wrap your body of work in digital silk. A pseudonym, in the long-run, won't prevent that. If you write for long enough, you give yourself away, piece by piece, clue by clue. If you matter enough to your readers—indeed, if you matter too much—they'll look for the connections, and ultimately make them. Attempts at further concealment, by turning facts into fiction, might only make things worse. The only protection is for your readers not to care, or not to exist—and what writer wants that?

And a pseudonym, once chosen, might be a lifelong commitment. Writers revisit the same themes and words throughout their lives—they can't help it—and nowadays even an amateur armed with a few key phrases and Google can perform some strongly suggestive comparative analysis. Any writer who seriously wishes to remain anonymous would have to maintain that anonymity to the end.

Is it really possible to divorce your actual identity from the part that matters to you the most? To maintain that sharp division, that split personality? Or will everyone inevitably learn that Sam Clemens is Mark Twain, that Eric Blair is George Orwell? Does it matter? And what about the 'day job'?

Was Saki ever sacked for being too sarky?


Like Sands Through the Hourglass

[10 Jun 02] The blog opera continues. The Wonderchicken Currently Known as Stavros has been waxing lyrical in a string of fine posts on pseudonyms and online identity; the People's Republic of Metafilter has been dissecting the latest New York Times article on weblogging trends, which has also drawn a few comments at its new sister site; and a few days ago, Tom asked for some feedback on this exhaustingly reflexive pastime. Mine is hidden in a microdot somewhere in this post.


[12 May 02] Dead search engines [via—also home to this superior blog comment].


[ 1 May 02] Amazing. I've lasted well over three months with this same design and am still happy with it. A far cry from before.

Behind the scenes, though, it's been the usual bout of semi-annual blogging ennui. The day before the anniversary of uncertainty, I finally have some certainty about where I'll physically be in a year's time, but find that the uncertainty has migrated inwards and etherwards: Where will my mind be? Where will this site be? Perhaps I've lived with uncertainty for so long that it's woven itself into the fabric of my being.

The trouble is that I can no longer kid myself that this site and/or blog will lead to much: it is what it is, a personal site of modest readership and minimal impact, appreciated by a handful of readers and otherwise widely ignored. Back when I started blogging—nearly two years ago—it was still possible to imagine that putting in a little effort would 'lead somewhere'—you know, like writing a novel 'leads somewhere'; you eventually finish it, mail it out to dozens of publishers and agents, it miraculously leaps out of the slush pile and into print, and ta-dahh! A print-run of a few thousand and enough royalties to keep you in beans for six months await.

But blogging doesn't 'lead' anywhere. And even if it did—would you want to be there? Would you rather be Kottke or Kottke? I stumbled on Leo's site the other day, and had flashbacks to happy childhood hours of listening to The Best (an album my father loved); and even though it's years since I've heard them, every song came tumbling back into my head. Can any website hope to match that?

Similarly, after reading Philip Pullman's masterpiece I'm left wondering why I'm not writing something big, that says something significant about the world, and... I have no answer, except that I'm writing this—and that's the wrong answer.

And yet I can't stop. When I stopped before, I had nowhere to write about the deaths of George Harrison and Stuart Adamson; or before that, nowhere to write about packing up and leaving Oz, or taking that last long drive down the Hume Highway; and those moments have passed, never to be written about in quite the same way I would have. (But once I would have written about these things in a diary, or a letter; why does that no longer feel like an option?)

Worse, stopping would mean pulling out of a circle of friends, new and old, who read this blog in the same way I read theirs—to keep a conversation going, an ongoing buzz of chatter with occasional direct comments back-and-forth. Switching off the comments (which I've also considered—all of those zeroes were looking embarrassing) would be a step backwards for the same reason. But maybe I need to step back...


Quick! Look over there!


By Way of Apology

[22 Apr 02] There will be more soon, of course, including an account of where I've been since Friday the 12th, but only as time permits... so yes, this is an I've Been Too Busy To Post post. Which, it suddenly strikes me, is the perfect refutation of the hoary old trope (what a wonderful phrase. Hoary old trope! Hoary old trope!) about weblogging being a 'hobby'. You know the one: it gets trooped out (hoarily) in response to over-enthusiastic claims about blogging being the 'new journalism'. Now, while I wouldn't claim to be a journalist, I know a bit about hobbies, having had a new one every other week as a child; I know what hobbies feel like, and this ain't it. A hobby is a pastime, designed to soak up the idle hours of twelvehood. A blog is a time-sink, a never-enough-time, stolen from hours and minutes that should be spent elsewhere. No one apologises to the world that they've been too busy to rearrange their stamp albums to group the Caribbean with South America.


[ 7 Apr 02] The Guardian ran something yesterday by William Hazlitt, the 19th century essayist: the first half of his essay On Reading Old Books. A nice piece, but what struck me was how much it was like reading a longer entry in one of the better weblogs. All of this talk of blogs as journalism is missing the line of descent from 18th century pamphleteers to 19th century essayists to 21st century webloggers: Hazlitt as forefather of online musers; Tom Paine as progenitor of the rant.


[28 Mar 02] With the increasing sophistication of the world's favourite search engine, I'm waiting to see Googlebot substituting for Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner:

I've seen sites you people wouldn't believe. Flame wars off the shoulder of the Onion. I watched CNN glitter in the dark near the MetaFilter front page. All those links will be lost in time... like tears in rain.


[27 Mar 02] An excellent piece on copyright by Jerry Kindall, which gets better as it goes on:

Artists, screenwriters, and directors ... turn their copyrights over to a record company or a movie studio ... because they want the fame that only a major distributor can give them. How badly do they want it? Tautologically: badly enough to sign over all their rights.

Copy-protected CD? Pah ... At some point the signal must be made manifest in the real world, in order for humans to see it, and at that point [it] becomes vulnerable. ... In order to completely defeat the "cracking" of digital content, you basically have to ban computers.

[Later thoughts:] Jerry argues that corporations should continue to be allowed to hold copyrights, so that we don't end up in the same situation that exists with patents, where only individuals can hold them but corporations end up controlling them through exclusive contracts. But I'm not sure that such a model would be so bad when it comes to copyrights. It might get a little unwieldy for works created by teams (but no worse than listing copyright holders on the back of an Avalanches album), but at least the contract is explicit. And, importantly, there would be some end to copyright when the creators of a work all die (or at death plus twenty years, or whatever), at which point the world would get to decide what to do with the work, not the corporation.

It's bizarre that we've reached a point where not owning copyright on a work more than, say, twenty or thirty years old can be portrayed as a fundamental threat to the continuing existence of an entertainment company—or any company, come to that. The passing of a fifty-year-old software manual into the public domain isn't going to break Adobe or Microsoft. But let Steamboat Willie into the public domain and suddenly Disney is doomed—never mind that the thought of the modern Mickey Mouse being usurped by public-domain reproductions of his googly-eyed 1920s counterpart is utterly ridiculous. We have to wait another couple of decades before anyone other than Penguin gets to publish George Orwell (for example) all because Walt and a few long-dead colleagues once made a cute animated talkie. And what's the bet that Disney will come up with another argument to extend copyright in 2017? If their 'ownership' of the copyright on Steamboat Willie was simply a licensing arrangement with its actual creators, there would at least be an end in sight. (None of which need prevent them from seeking protection for Mickey Mouse et al. as trademarks, which would be far more appropriate.)


Webs of Memory Episode II: Attack of the Clones

[19 Mar 02] As happens all too often, in my rush to get down the essence of a thought I've skipped over a few points that deserved further elucidation; Bill picked up some of them in his comment on that post below. So here are some more, probably also rushed.

First, I should note that I have nothing against trivia quizzes—witness my fleeting obsession with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in SF in 2000, which wasn't all down to Regis's endearing way with a raised eyebrow. Nor was I trying to suggest that a comprehensive knowledge of trivia equates to intelligence. 'Trivia' is actually a misleading label for what I was trying to discuss, because it suggests, well, triviality.

I suppose I was questioning an already out-of-date model of education as pouring facts into students' heads like water into a bucket. Some disciplines have always had more of that than others; if a surgeon is going to be slicing you open, you want to be damn sure that she knows where to stick the knife. But in so many areas of human endeavour, the hope that any one person can grasp all of the essentials of their field has been dashed by the ever-expanding boundaries of knowledge; hence the increasing specialisation of higher education (across the system as a whole, and as one proceeds up the degree ladder).

It's true that education isn't just about learning how to learn: the key phrase I should have expanded on was 'how to judge the relative merits of what you find'; in other words, how to think critically. It's hard to do that if you have no knowledge of the facts and the broader landscape of knowledge in your field, but specific knowledge of particular facts isn't always essential, especially now that they can be so easily (trivially?) researched on the spot.

We're now at a point—and have been for many years, I suppose—where two supposed experts in the same discipline can have almost no interests in common; they need not have read the same books or learnt the same facts to qualify as experts. Yet we can recognise both of them as experts, because we recognise that it isn't every individual fact that matters but the way that people interpret and use the whole range of facts at their disposal. And exactly what is 'at their disposal' is currently undergoing rapid expansion.

Think of all the intelligent writing we can find in the world: so much of it about things that we readers have no knowledge of at all, yet we can tell intelligent writing from unintelligent, educated from uneducated, and recognise a good argument when we see one. Different ingredients can lead to similarly satisfying recipes at the hands of good cooks.

We certainly still need 'people who know stuff', but I don't see the expansion of access to facts as a threat to that: rather, it extends our mental reach. Just as computers allow us to search for patterns in stock markets, weather systems, or star systems, by sifting through vast amounts of data that once would have required careful human attention, so this personal access to a vastly increased library of information can free all of us to look at a bigger picture than we have been.

Perhaps. Or perhaps we'll just go eat a taco.

And with that, I reel in my kite.


Webs of Memory

[17 Mar 02] Watching A Beautiful Mind with its oblique references to 'Professor Einstein' reminded me of Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study, and the fact that I once read a whole book about it (Ed Regis's Who Got Einstein's Office?). I then realised, with some horror, that I can remember hardly anything about that book: not even the answer to its title question. Nor can I remember much of James Gleick's Chaos, Steven Levy's Hackers, and countless other non-fiction tomes consumed like popcorn throughout my twenties—not to mention all of the novels whose plots and characters I now couldn't begin to describe. What on earth happened to all of that information? All those moments lost in time, like tears in brain.

This should worry me, but it intersects with another recent thought, inspired by Bill's recent Friday quizzes. Before each question Bill has exhorted us to refrain from using Google to cheat outrageously, which prompted me to comment that 'Google is to trivia as pocket calculators are to arithmetic'.

And it's true. I'm just old enough to remember pre-calculator arithmetic and high school exams where calculators were forbidden, but nowadays what's the point of either? Calculators are cheap and ubiquitous, and save us the tedium of long-dividing 126 into 845702, a skill I last used in 1993, and only because I was travelling without a calculator. I do take perverse pleasure in occasionally polishing the rust off my arithmetical skills, but I'd freely admit that for the vast majority of us they're now redundant.

And now we have the web and its powerful search engines, which in time will make the memorisation of facts and figures as redundant as mental arithmetic. The obsolescence of the trivia quiz is exposed by its need for artificial constraints: no Google; no using the thing you would most obviously use if this was a real question. It's still a fun game, but that's all it is.

So if education won't be about memorising facts and figures, what will it be about? The answer is what those of us who've spent way too many years in school and university have long known: education is about learning how to learn. In the context of the web, it's about learning how to find facts and figures using Google and the like, and how to judge the relative merits of what you find when there's so much information out there.

This is, when you think about it, just a new twist on an old story. The only facts and figures we really remember from our student days are the ones that were hammered in so hard they stuck, and they're not necessarily that important to us in later life. The rest form a sea of information that we've learnt how to navigate: what we remember is not the sea, but the charts; and half the time we're the ones doing the mapping. I can't remember who got Einstein's office—but I can remember where to find out.

So now we surf a digital sea, and we're still creating mental maps for it. And because this sea is vast, bigger than the Library of Congress, we find that even our maps are growing too big: the gigabyte archive, the 400k bookmarks file, the thousand item history cache that barely goes back a week. So we create maps of maps; and, if our online presence has a public face as well as a private one, we share them with others. Now there are so many of us doing it, we need maps of maps of maps.

Weblogs a fad? Ha.


Too Much Information

[13 Mar 02] Sometimes I don't post here because there's nothing much to say; sometimes because there's too much else happening in my life. Lately, it's because I have too much to say, but none of it's mine.

The web is a wonderful place, but it can feel overwhelming: a thousand voices and issues and images competing for attention in any one day, and me with only one mind to think about them. And in thinking along the lines others have drawn, I end up losing track of my own. It's no problem when I've just been doodling for a while, but if I'm sketching ideas of my own the web can end up scribbling all over them.

I've been trying to get myself back into the quiet mental space I inhabit when writing—writing a lot, that is, not just a paragraph or two—and it's proving difficult; the web keeps dragging me back out. "Don't think about that," goes its siren song, "think about this"—and the urgent tone is all too persuasive. So I think about whatever the issue of the day is, and put the issues of the week, the month, the lifetime, to one side for just another day. And feel guilty about it.

Not that I don't think it's important to keep up with the news, or with what friends and peers are saying about it; of course it is. But the web has made the conversation vast, ever-changing, endless: everyone in the room is talking at once, and they're all talking at me. (Or at you; just as I am, right now. "Think about this.")

Other media aren't quite like that. Television, newspapers and radio also talk 'at' us incessantly and insistently, but they don't expect a reply, or give the appearance of such expectation ("What do you think? Post here! Leave a comment! 76 other people already have, and this thread will disappear off the front page tomorrow—don't miss the boat!"). We can safely read the opinions of newspaper columnists without engaging with them; not writing to the letters page doesn't make us a 'lurker'. But lurking on a bulletin board or community blog, or even a personal blog with a comments system, can feel like standing at the side of the room at a party. To be part of the crowd you have to start dancing.

That wouldn't be a problem if the dance wasn't so infectious. Whatever your intellectual groove, there's somewhere on the web playing your tune—again and again and again. Think, think, dance, dance, until your head hurts. It's the dance of St Vitus.

And to what effect? Half the time there's no point in adding your comments to the conversation, because someone else has already made them, or else they seem too obvious; they'll be 'me too' comments, 'here I am' comments, a cry for attention, a call for validation—and even though that's what part of us wants, if only to feel that we're part of the crowd, it's desperately uncool to admit it. So you spend your time thinking along the same lines as everyone else, but can't capitalise on those thoughts: if you post them in the thread or even in your personal blog, you're following the herd. So you post them anyway, and in attempting to 'blend in', you... blend in. Or you keep them to yourself in an attempt to 'stand out', and stand... out.

There's only one way out of this as far as I can see. Read more selectively, and think beyond what you read; but if your thoughts do reflect those of other people, write about them regardless, in your own way. Report your thoughts to the web as you would to another country, whether it's near or far, whether it knows your history (or thinks it does) or not. Be like Alistair Cooke with his Letters from America. Who among his listeners wouldn't feel that they know a lot about America already? Yet week after week, for fifty years, he's told us something new about the place.

(Do I think all of that? Yes, I think I do. Hey: in writing about how I'm losing track of my thoughts on the web, I've ended up finding them again.)

So, welcome back to Letters from Speedysnail. I've spent a bit too long on the beaches of Thailand, but now that I'm home I'll try not to be such a stranger.


The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Meta

[27 Feb 02] I had plans to indulge in a spot of metablogging this week, but it seems redundant given the flood of similar articles and discussions at the usual haunts. So I dumped some of it in a MetaTalk thread or two instead (key comment mirrored here).

Blogspace is the size of a small country or state nowadays; hundreds of thousands are broadcasting their thoughts to the web and the world in this way. In a few short years we've seen a single community weblog grow from a hamlet to a medium-sized town, with corresponding complaints about the traffic on the streets and the difficulty in finding a parking space.

Those sorts of numbers inevitably mean enormous diversity in individual bloggers' aims, objectives and methods. Yet various pundits paint the scene as if it's a bunch of train-spotting hobbyists on the one hand or the journalism Class of 2001 on the other—and people wonder why bloggers are 'sensitive to criticism'. "Hey, they're just suggesting that you and all your kind are boring, trivial, train-spotting wannabes—don't be so touchy about it!"

Thinking aloud is not a hobby, and it's not really journalism, either. Blogging is a 'form', sure, but it doesn't have the kind of polish and refinement we expect of forms like the Article, the Book, the Movie. A blog is not a carefully-constructed TV show; it's not even an ongoing series, like a soap or a sitcom. A blog is a TV set with the tube ripped out and a real, unpredictable, changeable, attention-wandering, living, breathing person sitting inside it.

With links. Or not. Or something. (Sorry, I'll get back to you on that. See what I mean about weblogs not being journalism?)


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